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Thursday, June 20, 2024

Edward Waters is diligently melding academic growth with athletics

Jacksonville, FL–Over the last several years, in the broad scope of athletics, Edward Waters College was an afterthought.  Competing in the NAIA and having marginal success, the Tigers were not what many would consider an A-list HBCU. In fact the last winning season the football team had prior to last year’s success was 2004…nearly 20 years ago.

In 2018, the board of trustees of Edward Waters College made a bold move.  They unanimously chose a 37-year-old to lead the school.  While young in age, his experience was just what the doctor ordered for the small AME school on the north side of Jacksonville, Fla. New president Dr. A. Zachary Faison, Jr. came in with experience in the hot key issues for HBCUs which are retention and fundraising.

EWU's 30th President Dr. A Zachary Faison, Jr.EWU's 30th President Dr. A Zachary Faison, Jr.
EWU’s 30th President Dr. A Zachary Faison, Jr.

His career is littered with experience from HBCUs, with varied levels of involvement.  He is a graduate of Albany State University, where he attained his undergraduate degree.  He is also a graduate of the University of Georgia where he earned his juris doctorate.  From there he became board certified in the state of Georgia.

Faison has a vast array of experience at HBCUs

His career began at Tuskegee, where he was general council and vice president of external affairs.  His journey also took him to Virginia Union University as vice president of enrollment and student affairs.  From there, he would venture to Ita Bena, MS to serve as vice president of the Mississippi Valley State University Foundation.  There he would oversee nearly $25 million raised for the school.

He came to Edward Waters with a vision…to elevate the university through a combination of solid academic processes and athletics success.

“When we came to the institution in 2018, we began to chart our path comprehensively as an institution,” said Faison.  “From our perspective and conversations with our board and community, we felt we really had a potential niche in utilizing athletics to grow the brand of our institution to increase enrollment; using those revenues to help launch additional academic programs and grow the overall depth and breadth of the institution.”

EWU moved from NAIA to NCAA D-II in 2021

Things began to change in short order.  Led by Faison, Edward Waters would announce in 2021 that EWU was provisionally moving up to NCAA D-II in athletics.  It was the first time in the 155-year history of the school that it had participated at the NCAA level.  On the same day of the public announcement, it was revealed that the Tigers would rejoin the SIAC.  They were members previously in the conference from 1930-1935, before the conference migrated to D-II status in the NCAA.

In a grand announcement, the purple and orange had regained relevance on a national scale like never before.  Not discounting any of the successes of the school previously, but this was a major step into growth for both the athletic department and the university.

Long seen as the little school in Jacksonville, it began to stretch its wings and tiers began to be climbed.  A major renovation to the school’s on-campus football facility was a big piece of the turning point.  The turf field, new grandstands, new press box, and pristine president’s box where he entertains donors during football games grew an exciting game day environment.

In 2021, Faison made the choice to bring in Toriano Morgan to lead the Tiger football team.  Morgan would add well-known veteran coach Brian Jenkins to his staff as offensive coordinator.  The team had struggled mightily even on the NAIA level.  Being reintroduced to the SIAC and introduced to Division-II was a smooth transition for Morgan and his staff.

Academics-wise, the university made a leap in 2021 as well.  Edward Waters College became Edward Waters University.  It was a galactic leap for the school.  Since then, the school’s popularity has skyrocketed.  EWU is now the fastest-growing HBCU in the state of Florida and one of the fastest growing in the country.

Edward Waters football game.Edward Waters football game.
EWU football versus Albany State

In 2021 the Tiger football team would finish at 4-7, going 3-7 in conference play.  In 2022 the team saw marginal improvement and ended the season at 5-6, but more importantly 4-4 in SIAC play.  This was the indicator that the program was moving forward.  In 2023, the team had its first winning season in quite some time, going 6-4 for the season and 5-3 in SIAC play.  The two signature wins for the team in 2023 were the upset of Tuskegee at “The Shed” for its homecoming and an exciting last-play defeat of eventual SIAC runners-up Albany State in Jacksonville.

2024 could be a big year for EWU as its three-year probationary status as a member of the SIAC is to be evaluated.  It could result in the dropping of the provisional membership, adding them as a fully-authorized member in one of the big four HBCU conferences.  With the success of the programs and the growth in the image of the school, barring something unforeseen they are expected to be fully admitted.

Not only are the football facilities improving, the school has made a marked investment into its student-athletes.  Additionally, Faison is exceptionally proud of his director of athletics, whom he credits with forging the department forward.  

Faison and Rich peer out from the HBCU president's box of the stadium at Edward Waters.Faison and Rich peer out from the HBCU president's box of the stadium at Edward Waters.
Faison and Rich peer out from the president’s box of the stadium

“I truly believe there has to be a symbiotic synergy between the president and the athletic director.  I selfishly believe I have the best associate vice president and director of athletics in the country here in Dr. Ivana Rich.  The job that she has done to come in and continue this vision…she has come and not only fit in, but taken things to a higher level,” Faison said.

The facilities upgrades at the school include a dedicated student-athlete academic center and a health and wellness center that has expanded the weight room, medical treatment apparatus, and contains a nutrition center.  Edward Waters is certainly in unchartered territory at the time and judging from Faison’s vision and drive, this is just the beginning.

EWU Academic Success center at the Florida HBCU.EWU Academic Success center at the Florida HBCU.
EWU Academic Success center

“As we looked around geographically, we’re sitting right in the footprint within a five-hour radius of 90-percent of the institutions that are in the SIAC,” Faison said.  We were in a good conference in the GCAC, but you didn’t get the same kind of HBCU experience that our students wanted, our alumni wanted, our city wanted.  It made a lot of sense for us, when you’ve got Savannah (GA) an hour-and-a-half away…we needed to make sure that our brand became synonymous with the brands of those institutions (in the SIAC).”  

HBCU Gameday is producing a special for each week in June called “Florida’s Four HBCUs,” where we sit down with each HBCU president in the state of Florida (B-CU, Edward Waters, Florida A&M, and Florida Memorial). Please be on the lookout for those broadcasts as you will hear more of the story from EWU President Dr. A. Zachary Faison.

Edward Waters is diligently melding academic growth with athletics

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