Cars zipped down Druid Park Avenue on the cool fall afternoon as Paine College’s football coaches blew whistles and shouted commands.
On one side of the Lions’ baseball field, the special teams worked on field goals with makeshift uprights. On the other side, quarterbacks tossed passes to wide receivers. Coach Greg Ruffin walked all around, soaking it all in.
After a 51-year absence, Paine College football is back.
The team returns to action at 2 p.m. Saturday, when the Lions play host to Georgia Prep Academy at Lucy C. Laney Memorial Stadium. The contest is the first of four against club teams this season as Paine gears up for a full season of Division II play in 2014.
“The buzz is ridiculous,” defensive end Steven Wright said. “That opening game is going to feel like our first year in the NCAA. Everything’s serious. These games don’t count toward anything, but that’s not how we feel.”
Two years ago, Paine President George Bradley asked athletic director Tim Duncan about the feasibility of bringing back football. In March, Duncan introduced Ruffin at a news conference, tasking him with restarting a program that has been dormant since 1962.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Duncan said of Saturday’s contest. “It’s extremely gratifying.”
School officials say their records on the football program date back to 1924, but a Nov. 22, 1903, story in The Augusta Chronicle refers to a football game between Paine and the Forest City Athletic Club of Savannah.
The program fell on hard times in the 1950s. From 1955 to 1961, the team failed to win a game.
This summer, Ruffin filled out his coaching staff, bringing in Edwin Bailey, who played left guard for the Seattle Seahawks for 11 seasons; and Coco Hillary, who hauled in a 24-yard pass to set up Appalachian State University’s game-winning field goal to upset the University of Michigan in 2007.
Ruffin transformed the former Wife Saver building on the corner of Laney-Walker Boulevard and 15th Street into a weight room and instituted an early-morning schedule for his players. When the players began conditioning in August, they started at 5 a.m.
“Like my drill sergeant said, it’s mind over matter: I don’t mind, and you don’t matter,” said Ruffin, who served in the National Guard for nine years.
Ruffin said the return of football is rejuvenating the school’s students, alumni and fans. Sometimes, he said, the college president, a former football player, will walk from his home to watch practice.
Ruffin said he understands there’s a perception in the community about the sport being expensive. With coaching salaries and the cost of footballs, jerseys and pads, Ruffin said it takes a little less than $1 million to run the football program.
“When you say football to the average person they think it’s going to cost millions, but it don’t,” Ruffin said. “This isn’t Georgia. This isn’t Georgia Southern. It doesn’t cost as much as people think. The costs are minimal to what the perception is.”
Ruffin brought in 161 players this fall to start the program, though he made cuts and trimmed the roster to 131; 89 will be in uniform Saturday. Duncan said the new players helped enrollment increase 11 percent for the 2013-14 year.
With yearly tuition, room, board and fees running almost $20,000, Paine brought in more than $3 million, Duncan said. He echoed Ruffin’s statement that the program costs a little less than $1 million, and said that even with operating expenses and 28 scholarships to the tune of about $600,000, Paine still comes out ahead.
“The college will receive a nice boost,” Duncan said. “You see a lot of small, private institutions who are starting football to help the enrollment and help with weekend activities for students.”
The Lions started football activities Aug. 26. Since then, the team has been working toward its first game. The team will be led by quarterback Loranzo Hammonds, a former North Augusta High School standout who transferred from Florida International University. As a senior in 2010, Hammonds was named The Augusta Chronicle’s South Carolina high school football player of the year after throwing for 2,446 yards and 21 touchdowns with a 71.6 percent completion rate. Hammonds also rushed for 652 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Word of mouth has spread about Augusta getting college football, and 247 athletes showed up for a tryout in May.
“It’s an up-and-coming program,” cornerback Andreus Warthen said. “They’re just getting started. They’re looking for athletes to play ball.”
Paine will spend this season as a club team before making the transition next year to play in the Division II’s Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. But that doesn’t mean this is a wasted year.
“We’re using this year to gain momentum going into our first game” in 2014, Wright said. “We’re going to see how we stack up against other teams. I believe we’re going to go 4-0 in these games. We have a relatively good team.”