In head coach Greg Ruffin’s office at Edward Waters College, an advertising poster listing the Tigers’ schedule from his first season has a picture of him in a construction helmet and swinging a sledgehammer with this bold headline: “2018 Extreme Makeover, Football Edition.”
Truthfully, that remodeling job is only now coming to fruition and, ironically, it’s at a time when EWC football has returned to practice and is hitting a spring reset button due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
From the outside, nothing much changed about the Tigers’ program in Ruffin’s first two seasons. EWC went 4-6 in 2018, then 1-10 against a much tougher schedule the following year.
It continued a longstanding trend at the historically Black private college, which brought football back in 2001 after a 35-year hiatus. The Tigers’ last winning season was 8-3 in 2004, mostly because EWC lacked the resources to properly fund an NAIA program that played home games at various Jacksonville high schools due to the lack of an on-campus facility.
But the nomadic Tigers are no longer homeless as construction is near completion (except for two press boxes) on a $4.3 million football stadium, which was made possible in 2017 when the City Council approved an $8 million project that also included renovations for EWC dormitories.
While press boxes on both sides of Community Field were being built through the fall, the stands and a Turf playing surface with granular coconut husk and cork, which keeps the field 17 percent cooler, is finished. The visual along Kings Road near downtown Jacksonville includes an eye-catching, orange and purple EWC logo at midfield.
The new football stadium has brought an uptick in enthusiasm from school officials, coaches and players, many who feel EWC was severely handicapped without an on-campus facility that everyone could rally around.
“I feel like it’s a bigger impact on the community than the program,” said EWC quarterback Roshard Branch, a junior from Plantation. “For a while, no one really knew what Edward Waters was. We will have more community support now and more people willing to come to EWC.
“All these great things are being done in front of our eyes. It’s not just something being told to them. It’s here. It’s real.”
Though EWC’s fall schedule went away when opponents began canceling their seasons — starting with Morehouse College, then losing games with, among others, Allen University, Tuskegee and homecoming against Kentucky State — it plans to have a partial spring season in 2021. The Tigers will start off playing at Jackson State University, featuring new head coach Deion Sanders, on February 20. EWC is scheduled to play back-to-back home games against Erskine College (March 6), which is bringing back football for the first time since the 1950s, and University of Fort Lauderdale (March 13), which has been released by the opposing schools and not EWC.
A 5-game spring schedule closes out with road games against Division II Shorter University (March 20) in Rome, Ga., then a rematch at Erskine (March 27).
The Tigers play in the NAIA Gulf Coast Conference, but made an application in February 2020 to move up to Division II. They hope to be accepted into the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC), one of two historically Black leagues in D-II, but that decision is still being discussed, according to athletic director Dr. Paul Bryant.
EWC currently has only 17 full scholarships, which Ruffin divides up among dozens of players on a roster he expects to reach well over 100 by next semester. The scholarship maximum at the NAIA level is 24 and Division II level is 36.
“I think any obstacle we have going to Division II might be the financing, but I believe we’ll be all right because of our strategic plan,” said Bryant. “It’s going to be three to five years of transition to get there.”
A recruiting bump
Ruffin and everyone associated with EWC expects the new football stadium will pay dividends in several areas – community support, campus pride and recruiting student-athletes.
Since Jacksonville University dropped its football program in December 2019, it means EWC is the only college game within the 904 area code. So the timing of a new stadium going up — with many levels of football now in limbo as the country continues battling COVID-19 — works out well for the Tigers.
“It puts us in a position where we’ve got kids recruiting us now,” Ruffin said. “That’s a good thing to have when players start seeking you out. We’re not Alabama, but we’re doing a good job with what we’ve been given. That stadium is the best thing that ever happened.”
“I think having this stadium here will allow us to get a different type of recruit who would not have looked at Edward Waters before,” added Bryant.
Since many players attending out-of-state schools were forced to return home during the pandemic, EWC might benefit from potential transfers. With a new stadium and field now in place, Ruffin thinks a lot of local talent that didn’t get recruited by higher-profile colleges out of high school might consider staying home to play for EWC.
“Football in the 904 is outstanding,” said Ruffin. “There are a lot of phenomenal athletes coming out of here. You got some talented kids that go to school in another state because they may have had a few bells and whistles we didn’t have.
“But with this stadium going up, it’s real good for the community. We have a place that people can identify us.”
Sophomore defensive end Jaren Wilson, a Raines High product and a member of two state championship-winning teams, intends to encourage players from his alma mater to experience EWC football. He’s already made a sales pitch to Raines defensive lineman Cedric Newsome.
“I feel like it’s definitely a good thing for recruiting,” said Wilson. “I’ve had some younger friends at Raines, and my D-line coach at Raines, Javari Kelly, is now coaching the position at Edward Waters. All the guys from Raines that aren’t highly recruited like me, I’m going to try to get them here.
“Newsome is definitely someone I can get to come over. He’s like my little brother.”
Bryant, the former AD at Grambling State University and South Carolina State, was hired by EWC in June 2019, after finishing up his doctorate. He says it’s not enough to have new athletic facilities, insisting that football coaches have to take advantage of it by establishing relationships with local high schools.
While EWC’s football roster for the spring is in flux, Bryant wants the Tigers’ program to have a heavy local presence, preferably a roster with 70 percent of players from northeast Florida. On its 2019 roster that listed 79 players, only 22 came from within 90 miles of Jacksonville.
“When I came in, one of the questions I asked my coaches was, ‘How many coaches do you know in a 20-mile radius and do they know you?’ “ Bryant said. “Some coaches said, ‘Well, no, I don’t know.’ Well, that’s a problem. We should be one of their first options [to send players]. We’re in their backyard.
