Sunday, January 10, 2010
THE FACE OF THE RED & BLACK
THE FACE OF THE RED & BLACK
SEMIPRO AND PROUD: Through good times and bad, Ashcraft remains devoted
By MATT CORDOVA
SUNDAY, JANUARY 10, 2010
George Ashcraft has a vision. Call it a premonition for the perfect summer weekend.
He and his wife, Diana, walk to the garage, hop on the new motorcycle, and drive away. Without a watch. The cell phone and clipboard stay at home.
The veteran semipro football coach might as well be looking at this scene through a crystal ball, because the day such a scenario comes to fruition will likely be later than sooner. Someday, Ashcraft might get a Saturday night free. If he allows it.
The brand new Harley-Davidson Diana gave her husband just two weeks ago for Christmas looks nice parked next to his 1980 Corvette. But these summertime toys must wait their turn to come out of the garage and play.
Their owner's summers — his life — are consumed by something else.
The Watertown Red and Black.
Ashcraft, 53, is approaching his 20th season as head coach of the nation's oldest semiprofessional club. And, at the moment, is leading the organization's laborious fund-raising efforts for its trip to Florida for a national tournament game on Jan. 17.
To say he has become the face of the franchise, and his family the foundation, would be stating it perfectly. Son, Troy, plays the music at the games, while Diana and daughter, Sandy, take care of the finishing touches on the program.
It truly has become a family operation.
On the field, the team has enjoyed good seasons under the coach's guidance, and some that could have been better.
But his demeanor has remained constant for the better part of the past two decades. Even when times were bad, like two years ago when accusations swirled over alleged misdoing.
Or when times were better than ever, like in October, when the Red and Black captured its first Empire Football League championship since 1980.
Ashcraft simply enjoys running the organization. Win or lose, he doesn't wear his heart on his sleeve. Instead, he wears itunderhis sleeve.
"I just couldn't imagine not being around it," Ashcraft said. "I got a tattoo on my arm that kind of branded me in 2002. Because I believe in it."
Likely more than any coach before him ever has.
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Ashcraft graduated in 1973 from Carthage High School. He was a lineman on the football team, but wrestling was his first love and he enjoyed an unbeaten senior season before losing in the Section 3 tournament.
That was the same summer his connection to the Red and Black began. Ashcraft played for two full seasons before he suffered a career-ending broken leg in 1975. He never played another snap, but his bond to the team had been cemented.
He became addicted to the crowds at Watertown High School, as thousands of fans used to pack the stands for Saturday night games. And he was mesmerized by the community's connection to what was, except for high school sports, the only game in town.
"From 1976, my wife and I never missed a home game. It didn't matter what was going on Saturday night. For me, it was exciting. I loved to be a part of it," he said.
After the title year in '80, the Ashcrafts had their pick of seats in the bleachers, he said, as fan support dwindled.
Perhaps the team's performance on the field had something to do with the stands being empty.
From 1981-90, under six different head coaches, the Red and Black put together a less than respectable 36-73-1 record.
Ashcraft joined the staff in 1989 as a defensive coordinator, and in 1991 was promoted to head coach.
Consistent leadership may have been exactly what the squad needed. Since his takeover, the Red and Black has endured just four sub.-500 campaigns. Ashcraft's career record is 150-81-1.
Ashcraft coached high school and peewee wrestling for over 20 years, too. But make no mistake, his likeness has become as synonymous with the Red and Black as the lightning bolt depicted on his arm.
"Without him, there would be no Red and Black," defensive coordinator Rich Potter said. "He and his family, they've become a Watertown icon."
Ashcraft never expected such a long tenure, but now can't predict when it may end.
If some people in town would have had their way, however, he would have been out two years ago.
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The most trying time of Ashcrafts career was in early 2008, when a dispute arose over the Red and Black name. It was probably the worst possible time such a controversy could have surfaced, because 2007 was difficult enough for the R&B organization.
Defensive coordinator Dave Connell was killed in action in Iraq, and, a few months later, then team president Rob Freeman's wife, Heather, was killed in a motorcycle accident.
To ad to the team's real-life sorrows, it lost a heartbreaking championship game to the Vermont Ice Storm, 9-8. It was a difficult end to a tough year, but the team's hopes for brighter days went unanswered in the coming months.
Local business owner, Tom Shultz, contended that Ashcraft had signed over ownership of the team following the 2006 season. Whatever deal they reached, though, went bad, and both sides claimed to be "the Red and Black."
A legal battle ensued, and on March 7, 2008, a state supreme court judge ruled, on a technicality, when, according to Times' archives, Shultz's attorney failed to appear in court, that the "original" team would retain rights to the name.
Shultz eventually formed his own squad, the Watertown Revolution, and about 30 of Ashcraft's former players joined him.
That's when things got ugly. And personal.
Ashcraft was the target.
Most of the talk about Ashcraft's mismanagement of the Red and Black revolved around his handling of the team's financial affairs. Such conversations in this proud semipro football city, whose talent pool would be split between two groups, were shared all over town.
But it wasn't just talk on the street. Shultz voiced his concerns in a public forum, seeming to indirectly accuse Ashcraft of pocketing money from the franchise.
"The money is going somewhere," he said May 8, 2008 during an interview on a local radio show on WATN-AM 1240 . "I don't know if it's tied up in his Corvette. Tied up in his motorcycle. Tied up in his new truck. I don't know where the money is."
Shultz even appealed to Freeman during the same interview, on the condition that Ashcraft not be included, that the two join forces to keep just one team in Watertown.
