Ken EldridgeCoffee High School
by Robert Preston, Jr.
photography by Johnathan Chick
“I’m a pretty boring guy. My brain only functions in X’s and O’s.”
That’s how second-year Coffee High head coach Ken Eldridge describes himself. While his words may be a little self-effacing, they do highlight one quality that has been integral to his success as a head coach: his knowledge of football.
First and foremost, Coach Eldridge is a student of the game. Born and raised in Douglas, football has been an important part of his life for most of his 36 years. He came up through the Coffee High program, starting out his career as a Trojan on the defensive line. It didn’t take the coaching staff long to realize that he his gridiron home would be somewhere other than the line.
As a player, Coach Eldridge showed strong leadership skills and a great deal of athleticism. He was soon taking snaps in practice as an underclassman. By his senior season, Ken was the Trojans’ starting quarterback. Coffee High wasn’t expected to do much that year, but the Trojans had a surprisingly strong season and came within two points of being a legitimate state champion contender. A big part of that success was due to the leadership Ken Eldridge demonstrated.
The foundation for the 1990 team’s success was forged during camp. The August heat was stifling, and on the last day of camp, the number one offense and number one defense squared off in the final scrimmage. About 10 minutes into the practice, Ken took a snap and rolled out. James Sirmans, who went on to play football at Valdosta State University, shook his blocker and punished Ken with a bone-jarring tackle. Tempers flared, and the offense and defense went at it for the rest of the scrimmage. His teammates credit him with channeling the intensity of that final practice into a force that unified the Coffee High team. In part because of the leadership he showed on that final day of camp, the unheralded Trojans began to take shape as one of the region’s most formidable teams.
Fast forward just over two months. After two painful losses, one to Tift by one point and another to Bainbridge, the Trojans were playing the Valdosta Wildcats in Death Valley. Coffee had never beaten Valdosta, and through the first half, it looked like the same ol’, same ol’. Valdosta carried a commanding 21-10 lead into halftime, and the game looked all but over.
During the intermission, the Coffee coaching staff made an important adjustment and marched out on the field with a completely revamped offense. In the second half, Coffee utilized a pop-gun style of play, which Ken ran perfectly. He threw the ball at will, and turned in one of the best passing performances of any Coffee High quarterback. In the process, he
helped bring the Trojans back into the game. Coffee scored 19 second-half points, and eventually held a scant 29-28 lead late in the game. With time winding down, Valdosta’s ghosts emerged, and after a Wildcats’ punt pinned the Trojans inside their own five, the Valdosta defense picked up a safety and won the game 30-29. It was a heart-breaking loss, for sure. But that team had given the Coffee fans something they hadn’t much of when playing Valdosta – hope. And a large part of that resulted from the leadership and poise Ken displayed in the second half. “He ran that offense to perfection. I’d go to war with him right now,” says one former teammate.
After Coffee “lost” a preseason scrimmage to the Fitzgerald Purple Hurricanes, he came under even more scrutiny. However, he wasn’t worried one bit, and neither were the people close to him. The Coffee staff had a game plan that night, and it wasn’t to go out and dominate Fitzgerald. He wanted the team to try a few things, experiment a little and get his players some minutes on the field. In his first interscholastic game as a head coach, he saw what his team could do, and went back to the drawing board to fix the problems.
The result was a 6-0 start that caught the skeptics off guard. Maybe, just maybe, the brand new head coach knew a little about football. The pivotal game in the 2008 season came against Warner Robins. Coffee was down 17-7 in the second quarter. It was the first time the Trojans had encountered such a deficit all season, and it was a golden opportunity for the Coffee squad to show what they were made of. Coach Eldridge drew on that same leadership and confidence that sparked the near-miraculous comeback against Valdosta in 1990. He told the team they wouldn’t be behind at half time. The Trojans responded with 10 points late in the first half and went into intermission tied at 17. The second half was all Coffee’s, and the Trojans cruised to a 37-20 win over a quality region foe. “The players really started believing in our system that night. The Warner Robins game was a big confidence-builder for us,” he says.
A late season stumble against Tift in the last game of the year gave Coffee a 7-3 regular season record. Coach Eldridge’s Trojans made the playoffs as a number-four seed and faced Stephenson in the first round. During the Stephenson game, Coach Eldridge showed his willingness to be patient and play to his team’s strengths. Late in the game, the score was knotted at 14. Coffee was driving and had a chance to go for a big play and win the game in regulation. The Trojans definitely had their choice of big-time playmakers who could break loose for a game-clinching play.
However, Coach Eldridge analyzed what had taken place that night. He knew the defense could stop Stephenson. The offense had moved the ball all night and he felt like Coffee had a good chance to win in overtime. He played conservatively at the end of the fourth quarter, much to the chagrin of the Coffee fans. “I heard a few boos that night,” he remembers. But Coach Eldridge’s instincts were right. Coffee kicked a game-winning field goal in overtime to win 17-14 and advance to the second round. To Ken, his decision to go for the win in overtime wasn’t difficult – he knew his team, he knew the situation and he was willing to trust his knowledge of the game even though it wasn’t the most popular decision at the time. The Trojans went on to defeat Chapel Hill the next week before losing in the quarterfinals to Peachtree Ridge. Coffee finished with a 9-4 record and its deepest playoff run in over two decades.
Coach Eldridge had survived his first year, and he had proven many of the naysayers wrong. But what about 2009? Graduation dealt a huge blow to the Trojans. Coffee lost most of its starters on offense. An important returner is Garrett Scott, a 6’4”, 285-pound lineman. Four starters return on the defensive side of the ball. Chief among them is Pernell Williams, rated by some pundits as the number-two defensive back in the state. Those two seniors, both of whom are being recruited, will provide important leadership to the Trojans.
If Coffee has one thing on its side, it’s that many of this year’s underclassmen have seen quite a bit of playing time over the last couple of years. In order for the Trojans to be successful, those underclassmen are going to have to step up and answer the challenge. To Coach Eldridge, the key group is his sophomores. “They’re really going to have to play well,” he says.
Coach Eldridge is also committed to academics, and one of his key initiatives as head coach is to narrow the gap between academics and athletics. He monitors his players’ grades throughout the year and encourages all of them to take care of business in the classroom. As a result, the number of kids who were in grade trouble when spring practice rolled around was down significantly. “Very few people are able to play sports for a living. You’ve got to be prepared for the workforce, and that comes through education,” he says.
The Trojans take the field on Aug. 14 for a pre-season scrimmage against Fitzgerald in the newly-renovated Jardine Stadium. Two weeks later, Coffee opens its season at home against Ware County. •