Varryl Franklin was born into a family of faith.

That meant Sundays and Wednesdays at Fifth Street Baptist, a church his great grandfather helped establish. That often meant sermons preached by relatives and lessons taught by kinfolk.

He never took to preaching.

The state's most successful high school basketball coach tends more toward ministering.

Varryl Franklin has won 11 state titles as the boys basketball coach at Millwood -- no other coach is even close -- and what's more, he has seven other state titles as an assistant in basketball and football.

But even as his Falcons go after another title, such triumphs define neither his legacy nor his philosophy. His biggest successes have come off the court.

"I think it's obvious," Franklin said of his motivation. "How well they do after they leave Millwood."

The men who once played for this bear of a man testify to his ministry.

Because of him, another who thought he couldn't afford college became something great. Because of him, players without a father gained one and players who had one gained a mentor.

All of them profess that their lives just wouldn't be the same without him.

He has a higher standard so they have a higher standard. That went for benchwarmers and family legacies alike.

"I remember him saying ... 'The thing that makes me happiest is to see all of you become men,'" said Gary Woods, who came through Millwood a decade before brothers Rashaun, D'Juan and Donovan.

"I believe sports has always been his ministry."

Testament to tough love

Their record may not show it, but the Millwood Falcons under coach Varryl Franklin are state contenders year after year. His former players remember his tough practices. Photo by Sarah Phipps.

His name is Chop.

Everyone around Millwood knows Franklin by his nickname. No one can say exactly when he got it, but anyone who played football for him knows why he did. He was forever telling his linemen to move their feet quickly.

"Chop! Chop! Chop! Chop! Chop!" he would bark. The nickname stuck.

So did Franklin.

When Chop came to Millwood in 1973, he wasn't necessarily looking to make a career out of the small school district on the northeast side of town. He'd grown up in that part of Oklahoma City, but he'd gone to Douglass High. He'd played football there. He'd come to love the place. He'd dreamed about returning after getting his degree from Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo.

Douglass had no openings.

Millwood did.

"Millwood got me," Chop said, "so I'm still here."

He hooked on with Leodies Robinson's football staff coaching offensive and defensive linemen. That's what he played at Douglass High and Lincoln U., and he had a clear idea of what he wanted from his players.


Chop had his players give each other piggyback rides to the practice field or do leapfrog back to the locker room.

One day, his linemen accidentally wedged the tackling sled against a tree. He wouldn't let them stop, and they kept hitting that sled and driving it against that tree.

They eventually bent the sled.

"He was tough on you physically," said Bernard Rhone, the Little All-City Defensive Player of the Year in 1985 who is now a dentist in Oklahoma City, "but he made you mentally tough."

On rainy days, Chop would find a puddle.

"All the linemen," he'd say, "y'all need to go dive in it."

He wasn't kidding either.

"Let's get it over with now. Get wet. Get dirty."

And when it was cold, extra layers were forbidden.

"No long handles," he'd say. "No warmers or anything like that."

"But it's cold," his players would protest.

"Take it off."

Chop chewed out plenty of players, but they always knew it wasn't personal. That's because he'd be the first one to put an arm around their shoulder or pat them on the head.

"You may feel this big," Rhone said, holding fingers inches apart, "but he would give you a chance to redeem yourself. He would try to put you back together.

"You always felt loved."

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Witness to many generations

Chop never intended to build a basketball dynasty.

He just wanted to be around the kids, maybe make a few extra bucks when he joined Millwood's basketball staff as an assistant. He watched basketball as a kid — his father would make him sit and study any NBA game that came on TV — and he played with friends. He last played organized basketball in junior high.

And yet when Eddie Evans left Millwood for Central State in 1978 after winning two state championships in three years, Chop got the job.

Millwood won state in his first season, but Chop knew he had lots to learn. He attended coaching clinics. He talked with other coaches. He picked every brain, read every book and watched every film.

Maybe it figures that his basketball philosophy grew out of his football mentality.

"It all starts on defense," he said. "We have to work really, really hard on defense. We may not be able to shoot it every night ... but defense has to be there.

"And on top of that is hard work."

That has created a style that is distinctly Millwood's. The Falcons trap and hound and wear down opponents. They use a dozen players or more, Franklin subbing them in like hockey shifts. They rarely blow out anyone, but they rarely get blown out either.

That's saying something in the City Conference where Millwood faces the likes of Star Spencer and Douglass. Most of its opponents come from schools that are twice as big, if not bigger.

The Falcons often take so-so records into the playoffs and still make state. Even with a 9-13 record heading into regionals tonight, no one would be surprised to see them at state in a couple weeks. The big-school competition prepares them well.

So does Chop.

Varryl Franklin talks with junior varsity basketball player Richard Dumas before the start of a recent basketball practice. Former players still come back to check in on their coach to celebrate their successes and sometimes ask for help. Photo by Sarah Phipps

"Sometimes, we'd have practice without a ball," said Fred Carter, who starred on Franklin's first state championship basketball team in 1979.

He laughed.

No one was laughing when the basketballs stayed in the rack. Practice was nothing but running. Chop especially liked to do that during the holidays, when the football players were first starting to come to basketball practice.

"The turkey never sat on us," Carter said. "He ran us to death."

Chop never wanted any of his players feel sorry for themselves. Not during practice. Not during games.

Not when they left Millwood either.

