The Seminoles will turn the reins of their boys basketball program over to the former Florida State quarterback who has coached high school football the past nine years
There are those who feel Florida State quarterback great Charlie Ward spurned the NFL after winning the 1993 Heisman Trophy.
Ward proved those doubters wrong, becoming a first-round NBA draft pick who played 11 years of high-level basketball.
Now, Ward’s first head coaching job back in Tallahassee won’t be in football. It will be as Florida High’s head basketball coach in what amounts to Ward’s first head coaching opportunity in the sport. The past four years, he was head football coach at Pensacola’s Booker T. Washington High School.
“I’ve played 11 years of (NBA) basketball and coached two,” Ward told the Democrat.. “I’ve been coaching football for the past nine years. It’s a bit of a change, but I’ve been helping out with Booker behind the scenes.
“My (football) win-loss record isn’t the best, but I’ve been able to help provide structure and get some things done at the programs. This may be the first time I’ve had a stable situation.”
Ward, 47, wasn’t expecting this, but over the past 13 years since his NBA career ended in Houston, he’s been inching back toward his hometown of Thomasville, Georgia.
He spent nine years in Houston overall, spending two seasons as an assistant coach for the Rockets, before being hired in 2007 as an assistant coach on the varsity boys basketball team at Westbury Christian School.
That year, Westbury hired Ward to become its football coach. After six seasons at Westbury, Booker T. Washington hired Ward in 2014, where he’s been the past four years.
When Ward and his family began discussing a move to get back to Tallahassee – his oldest son, Caleb, 18, graduates high school in May – he put out feelers, which resulted in the recent hire by FSU and President John Thrasher to become a university ambassador.
Following his hire, Ward stepped down from his position at Washington. But he still had the itch to coach.
“President Thrasher and those guys were helpful getting me to the area,” Ward said. “While I was thinking about that and what to do at the university, (Florida High athletic director) Tyrone (McGriff) and I were talking about something else. At that time, I wasn’t looking for a job. God opened the door. We’re looking forward to the opportunity.”
McGriff inquired about Ward’s potential interest in becoming a head basketball coach as part of McGriff’s vision toward building up his school’s facilities and coaching staffs to be the best in the state for the Seminoles’ classification.
To fully realize his vision, McGriff wanted to promote existing boys basketball coach Todd McNeil to become the assistant athletic director.
McNeil has been Florida High’s coach for the past two seasons, following an off year after getting fired by Chiles in 2015 following his 13th season. McNeil’s replacement, John Langlois, was just fired by the Timberwolves after three sub-.500 seasons.
“Todd is extremely organized, one of the most organized people I know,” McGriff said. “He has a plan for everything. He knows where things are going. With someone like him, you don’t want to lose him because he’s too good, too valuable.
“I wanted him to help us overall, not just in basketball. I want him to be in a position to help me, set schedules, work on new policies in writing, and help establish this vision I have for our athletics program. I can’t do it by myself.”
Ward will travel back and forth from Pensacola in the interim until the school year ends. He has regular speaking engagements and his new role at FSU.
The family – wife Tonja and children Hope, 14, and Joshua, 9 – will move over the summer. Family was a big factor in the move. Ward’s four siblings and both his parents still live in Thomasville.
“Charlie is real big-hearted and he thinks about other people,” McGriff said. “Anytime you have someone like that with the reputation he has, you seize the opportunity.”
Ward spent nine seasons with the New York Knicks, having been drafted by Hall of Fame coach Pat Riley. But he also had four coaches during that span, including six seasons with Jeff Van Gundy.
Van Gundy later brought Ward to Houston and helped him get his coaching start.
Ward thinks he’ll draw on what he experienced from Van Gundy as well as Greg Popovich during a half season with the San Antonio Spurs as he begins his own basketball coaching journey.
“The things Pop did in practice was very good developmental wise,” Ward said. “I’m reserved, but I can raise my voice – it is a gym. I’m more reserved in basketball than football.
“I played differently than I act. That’s how I’ll coach my guys – to play with intensity, play for one another, be a good teammate, play your role, and everyone has to play good team defense. That was my M.O.”
Following a 1-24 season in 2015-16, McNeil’s first season with the Seminoles was a 5-19 result. Despite starting three freshmen, a sophomore and an eighth-grader this past season, Florida High improved to 8-19 and nearly made the playoffs.
The youthfulness showed up in a District 2-5A semifinal loss, giving up a lead late to top seed Marianna.
Bolstered by 6-foot-6 freshman center Makai Willis, 6-5 freshman forward Kai Farlin, and freshman guard Terrion Arnold (12.6 ppg), along with 6-2 sophomore Willie Taggart Jr., the Seminoles’ returning roster has undeniable upside.
“They have some young talent, and the key to anything is experience and maturation,” Ward said. “The one thing they all have to learn is talent alone doesn’t provide success. I just want to instill in them the work ethic and what they need.
“Can’t take shortcuts. Give them a sense of pride being able to compete at a high level. It won’t be easy, but nothing in life is easy. Coach McNeil did a great job with them. I’ll just continue to build upon what he established.”