TAMPA — Trailing late in the fourth quarter and with little suggesting their opponent’s two-point lead was surmountable, Middleton seemed poised for another defeat.
Alonzo Ashwood glanced up at the clock, sighed deeply and surveyed his sideline. Winless in his first 12 games as a head coach, Ashwood had never thought of himself, his assistants or his 38 varsity players as losers.
The scoreboard — finally — would soon agree with him.
The Tigers scored a late touchdown to secure his first victory, a 17-12 comeback win over Lennard last week that brought tears to the eyes of their seniors, set off a wild celebration and offered hope that better nights are ahead for a program sorely in need of them.
“It was a relief,” Ashwood said at practice this week. “Sort of like LeBron said, ‘It’s about damn time.’ ”
Indeed, his first win took much longer than expected.
Ashwood arrived on the east Tampa campus in spring 2011 with plans to turn Middleton into a consistent winner like Hillsborough, where he had been an assistant the past eight years. He replaced Jason Stokes, who led the Tigers to a pair of 5-5 seasons before leaving for the same position at Gaither.
All the ingredients seemed to be there: a pipeline of talent, a tradition of success that spanned several generations and a history of community support. Ashwood hoped to combine the regimented approach of Hillsborough’s longtime coach, Earl Garcia, with his own youthful energy and optimism to revive the struggling Tigers program.
“The rebuilding part was eye-opening for me,” he said. “There really wasn’t a foundation.”
Middleton was once central to east Tampa’s black community, located just south of its current site on 22nd Street, until it was shut down in 1971 under federal segregation order. It reopened as a magnet school in 2002. Harry Hubbard was tasked with rebuilding the school’s football program.
The Tigers had early success under Hubbard, including an 8-5 season and postseason run in 2004. But Hubbard was forced out after missing the playoffs three straight years and Stokes couldn’t get the program over the hump.
Coaches and players blame the decline on the steady exodus of players from surrounding neighborhoods to schools with winning teams — Tampa Bay Tech, Hillsborough and Armwood. For example, star receiver Richard Benjamin, a Division I recruit, transferred from Middleton to TBT in the summer of 2011.
“There’s not many of us left,” said Middleton senior Amp Carswell, who spent his freshman year at Armwood. “But it’s possible over here. We’re going to win.”
Hubbard, who’s now teaching at Chamberlain, said winning will bring back many of those kids who left and convince the incoming students to stick it out. He said new rules restricting transfers could also help with the rebuilding process.
“Middleton has always had the athletes and been a winning school,” Hubbard said. “But there’s a long road ahead.”
A dwindling talent pool hasn’t been the only challenge. The football offices are in a portable trailer. The weight room is tight. The school’s reputation outside of the neighborhood isn’t the best. And a few years ago, Middleton was one of several schools in Florida threatened with closure because of lagging test scores.
It all seemingly culminated with an 0-10 record in Ashwood’s first season, including four shutout losses and a three-touchdown loss to rival Blake.
“That was one of the most depressing games ever,” Carswell said.
Nonetheless, the 44-year-old Ashwood, a former football star at Hillsborough who went on to play at FAMU, sees a brighter future.
He has only eight seniors on this year’s promising team. He’s brought in a staff with its own impressive resumes, including former Hillsborough star and NFL player Garnell Wilds. He has connections throughout college football and he’s not afraid to use them.
“I know I’m the right man for the job,” said Ashwood, young enough to still have Outkast’s So Fresh, So Clean as the ringtone on his cell phone.
Brimming with the confidence of the star athlete that he once was, Ashwood has literally put his own imprint on the program: he redesigned the athletic program’s logo to include a large “M” with tiger eyes inside the letter.
The inclusion of the eyes was no mistake. Last week’s win only reaffirmed his belief that a turnaround is imminent.
“I tell the kids we’ve got to have swagger,” he said. “As soon as we step off the bus, it’s supposed to be 6-0.”
Joel Anderson can be reached at (813) 225-3112, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jdhometeam.