After 16 years under the guidance of former head football coach Leroy Kinard, The First Academy football team now has a new leader and head coach in Jeff Conaway.
“When I came down and visited, all the boxes I needed to check as far as the church, the administration, the school for my kids, the opportunity for my career, the ability for my family to thrive, the people that I get to work with, checked,” Conaway said. “This is not something that I sought after. I’m not trying to over spiritualize it, but I believe God opened the doors and God called me here. I don’t know that I really had an option, I think if I would have stayed (where I was), I would have been disobedient.”
For 20 years — four as an assistant coach and 16 as the head coach — TFA was the temple where Kinard provided young student-athletes with the knowledge of the sport of football through the Christian pathway.
“I’m very thankful for the opportunity to coach at TFA and for the people that have had come across my path along the way, and for the entire experience,” he said. “Many coaches before me contributed (to the program) and it was my turn to do what I could do to make sure those guys were not only football players … but also that they knew what it meant to be a great husband and father. … I hope I did a good job while I was there, that I stewarded the program while I was there and that I helped guys become more Christ-like while I was there.”
However, change is inevitable, and TFA Athletic Director Will Cohen believes Conaway will be a tremendous addition to the Royals family.
“A lot of new, a lot of change, a lot of transition,” Cohen said. “Coach Kinard was here for a long time. All eight of my years as our director of athletics have been with him as my head football coach, and we feel like we ran a great race together. … But, we are looking forward to the days ahead, coach Conaway is — what we believe — an elite high school football coach and someone that is going to take the program to the next level and build upon what we’ve already done here, which is some good things. We want to take it to a level where we are competing at the highest level in the classroom, on the field and as men of character.”
CONAWAY, A NEW ROYAL
Born in 1980, in Hayti, Missouri, Conaway grew up in Paragould, Arkansas — where his family moved to in 1985.
“I grew up playing football and loved the sport,” he said. “I put a lot of other hobbies on the side because I loved it so much, and when I realized I wasn’t as good as I wanted to be at it, I knew I needed to find another avenue, and that was coaching.”
Initially, when Conaway first got accepted into Ouachita Baptist University, in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, he wanted to be a pharmacist. However, that quickly changed his second year of college.
“I loved being around young people; I loved to motivate and encourage and inspire them to be better than they would be without me,” he said. “My second year into college, I knew I wanted to be a coach and have had some incredible coaching relationships that helped me turn into the person that I currently am.”
At just 23, Conaway got hired to coach at Shiloh Christian School in Arkansas, where current head football coach at the University of Central Florida, Arthur Gustavo Malzahn III, started his high school career and won his first state championship.
“Getting to Shiloh right out college set me on a path that I really felt helped me as a professional and as a coach,” Conaway said.
After coaching for a time at Shiloh, Conaway accepted a position at his alma matter, Green County Tech High School — where he coached for six years — before returning to Shiloh to coach football and serve as the athletic director, simultaneously, for nine years until accepting the head coach position at TFA.
“Now I’m here because this is a great opportunity,” he said. “The administration is fantastic, and they want to do something special. I got to meet the players, and they are great, so I couldn’t be any more excited about being here.”
A NEW WAY TO PLAY FOOTBALL
Under Conaway, the Royals will learn offensive strategies as well as more efficient defense skills that will carry over the winning streak the team has enjoyed in previous seasons.
“I’m looking forward to implementing systems that make us extremely efficient in every area,” Conaway said. “There is not an area that we are not going to be efficient at, ... we are going to have a system for everything that we do and when you implement those systems that work, it allows everybody to rise to the level of the expectation it develops. It keeps everyone paying careful attention to detail about everything, the alertness of everybody rises and you are able to get so much more accomplished. And, when you do that, and you have those systems, you look back and you are amazed at the progress that you’ve made in a short amount of time.”
Conaway, alongside the previous coach at Shiloh Christian School — Josh Floyd — started a no-huddle offense back in 2003 at Ouachita Baptist University on the intramural fields.
“It’s a no-huddle, hurry-up offense that is extremely aggressive; we want to put the pressure on the defense,” Conaway said. “We want to go as fast as they’ll let us go; we want to get first downs and touchdowns. We want to score early and often; we are not going to be rushed. We are going to be very thorough, very prepared, and we are going to be able to throw it, run it and take what the defense gives us.”
More important, Conaway hopes to — also — shape well-rounded athletes and Christian men.
“I want them to become champions in their spiritual life, champions in their academic life, (I want them) to become champions socially and champions athletically,” he said. “I want to give them the resources needed to when they walk across the stage at TFA, they know they are comfortable and confident moving into that next season of life.
“Many students ... face a whole lot of destruction at the next season (of life),” he said. “We want to avoid that, and you avoid that by preparing them now for that moment, ... that’s why I’m here. I want to be a developer, I want to be a preparer, and I want to make sure these guys are ready for the next season of their lives.”
Staff writer Andrea Mujica covers sports, news and features. She holds both a bachelor's degree in journalism and an MBA from the University of Central Florida. When she’s not on the sidelines, you can find Andrea coaching rowers at the Orlando Area Rowing Society in Windermere.