Royal overhaul: The First Academy’s athletics vision under new AD Jeff Conaway

Amid a highly anticipated football season, allegations of rules violations and major shifts in its coaching staffs, TFA AD and football coach Jeff Conaway sat down with the Observer to share his visio

  • Sports
  • Share

When The First Academy’s then-new football coach Jeff Conaway arrived in the summer of 2023 to Orlando, one of the first coaches he met was Leesburg High’s first-time head coach Steven Moffett. 

According to Conaway, the two hit it off quickly.

“We did some seven-on-sevens together, and we quickly realized that we have a lot of the same philosophies,” Conaway said. “He does a fantastic job coaching and developing his staff, loving on kids and getting kids to perform at high levels. I think there’s a like-mindedness between coaches that coach that way and that was the case for us.”

With both Conaway and Moffett about to start their first seasons at their representative schools, the idea the two would soon work on the same staff together was far-fetched. That was an even more unlikely thought after Moffett established himself as a rising star in the coaching ranks, after leading an incredible turnover at Leesburg. The Yellow Jackets went from 2-8 in 2022 to 10-2 in Moffett’s first year. 

But in December, something strange happened. The First Academy announced Moffett would be leaving Leesburg after one season as its head coach to join Conaway’s staff as the offensive coordinator and assistant head coach

When asked about the decision to leave his head-coaching post for an assistant role, Moffett pointed to his belief in Conaway’s vision for the Royals program. He said after meeting with Conaway and the administration, he believed the program would have an opportunity to be special. 

That was the first sign those on the outside would have of what was about to come: A Royals football overhaul.

More from Orange Observer Sports

Lead by example

Led by Conaway, his right-hand man Moffett and key coaching staff additions Corey Broomfield and Chris Mitchell, TFA football saw a complete identity shift. 

Its new identity came with a big change in how the Royals’ schedule. 2024 will see TFA play out-of-state powerhouse programs such as Tennessee’s Lipscomb Academy and Georgia’s Rabun Gap High, along with local powers Edgewater High and Seminole High. 

Another shift is the introduction of a slew of new transfer players, such as former Leesburg players Evan James, a three-star rising senior receiver and quarterback Salomon Georges Jr., the 2023 Class 3S, District 8 Player of the Year; former Boone High linebacker Noah Maddox and former Timber Creek player Christian Willis, to name a few. 

With new coaches, players and a murderer’s row on its schedule, the final thing this new version of TFA football needed was an identity on the field. Lucky for the Royals’ faithful, Conaway learned his high-powered, fast-paced and no-holds-barred offensive approach from a legendary coach: UCF’s Gus Malzahn. 

“I cut my teeth early in my career at Shiloh Christian where Gus Malzahn started his hurry-up, no-huddle offense back in 1996,” Conaway said. “And for the last 20 years, we’ve been running that same hurry-up, no-huddle offense, and I feel like we’ve been ahead of a lot of other philosophies, because of (Malzahn’s) innovation. … I think what you’ll eventually get to see here at TFA, with our offense, is an up-tempo offense, where we are the aggressor. We want to have a physical downhill run game.

“But we’re going to spread the field,” he said. “We’re going to use a lot of formations, a lot of shifts and motions to disguise what we do. We’re going to get really good at a few things and do it with tempo and change of pace. We’re going to spread the field horizontally. You’re going to see us attack the perimeter with our backs, jet sweeps and screens, and then we’re going to push the ball vertically. We want to be extremely multiple, but we want to be able to do that with a pace in which others can’t keep up with us. That generates layups, because it gets defensive players out of position and allows us to get the football to our guys in open space. If we can do that, we feel like we can really generate a lot of points.”

If these changes weren’t clear enough of a message to the Central Florida football world that the Royals are here and ready to play with the big boys, their increased presence on social media most certainly would. 

“I believe what sets TFA apart and what is so attractive right now about our program, is how we’re using our social media to tell the story of what happens day-to-day here,” Conaway said. “The world on the outside, they’re looking for a great place, and this is a great place. All we really have done is take what goes on here and started to share it. When you do that, people get curious and want to know what’s going on, and those that are pursuing excellence in those same areas, they’re going to be interested.”

But beyond the pomp and circumstance of these factors, the vision that Conaway wants the people within his program to use as their North Star is simple: Develop champions. 

“We believe our mission is to develop champions spiritually, academically, socially and athletically,” Conaway said. “I believe great families want to be involved with great coaches at great schools, where their student-athletes can get the best development possible. I think what TFA has that is extremely unique is the opportunity and the resources to be really, really good in all four of those areas.”

