Bill Rozak

A Sonora High School era has come to an end.

Wildcat legendary basketball coach Rick Francis stepped down Tuesday after guiding the boys' program for the last 37 years.

"It's that time," said Francis, who coached at Sonora for 42 years. "It wasn't an overnight decision. I've been thinking about this for awhile and I discussed it with my lovely family and decided it's time to let someone else take over."

Francis' resignation letter was accepted at Sonora High School's board meeting Tuesday night. While he stepped down as coach, he still plans to continue in his position as the Wildcats' athletic director.

"With his incredible work ethic, deep community roots, and million-dollar smile, Rick Francis was Sonora basketball for more than 30 years," said Sonora Union High School District Superintendent Mike McCoy. "His shoes will be very, very hard to fill."

Francis finishes his amazing coaching career with 659 victories and just 396 losses, winning 63 percent of his games while playing in the grueling Valley Oak League.

He also finishes with 31 winning seasons, 10 VOL titles, three Sac-Joaquin Section championship-game appearances, including a title in 1991-92, and 29 playoff appearances. He is the only coach in section history to take 23 straight teams into postseason (1985-2007).

He averaged almost 18 wins per season and just over 10 losses.

The numbers are mind-blowing, especially competing at a rural, medium-sized school where talent ebbs and flows.

Francis' decision to step down stunned fellow coaches and former players.

"I'm pretty shocked, it hasn't yet sunk in completely," said Summerville Bears head boys' basketball coach Ben Watson, a Sonora grad who played for Francis in his sophomore year. "He's been the face of Sonora basketball for ... forever. It's remarkable to coach so long at such a high level. He always made kids better basketball players with his passion for the game. It seems awfully weird that he won't be the coach down there."

"I knew it was coming at some point, but I was a little shocked it came this year," said Calaveras Redskins head basketball coach and Sonora grad Kraig Clifton, who helped lead the Wildcats to the 1991-92 section championship. "When he first told me, I was really happy for him, but kind of sad. It'll be different for sure. He's done a tremendous job and he's made Sonora a better place. It will be strange to play them and him not be coaching."

Francis gathered his final Wildcat team on Tuesday and found out breaking the news to them was harder than he expected.

"I didn't think it was gonna be that hard, but it was very emotional for me," said Francis.

"He was OK and smiling when he told us," said Wildcat senior and co-captain of the 2012-13 squad Danny Matranga. "I don't think it was a spur of the moment thing.

"I think it's funny that we can say we were the group that drove Rick Francis out of basketball," added Matranga jokingly. "But seriously, he was a good coach and I have a lot of good memories."

Francis' teams were defined by their hard-nosed defense and ability to shoot the ball. He had a passion for shooting and would teach sold-out clinics during the summer.

"When you play a Francis-coached team you know they're gonna, one, be able to shoot, two, play tough defense and three, be well-prepared," said Clifton.

The search for a new coach will begin immediately with it likely being offered "in-house." If nobody from Sonora is interested, it will be open to anybody to apply.

Whoever is named the new coach, Francis says the long-standing tradition of excellence will be upheld.

"We've got a great tradition here," said Francis. "It started with Bud Castle and I've tried to keep it at that high level. We've got a great group of kids coming in that I believe will be successful. The Sonora basketball tradition will continue."

Francis will now have time to pursue other interests and will actually have summers off. His wife, Patti, is already making vacation plans. But he admits he may miss going to practice everyday.

"I love teaching," said Francis. "I'm gonna miss teaching and helping the kids improve their shooting. I took great pride in that.

"I've been blessed to be around so many wonderful kids, parents and coaches. It's been a great ride but sometimes all good things must come to an end. But ol' basketball coaches never die, they just dribble away."

Union Democrat reporter Brenna Swift contributed to this report.