🎙 The Jayhawker Podcast | Mark Francis

Episode 40: Mark Francis | October 15, 2020

How does a teenage soccer star from England grow up to build one of the top collegiate soccer programs in America?

Mark Francis’ love of soccer has taken him halfway around the world to Lawrence, where he’s transformed the Jayhawk program into one of nation’s best. That rise has included the program’s first Big 12 Tournament Championship title in 2019 and a Top-10 national ranking this season.

A star player in his own right, Francis has lived his life in the game he loves. From the ultra-competitive youth systems of the Premier League to starring in the American college game and playing professionally in the United States– Francis’ playing career took him all over. And each of those experiences helped shape him into the coach he is today.

This week on “The Jayhawker Podcast” we go back to the beginning of Francis’ soccer journey and learn about how the architect of KU’s rapidly-ascending soccer program was first built himself.

Francis says when you grow up in London, for a lot of children, it’s non-stop soccer.

“It’s just what you did from the beginning of the day to the end of the day when you weren’t in school,” described Francis. “You played on the playground with your buddies, then you had practice with your team.”

Francis was a standout on the playground and quickly got discovered and placed into the youth system of the Premier League.

“When I was 10, I got scouted to go into the young academy at Arsenal,” explained Francis. “So, I did that for 3-4 years and I commuted twice a week on the train up to London by myself which was always very interesting. Then when I was about 14, I went to Crystal Palace and the academy there and played for them until I was about 16.”

The coaching and intense competition in the Premier League’s youth program put Francis on a path toward a professional future. He wound up playing semi-professional soccer for his last two years in London before a serendipitous run-in with an old youth teammate inspired him to seek out college opportunities in the United States.

“My senior year, I was a bus boy in a popular pub and I bump into a guy around Christmas time who was home from the United States where he was going to college,” remembered Francis. “He was older than me, but I played with him previously on a representative team. He was like, ‘I’m playing soccer in the United States on scholarship.’ He talked about it a little bit and it sounded like a really good idea so I wound up pursing that as an option.”

Francis wrote the British Embassy a letter and requested a list of American universities that offered Division I men’s soccer.

“I basically sent letters to all of them. There was maybe 70. It cost me a fortune because I’m sending international mail. I picked the schools that sounded like they were in cool places, so California, Florida and New York and that was literally how I picked it initially,” Francis said with a laugh.

His letter writing campaign eventually landed him at Eastern Illinois and his coach there would take a job at SMU a year later and bring Francis with him. An All-American career ensued and it catapulted Francis into numerous professional opportunities once his college career was complete.

It was during those days as a professional soccer player that Francis dabbled a bit in coaching, first with club teams and eventually at the high school level. By 27 years of age, he started to realize that coaching might be his calling. After three years coaching collegiately at South Alabama, Francis got a call from Lawrence, KS that would change his life forever.

Come along for the rest of the journey on this week’s episode of “The Jayhawker Podcast.” Hear first-hand how Francis’ career took off and soon after, so too, did Kansas soccer.