Rinse and repeat

Since earlier this year, when Conaway added athletics director to his role as football coach, the mission and opportunity he has for the football team now applies to every Royals athletics program. 

“We want each program to have that same model and that same structure,” Conaway said. “And yes, they will all look a little bit different, but the core values and the mission that we’re trying to accomplish with our coaches and our players shouldn’t vary. And so we want our coaches to run real fast in those three lanes: Give your student-athletes opportunities to grow in their intimate relationship with Jesus, give them those resources and have evidence to be able to communicate, this is what we’re doing to take our athlete and grow them spiritually. Everybody’s plan will look a little different.” 

“Academically, it’s the same thing,” he said. “We want every coach to teach and preach and repeat. Sit in front of the class, listen with your eyes, build positive relationships with your teachers and turn in every assignment.

“Socially, we want them to preach the same message, shake hands firmly, look people in the eyes, be able to speak comfortably and confidently walk with your chest out high and teach them what it means to be a social champion,” Conaway said. “Athletically, we say we are going to teach you how to train like a champion, eat, hydrate and rest like a champion … And a lot of our coaches are (already) doing those things, but across the board, that’s what I expect from our coaches. It’s the same mission for every sport, so let’s get really good at the mission.” 

New mission, new leaders, new problems

With the football program as an example and Conaway’s four-pillar mission for its other programs, TFA athletics is headed in a new direction. And it’ll do so without a few familiar faces who have led Royals athletics for years. 

Since the summer of 2023, The First Academy has seen coaches in four major sports resign from their respective posts: 16-year football coach Leroy Kinard; volleyball coach Joe Casalese; and, most recently, 10-year baseball coach Scott Grove and 20-year boys basketball coach Chris Mayberry.  

Mayberry’s and Grove’s resignations came within days of each other in April, while Casalese and Kinard left the school’s coaching ranks in 2023. The Observer contacted Grove and Mayberry for comment on this story, but they both declined.

However, Grove has spoken publicly on his resignation and cited his disapproval of the athletics department’s new direction and his concern regarding FHSAA rules violations he was aware of — though he did not specify what those violations were. 

TFA was cleared of allegations after an investigation by the FHSAA, which chose not to take any action against the Royals based on the evidence presented. The FHSAA has closed the case, barring new evidence.

Now, Conaway has the unique opportunity to make an impactful mark early in his tenure by hiring coaches in two of the most important sports in any high school’s athletics department.

In all coaches, Conaway is looking for the Four C’s — Christ-likeness, competency, connection and communication.

“We’re looking for head coaches (who) are leaders in their Christ-likeness,” Conaway said. “Are they walking in a relationship with Jesus that’s healthy? And can they teach their athletes how to do the same? We want coaches that are leaders and that are competent. Can we get student-athletes from point A to point B? Can we increase their skill? Can we take them from where they’re at and make them better? … We want someone (who is) extremely competent in doing that. We want someone (who is) going to connect with athletes. We’re a ministry of First Orlando, and that connection between coach and player is huge, so we want someone who has the ability to build great relationships and can minister to our student-athletes — but also connect with our parents.”

Special program, special team, special players 

Basically, what The First Academy is trying to create with its athletics program — and really the entire school — is a special environment that combines high-level education and championship athletics that are all built on the foundation of a biblical worldview. 

“Families are looking for a place where their children can get a quality education,” Conaway said. “And if you choose a private Christian school because you also want that education to be taught with a biblical worldview — and you also want athletics that are pursuing excellence, then TFA is a phenomenal option. We’re not for everybody, but I think that’s the story, that’s the message that we want people to know. We’re not acting like we’re perfect, but what goes on here is really, really special, and we want to be a part of it. We want our kids to be a part of it. We want the community to understand who we are and we want to be able to tell our story. I think … when you have a great product, people are interested and people want it.”

Sam Albuquerque is the Sports Editor for the Orange Observer. Please contact him with story ideas, results and statistics.

Email[email protected] 





Sam Albuquerque

A native of João Pessoa, Brazil, Sam Albuquerque moved in 1997 to Central Florida as a kid. After earning a communications degree in 2016 from the University of Central Florida, he started his career covering sports as a producer for a local radio station, ESPN 580 Orlando. He went on to earn a master’s degree in editorial journalism from Northwestern University, before moving to South Carolina to cover local sports for the USA Today Network’s Spartanburg Herald-Journal. When he’s not working, you can find him spending time with his lovely wife, Sarah, newborn son, Noah, and dog named Skulí.

Latest News