After 500 wins, fencing’s Franke still sharp
Nikki Franke doesn't want her fencers to look at their score sheets during a match.
"They always want to look at them, but I won't let them," said Franke, director of women's fencing and the women's foil coach at Temple.
"My whole bottom line ... all I ask ... is for them to do their very, very best. I say to them, 'Are you going to fence any harder? If knowing the score is going to make you work any harder, then you're not doing your very best.'"
Franke has spent her 34-year career here at Temple doing her very best. Is it any shock, then, that she doesn't pay much attention to her own coaching score sheet?
If the folks in Temple's sports information office hadn't told her, Franke -- a former Olympic fencer who founded the University's program in 1972 -- would never have known she was closing in on win No. 500.
"I wouldn't have even thought about it, not at all," said Franke, who earned her 500 th coaching victory on Jan. 21 in a 27-0 win over the New Jersey Institute of Technology. "I think my team got a bigger kick out of it than I did."
But ask Franke about her former fencers -- young women, many of them walk-ons, who, through the years, helped her get to 500 -- and you'll get her own mental score sheets of their lives and accomplishments at Temple ... and beyond.
Members of her 1992 national championship squad, for instance, composed mostly of underclassmen, went on to high-profile careers in special education, coaching, law, marketing and pharmaceuticals, she said.
She knows fencing -- Temple Fencing --played a part in making them the people they've become, just as it's done for all of the women who have fenced under Franke.
"There are some very good young fencers who come from private clubs who are used to individualistic goals," Franke said. "Our philosophy is a big change for them, and they aren't all able to adapt. I've passed up very good fencers who just wouldn't work out in our program.
"They have to buy into our philosophy of team, which is not true for other schools. I can't handle the prima donnas.
"We recruit young ladies who want to work hard, kids who want to buy into the Temple philosophy," she added. "What we're about here at this university is opportunity. They know they will leave here better fencers. I hope they leave here better people."
An 'intellectual challenge'
Franke, who grew up in Harlem and had scoliosis so severe as a child that she had two spinal fusion surgeries so that her spine wouldn't puncture her lungs, says she was a "typical tomboy" who played many sports. In her senior year of high school, she tried fencing. She was hooked.
"I think I loved the challenge -- the intellectual challenge -- in fencing," Franke said. "You have to think so quickly on your feet."
Director of women’s fencing
Women’s foil coach
Associate professor in the department of public health, College of Health Professions
Years at Temple: 34
Postseason appearances: 32
Final Four appearances: 7
National championships: 1 (1992)
All-Americans coached: 11
Hall of Fame inductions: 4
Coach of the Year awards: 4
Temple degrees: 2 (master’s in 1975, doctorate in 1988)
Franke-ly speaking: “Yeah, I’m truly an Owl. The old ‘Acres of Diamonds’ philosophy worked for me. This university is all about opportunity. And Temple gave me the opportunity to do the two things I love to do: teach and coach.”
She attended Brooklyn College and fenced under the legendary Denise O'Connor, who later became her teammate on the 1976 Olympic squad. Being an African-American athlete in a predominately white sport wasn't lost on Franke, who noted that of the 35,000 students at Brooklyn when she attended, only about 35 were black or Latino.
"So there were challenges at Brooklyn College in general," said Franke, who was a collegiate All-American. "But being an athlete did make a difference. In retrospect, Denise protected me from a lot of things."
Franke was the youngest member of the 1976 Olympic fencing squad, which competed in Montreal. She benefited from a system in which team members were chosen based solely on points obtained in a series of national tournaments, which wasn't true for all sports, she said.
"Fencing was one of the few sports at that time that had an objective point system," said Franke. "Racism couldn't keep you off the team. You weren't beholden to someone to earn a spot."
Franke didn't bring home a medal, though she has won many medals in her career, including a silver and a bronze in the individual foil competition at the 1975 and 1979 Pan American Games respectively. But the Olympic experience is one she cherishes.
"I'm not real sappy. But walking into that stadium, hearing that crowd ... that was special," she said, quietly. "The exciting thing to me was being around all these great athletes -- the Evelyn Ashfords of the world. Seeing all of these great athletes marching in together was phenomenal."
Though she made the team in 1980, President Jimmy Carter's decision to boycott the games in Russia took away Franke's second quest for an Olympic medal. That same year, she retired from competition.
"When I left competing, I was ready to leave," said Franke, noting that fencing, an international sport, allowed her to tour the world and also to meet people from different cultures and backgrounds.
"I knew there were other things I was going to do in my life. I also knew the sport was always going to be a part of my life."
Teacher and coach
Franke, who came to Temple to teach fencing classes and earn her graduate degree in community health in 1972, received staunch support from the athletics department to establish a women's fencing program.
"The girls on the team were recruited out of fencing classes or were walk-ons. I actually had a walk-on become an All-American," she said.
While coaching, she continued teaching. In 1988, Franke received her doctorate from the then-College of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance. Her dissertation focused on nutrition and student athletes, still a research interest for her as associate professor of public health in Temple's College of Health Professions.
This semester, as in all others, Franke is teaching a full course load, leading three undergraduate classes in the college while spending four or five hours each day coaching.
That's a rarity for Division I coaches, most of whom spend their time completely focused on coaching and recruiting.
"It makes for long days, but it's something I love doing," said Franke, who marches with the faculty in every Temple Commencement ceremony in order to share in the joy of the day with her students and athletes -- and their parents. "I love working with undergraduates and seeing that light bulb go on."
This year's squad, which was tickled to be part of her historic achievement, is a typical Franke-coached Temple team, composed of mostly freshmen and sophomores who are as diverse in their interests as they are committed to their sport.
"They have all different majors -- history, political science, art, biochemistry," Franke said of her 19-5 team. "I tell them, 'Half of what you learn in college, you learn from other people.'
"It's important for them to interact with other students and truly be a part of campus life. My athletes don't room together. I want them to learn from other Temple students."
Fencing alumni tell her the sit-down team dinners, the conversations during warm-ups and the family atmosphere of the program are some of their most memorable Temple experiences, according to Franke.
"We're together six days a week. We're a family. We work very hard, but we also have a good time," said Franke, married and the mother of two children, both of whom have been high-profile collegiate athletes.
"When I bring a young lady into the program -- it sounds corny -- but I feel a responsibility for her."
Helping kids find their passion
Franke's coaching and teaching philosophies are much like that of another university coach with 500 Temple wins: Men's basketball's John Chaney.
"We do have a similar philosophy, but I don't scream and yell like Coach Chaney does," Franke said with a chuckle. "He's such a great guy."
"She has been one of our best-kept secrets at Temple," Chaney said of Franke. "She has won a national championship, been national Coach of the Year numerous times, and her teams are always nationally-ranked teams.
"But most important, she has always been a very special person, especially to young people. There has never been a better role model. I wish her continued success."
Franke's work with young people extends to inner-city youngsters, predominantly girls, through her involvement with the Black Women in Sport Foundation. The foundation, founded in 1992, works to expose children to a variety of non-traditional sports, including tennis, fencing, golf, lacrosse and soccer.
"We're showing them that there's more out there than basketball and track," Franke said. "We try to mentor kids, help them with self-esteem issues and let them know there are different career opportunities in sports besides being an athlete."
Clearly, Franke knows the score.
"You have to have that thing in life you have passion for," she said, her eyes gleaming. "If you find it, you're very, very lucky. I love being a professor. I love being a coach. I get them both right here at Temple."
- Barbara Baals