But according to Red and Black team treasurer John Ramos, accusations of thievery seemed like "they came way out of left field."
Both Ashcraft and his wife work to maintain their household. He at the Fairgrounds YMCA, and she at Fort Drum. Stealing from an organization that he had worked so hard and so long to build and promote seemed self-destructive. But also, according to the Red and Black, the insinuations were simply untrue.
"We had no concerns whatsoever," Ramos said.
Still, after the stress, heartbreak and anger the situation caused, George's family began to think that, maybe, his departure might be a good idea.
"I was like, 'maybe it's time to be done, dad,'" Troy Ashcraft said. "'Maybe you don't have to go through all this.'"
"He was quite upset. If any of it was true, he probably wouldn't have cared. But everything that was brought to the table was all lies."
The whole time, the board and the players who stayed behind supported the team's longest-ever tenured coach.
"It doesn't matter what organization you belong to, accusations pop up. It will probably happen again. So what? We keep all the records," Ramos said. "What was said was completely unfair and wrong."
Quarterback Brian Williams, who joined the team in 2005, echoed Ramos's thoughts.
"I know he felt like he needed to defend himself to us," Williams said. "He didn't have to. I know he was hurt by it, and not just angry. I felt bad he had to untarnish his name. I hope he knew that a majority of the players never needed an explanation."
Ashcraft, though, never considered leaving. "That made me stronger," he said.
He said he's always been accountable to the people and organizations that operate and support the team.
A look at the team program suggests that sponsors weren't turned off, either, as most have bought ads consistently through the years. The continued patronage was the biggest vote of confidence Ashcraft could have received.
"Anybody that's ever asked me since 1990, when I got on the board, to show them what it's for, I do," the coach said. "I will show them on a piece of paper where their money went."
The controversy did have a heavy price, though. Hard feelings lingered. Only about seven players who left in '08, returned for the '09 championship run.
"That's sad," Ashcraft said.
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Ashcraft doesn't call too many plays anymore.
Instead, he surrounds himself with competent enough assistant coaches and players so that he doesn't have to worry as much about on-field strategy.
Such delegation is one way for Ashcraft to share with others the running of the team. Plus, it's proven to be an effective approach as the team won less than nine games in only two seasons this decade.
"He gives us free reign to do what we want. He'll tell you, he's more of an organizer than an 'X and O' guy," Potter said. "He pretty much leaves the assistants to run practice and basically call our own games."
Most of Ashcraft's efforts now focus on administration and fund raising. Phone calls and meetings take up most of the offseason.
And once a season ends, January arrives quickly. That's when a bulk of the team's bills become due. When insurance, league fees and footballs must be purchased.
The team operates on a yearly budget of $35,000-$40,000, Ashcraft said.
But this year, because of the team's league title, 2009 hasn't yet officially concluded.
He's spent the most of his time recently organizing a bowl-a-thon, a spaghetti dinner, and other events, to raise money for the upcoming trip to play the Carolina Express in the Orange Blossom Bowl.
Ashcraft said it was important for the team to go because it is something they qualified to do by winning the EFL title.
But the trip won't be cheap.
Williams said the players are responsible only for transportation costs, and that once there, meals and lodging will be paid for by the Red and Black.
Long before Ashcraft took charge, the Red and Black organization made it a priority to bear the financial burden for fielding a team.
Red and Black players don't have to buy shoulder pads or helmets. And they don't have to invest in uniforms or transportation to road games, either. They each must only buy their own cleats.
"If you can pay your bills at the end of the year, you've done your part in semipro football," Ashcraft said. "For the ones that say you can make money, they may be lining their pockets because the players are paying for everything."
Ashcraft said one of his first mistakes as head coach was to take 50 helmets to be reconditioned, only to not get any back because they were all more than five years old. He trembled when he had to inform the board, but the team still replaced them.
It's part of what makes the Red and Black unique, Ramos and Ashcraft, both former players, believe. To avoid similar situations, Ashcraft now earmarks money every year to purchase a few helmets, sets of shoulder pads, jerseys, etc. Just in case.
The players appreciate it.
"The fact that everything is provided allows us to focus on football. For many of us, if there was a financial requirement, we probably wouldn't be able to play," Williams said. "We all have families and are trying to make a living."
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To sum it all up, the Ashcrafts' free time from May through November is spent on football. No matter what.
Sandy, got married on a summer Saturday in 1992, but when the team lined up for 7:30 p.m. kickoff, there was George, on the sideline in his R&B gear.
"I may have witnessed maybe four summer weddings in the past 25 years," Ashcraft said. "We give up a lot of fun, but I couldn't imagine not doing it."
He said it's worth the sacrifice, though, to have forged the lifelong personal relationships he's sustained because of this storied football team.
"I can say George is a friend of mine, as much as a coach," Williams said.
A phone call from a deployed soldier, and an e-mail from a player who hasn't suited up in a decade assure Ashcraft he did at least a few things right.
But he has other goals, too. Now that the team has finally won a championship, one of Ashcraft's biggest endeavors is to find a home for the team's Hall of Fame.
It left its spot in the Salmon Run Mall a few years ago, and now those artifacts of the past 113 years sit in storage. Some are in a room in Ashcraft's house, but, he believes they deserve a permanent home. And, contrary to what some may believe, he knows the Red and Black isn't just his team.
"It would make all these things more real for people," he said. "And that's going back to the tradition of this team."
That's what keeps him coming back year after year.