PLANT CITY — As far back as Wayne Ward can remember, Plant City has always put a strong emphasis on treating the team like a family. But for the previous seven years, the patriarch of the family had been in flux.
After working under four coaches during his seven years as an assistant, Ward has provided some much-needed stability for the Raiders (6-4) in his first year as head coach — something that has helped them overcome an often tumultuous season and earn a first-round playoff matchup at Plant on Friday.
“We pride ourselves on this family. I tell those kids all the time that if there’s anything you need help with, just let me know,” Ward said. “A lot of these kids, they’re missing that. I’m not trying to take that place. All I’m doing is just showing them love and attention, and they’re giving that respect back to me.
“And they come out and show it on Friday nights.”
If there were an ideal candidate to provide a strong foundation for the football program, it’s Ward. He grew up in Plant City, played for the Raiders and eventually returned to his alma mater to teach and serve as an assistant coach.
He had plenty of opportunities to leave, he said, but his love for his hometown and lack of head-coaching aspirations at the time led him to stay put.
But former Plant City coach Jason Strunk saw greater potential in Ward. Strunk promoted Ward to offensive coordinator last year and began sharing head-coaching responsibilities with him, making him the obvious candidate to take over when Strunk left to become an assistant at Purdue.
“Right now, what we’re trying to do is bring stability,” Ward said. “And why not have a guy like me come in and bring stability to this program? I seriously want to retire here.”
That attitude has been a breath of fresh air for his players.
“When we’re here, we’re coach and player. But when I leave here, I know I can always call him,” junior running back Dazmond Patterson said. “I can always call on Coach Ward, and he’s there right then and there. He’s like a father figure.”
That role hasn’t always been easy, however. The most difficult task all season, Ward said, was the suspension of starting quarterback Bennie Coney for an undisclosed violation of team rules.
Coney won’t be suiting up to practice or play with Plant City this year, but remains with the team — even standing on the Raiders’ sideline during games. Ward said the junior Division I-A prospect is still part of the program simply because he wants to put Coney in a position to be successful off the field.
“At some point, you have to hold those kids accountable for their actions. If you don’t do it now, they’re going to make a decision out there in the real world where no one can help them,” Ward said.
“Next thing you know, they’re facing a judge or they’re facing the mortician. So, I’d rather have them learn it from me here on the field vs. learning it the hard way out there in the real world.”
While necessary, that tough-love approach was the hardest thing Ward said he has ever done, and the thought of having that conversation with Coney made him feel sick.
But there was at least one encouraging sign for Ward: Coney came to him, admitted what he did wrong and talked through the problems and issues surrounding the situation.
“That’s the trust thing I’m talking about. He was man enough to sit down and tell me his problems and issues and what he wants to work on,” Ward said. “It lets me know that integrity and these things I’m trying to instill in these kids, it’s working.”