"You get out of here, and you're going to have to go to work," he would tell them. "What if you don't like your boss and you've got three kids? You gonna cuss the man out and be fired?"

Chop wanted the boys to grow to be men. Real men. He wanted them to be solid citizens, husbands and fathers, businessmen and leaders. He wanted them to contribute to society.

The success stories are many.

Chop inspired Owen Wilson to return to college and finish his degree. The lineman who was a senior on Millwood's first state championship football team in 1990 is now teaching and coaching at Edmond Santa Fe High School.

Chop encouraged Jesse Langston to apply for a minority engineering scholarship at Oklahoma State. He admits he had no idea what engineering was then, but he is now the vice president of utility commercial operations at OG&E.

Chop pushed William Walter not to quit the football team at Southwest Missouri State back in 1990. The coaches wanted him to change positions from linebacker to defensive line, but he wanted none of it.

"You started something, so finish," Chop told him. "There's a blessing there if you stick it out."

Walter became an All-American, then spent more than a decade as one of Chop's volunteer assistants at Millwood.

Chop persuaded Ransom Miller to give football a try. Even though Miller was 6-foot-4, 260 pounds when he arrived at Millwood in 1984, he was only playing basketball. Chop told him if he didn't like football, he could always come back to basketball.

Instead, Miller landed a football scholarship to Howard University.

"I wouldn't have been able to afford college without that scholarship," he said.

That opportunity led to a job with a well-known accounting firm in Washington, D.C., and a non-profit organization that helps hundreds of needy families every year.

"He always tried to help people," Miller said of Chop, "and that is the example he set for me."

It's an example Chop strives for every day.

Prays for, too.

Minister to the masses

Varryl Franklin starts every day early with Bible study and has passed along what he's learned to a couple of generations of Millwood basketball players. Photo by Sarah Phipps

Chop starts his day around 5 o'clock, eats a simple breakfast of toast and bacon, pours a cup of coffee, then starts reading his Bible.

He studies for an hour, maybe more.

He does that every day.

"When you're getting that much of the word into you," his son, Darwin, said, "you've got to think about ... 'What does God have in store for me today?'

"I think that's really the thing he focuses in on is trying to achieve his purpose."

He learned that through prayer and study.

He witnessed it first, though, in his parents. Chop was the first of Melvin and Geneva Franklin's three children. She taught school, he fought fires.

Melvin Franklin was one of the first black firemen in Oklahoma City. He was a mountain of a man, 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, who was larger than life to his son.

"I thought he was the toughest man alive," Chop said.

As soon as he heard his father coming up the steps after a long day of work, everything else stopped. The fun. The games. None of that mattered when his father got home.

"That's my hero," Chop said.

Melvin and Geneva Franklin made sure to raise their children in the church. Their faith wasn't something they displayed on Sunday and Wednesday. It was a way of life.

It became Chop's way of life.

Players would screw up, and he would give them another chance. Some even got third and fourth chances. He knew the ones who needed that most.

He also knew the ones who needed a kick in the pants.

Or money for food.

Or a ride home.

There have been times when Chop has booted players off his team. A couple who could've played this season are no longer with the Falcons, making this the youngest team Chop has ever had.

But more often than not, he is willing to give guys a chance at redemption.

"Why do you keep letting this boy come back?" his assistants will ask in exasperation. "He doesn't come to practice. He doesn't get his books."

Chop will nod, then explain.

"Man, I'm just trying to help this brother," he will say. "I'm just trying to help save a brother."

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'He really wants for God to say "Good Job"'

So stoic and steely behind his signature brown-tinted glasses, Chop immediately breaks into a big grin when talk turns to the former players who return to see him.

"Saw one today," he says. "D'Juan."

Players like D'Juan Woods, the former Millwood standout who is now with the Jacksonville Jaguars, come back to check on Chop, to see how he's doing. They also come back so he can see how they're doing.

Not every visit with his former players is a good one. Some players return with tales of woe, of hard times, of struggles, of heartbreak.

A few even come back with their hands out.

"I've had them come up and knock on my door in the middle of the night — 'Coach, I need some money. My baby's out in the car, and I don't have any food to feed 'em,'" Chop says.

He always gives them what he can, then tells them to come back if they need more.

And then, there have been times of ultimate heartbreak.

"You hear about one of your kids," Chop says, "and they found 'em on the street on the south side dead."

He pauses, tears welling.

"You know, that's heartbreaking," he says. "That makes you work that much harder with these kids. Really talk to them and take it to heart."

He falls silent as tears spill down his cheeks.

The Minister of Millwood knows that he can't save them all, but that doesn't keep him from trying.

Chop isn't sure how long he'll continue to coach. The 57-year-old has turned over many of the Xs and Os to David Samilton, a former player turned longtime assistant, and it's given him even more time to mentor. Samilton handles the basketball. Chop handles the kids.

He doesn't want to retire until he's absolutely ready. He doesn't golf, doesn't woodwork, doesn't have many hobbies at all. Coaching is his life.

Sports is his ministry.

Chop intends to fulfill that purpose as long as he is able.

"When it's all said and done with," his son, Darwin, said, "he really wants for God to say, 'Good job.'"

Varryl Franklin leaves the Millwood gym after a recent practice. Franklin is looking forward to future for his players both on and off the court. Photo by Sarah Phipps

nDepth in photos: Varryl Franklin - The Minister of Millwood

Jenni Carlson is a sports columnist for the Oklahoman, her blog can be found at