“So we got to get out and know who our high school coaches are. Having them here, we can invite them to our [Saturday] games and not feel embarrassed that we’re playing at a high school. We’re playing on campus. That changes the dynamic for us.”
While Branch was still at Plantation High, the whispers about EWC were not exactly complimentary. Most of the negative perceptions were about the school’s location.
“I heard things like, ‘That school is ghetto, you don’t want to go there,’ “ said Branch. “I met people who graduated [from Plantation] before me that didn’t have good things to say. There was a quarterback who had a scholarship offer [from EWC] who didn’t go because of what he heard about the school.”
Branch didn’t have any other schools interested in his services beyond Keiser University in West Palm Beach, and his offer from EWC came from the previous coaching staff. Still, Branch decided to pay EWC a visit, met Ruffin and came away with a far different impression of the northwest Jacksonville school than he previously heard back home.
“I heard a lot of negative things, but this was the only scholarship offer, so I had to go there myself to see it,” said Branch. “I’ve never been in a dangerous situation at Edward Waters. I feel safe here.”
While some neighborhoods in proximity to EWC have a reputation as crime areas, many at the school believe it’s unfair to connect the school and lawbreaking. They hope having a football stadium on campus, where crowds of 3,000-plus can gather at Saturday home games and enjoy the entertainment, will create a positive environment that uplifts the community.
“Now having this stadium builds a different sense of pride, a different sense of wanting to perform,” said Bryant. “They say if you look good, you want to play good. Now we have the ability to look good and the only thing is to play good. I think this football stadium allows us to change the mindset of how we want to perform.”
Having grown up on Jacksonville’s Northside, Wilson senses the pride EWC feels in having its own stadium and believes it will transform the school.
“I definitely feel it can be a game-changer,” said Wilson. “The whole atmosphere is changing. We’re trying to change that negative perception of the whole area and bring the community together to have something we can all bond over.”
To keep his skills sharp before the start of real practices, Branch threw passes in a grass area near the EWC basketball courts that players call “The Back 40,” probably because it’s only 40 yards long.
Branch, a criminal justice major who is entering the FSCJ police academy next fall as part of his curriculum, can’t wait to start playing games in EWC’s new home.
“I think the anticipation is crazy,” said Branch. “Everybody has been talking about the field. The way it’s coming together is beautiful. It’s hard to explain and put into words. I’ve been here three years. I never actually thought that field would be there before I leave.
“I love the way the turf feels. Every time I look or step on the field, I can imagine throwing a touchdown and the crowd going crazy.”
Building sustainable program
It didn’t take much deliberation for Ruffin, who was the tight ends coach at Bethune-Cookman for one year, to take the EWC job. He still commutes back to his home in Port Orange to be with his wife and three kids on weekends.
During 13 stops in his 25-year coaching career, this seemed like an ideal move because if anyone knows about trying to rebuild a football program, it’s Ruffin.
He took his first head coaching job in 2002 at Shaw (N.C.) University, which, like EWC the previous year, had dropped football for 24 years before starting over. Ruffin led the Bears to a 7-3 record, which included a 31-10 loss to EWC at TIAA Bank Field in front of a crowd of 15,040.
Fast forward another decade when Ruffin serves as head coach from 2013-14 at Paine (Ga.) College, which resurrected football after 51 years. The Lions played four games as a club team in Ruffin’s first year, then went 2-8 the following season before the school administration decided to again shut down the program.
One of Ruffin’s two victories was a 38-14 win over EWC in which his team overcame a 14-7 halftime deficit.
“That’s how I first got on the [EWC] radar,” Ruffin said. “Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve kind of had to renovate.”
In his only other head coaching stint (2015-16) at NAIA Texas College, there was no renovation. Ruffin’s teams struggled to compete because of lack of finances, winning two games in two years, and he left to take the position at Bethune-Cookman.
The EWC job has a different feel to it now because Ruffin can see legitimate progress. When he accepted the job, he knew an on-campus stadium was in the works on property that used to be a practice field. Ruffin is encouraged because the administration is fulfilling promises about investing in football.
“From a career standpoint, I’m really where I want to be,” said the 47-year-old Ruffin. “I like Jacksonville, I like my president [Dr. A. Zachary Faison] and athletic director. I want to stick around and be here a while.”
The Tigers’ locker room, coaching offices and the equipment room were all part of the old James Weldon Johnson Middle School, but most everything has been upgraded. The locker room used to be a wood shop, and the equipment room was once a JWJ truancy office.
Despite EWC going 16 seasons without a winning record, Ruffin feels bullish about the Tigers’ chances to get on a good track in the coming years.
“It’s easy to be part of something when a program has everything you want already in place,” said Ruffin. “My selling point to the kids was to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. I want them to be stakeholders in the whole makeover.”
For the longest time, EWC football felt like a fixer-upper program. It was always short on funds. Every season, the players felt like gypsies because they were always getting on a bus, even for home games.
“Now we can leave our locker room, take a few steps and we’re on our own field,” said Branch. “It’s a big thing with the stadium being on campus because our community is there. Our home games are really going to be jumping.”
“It gives the community something to do on Saturdays, gives them something to look forward to,” added Wilson.
All is quiet right now on the field in between Martel and Spires Street. But in 2021, for likely a few games in the spring and a full season in the fall, there’ll be no place like home for the Tigers.
Nearly two decades after Edward Waters football was reborn, it finally feels like the program has a fresh start.
[email protected]: (904) 359-4540
This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: With a new stadium to call home, Edward Waters football feels rejuvenated