High school football powers don’t materialize overnight.

But a new central Ohio program with an ambitious schedule and the financial backing of a national organization is trying to accomplish just that. 

At the beginning of August, Christians of Faith Academy, known as COF Academy, did not have a school building, a working website, an identifiable academic structure, an announced home field or a released roster, to name just a few missing essentials, but it was scheduled to play one of Ohio’s most daunting high school football schedules beginning in just a few days.

The schedule includes such traditional Ohio powers as Huber Heights Wayne, Cleveland St. Ignatius and Lakewood St. Edward, and such major out-of-state programs as North Allegheny in Wexford, Pennsylvania, and IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. The team has 12 games, two more than allowed by the Ohio High School Athletic Association.

The first matchup, a home game against Football North of Ontario, is scheduled for Friday, Aug. 17. (Most Ohio football teams begin their regular seasons Aug. 23 or 24.) As of Aug. 6, no location had been announced for any of the team’s four home games.

Outside the schedule, it has not been easy to gather information about COF Academy.

The school has no functional website, but a cached version of the cof.academy domain reveals it once did. That domain now goes to a basic “under construction” WordPress page.

The site also listed a local number, 614-934-1790, that led to a person who directed anyone with COF Academy questions to a different line, which went straight to a full voicemail box.

On a second attempt, the woman who directed the call said she worked for an answering service and was not affiliated with COF Academy.

“I have no idea what they do,” she said.

So how does COF Academy plan to field a football team by next week? And how will its success or failure at doing so affect Ohio’s high school football landscape?

Some of the answers create more questions.

The ‘face’

Roy Johnson, listed as the athletics director for COF Academy in multiple places online, was the first person affiliated with the school to reach out after numerous requests for interviews.

However, in late July, with the first scheduled game less than a month away, it was probably time to do so, Johnson said.

“It’s not that I want to necessarily keep it quiet,” he said. “But we’re going to stick out like a sore thumb because we took such a big schedule.”

Despite “athletic director” appearing with his name in multiple locations, Johnson said, he actually is the business-development director for the Richard Allen Group, the financial arm of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, a nationwide organization with millions of members.

He said he is acting as a spokesman for and face of COF Academy.

The AME Church has multiple locations in Columbus and central Ohio, but none specifically are affiliated with the school.

COF Academy, Johnson said, is a new model for AME. It’s a school that doesn’t receive tax funds from the state and can play by its own rules while still providing a “Christian education,” and, as a bonus, it can compete for football titles.

Brittany Halpin, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Education, confirmed that the school is registered with the state.

She said COF Academy is classified as a noncharter school not supported by taxes, sometimes known as an “08” school in reference to its section in the Ohio Administrative Code. That designation is reserved for schools that need to operate outside the usual structure because of “truly held religious beliefs.”

The “08” schools are not chartered by Ohio and are not subject to many of the state’s rules on schooling, though they must submit attendance figures and “a report to parents that the school meets the Ohio Operating Standards” each year, according to the ODE website.

Johnson said COF Academy will have about 500 students enrolled this fall at the boys-only school.

He said the school’s enrollment isn’t finalized and many of those students would come through AME’s network, moving from inner cities or other bad situations. He said they would be looking for “opportunity” at the school, which would field a football team this year and a basketball team in the future.

“This is a passion project,” he said. “For the AME church, this wasn’t a make-money project.”

Though the church would bankroll most of the operating expenses, Johnson said, students will be charged tuition, though financial aid would be available. He did not specify the tuition amount.

For that reason, Johnson said, the school’s “08” status is doing a favor to the communities of the students by not taking state funding that could be used toward other schools.

“We could get a charter overnight,” he said. “Why wouldn’t we take a charter, take 500 students and take $12,000 per student? Why wouldn’t we take the money?

“Instead of taking funding from students we’re trying to help, we said, ‘Look, let’s keep this in-house and budget and fund it on our own.’ ”

Johnson said the school is considering holding classes at two sites, which he declined to specify, but has yet to sign a contract. He said the school is still in open enrollment, which will close Tuesday, Aug. 14.

It’s unlikely, he said, that a contract would be completed before Sept. 1, with a Sept. 4 target date for the first day of classes.

“I just want to make sure we know the exact number of students we have before we sign (for a space),” he said.

In the future, he said, the school has plans for a large campus near Easton Town Center, with construction funded by AME.

The site, which is slated to be ready for next school year, is at 6300 Codet Road in Columbus, according to Johnson. The address is off Stelzer Road, a few miles southeast of Easton.

In addition, Johnson said, the diplomas the school would offer will be no different from any other school, and all COF Academy classes would abide by state rules.

ThisWeek learned Aug. 6 that COF Academy has partnered with Edmentum, a Minnesota-based education company that specializes in “adaptive curriculum, assessments and practice proven to improve student achievement” and also provides online learning programs.

Edmentum, through its EdOptions Academy online program, will develop the school’s curriculum and provide software, a course catalog and other services, according to COF Academy.

Melissa Rager, a consultant with Edmentum, said the programs are certified with the state of Ohio and the NCAA, and diplomas that would be issued by Edmentum would function exactly like other Ohio diplomas.

“We are considered an accredited institution; we’re essentially a private school,” she said. “Same with the NCAA, which is actually harder to do than the diploma piece. And that’s why we’re different – we’re a diploma-granting institution. If students go to COF, they have the ability to go to the military, a four-year-school, a trade school.”

Johnson said COF Academy has hired about 50 teachers to teach Edmentum’s curriculum at one of the spaces the school eventually leases. He said the goal is to have one Ohio-certified teacher for every 10 students.

The coach

COF Academy’s complex road toward becoming a school has been mirrored by the assembly of its football team.

The team is led by head coach Paul Williams, a former all-conference defensive back at Urbana University who spent 13 years as an assistant coach at Ohio Wesleyan University. In between stints at Wesleyan, he worked as an assistant coach of multiple arena football teams and helped start a football program in Kuwait.

His head coaching job at COF Academy would be his first in at the high school level.

Williams said he was approached by COF Academy leaders in the spring, and he initially was not interested in the job.

But eventually, he said, the school’s pitch sold him. He said he thought he could “really help young men” during an important time in their lives and he thought the goals of the school could be successful.

Williams’ goals, which were echoed by Johnson, are to get students to college through a football scholarship or with a diploma. Williams and Johnson said many of the students enrolled at COF Academy will come from troubled home situations, have dropped out of school before or might be at risk to fall behind.

Ultimately, Williams said, the idea of focusing on “what’s best for kids” won him over.

“It’s so crazy, it just might work,” he said.

By the team’s first game, Williams said, he expects to have about 50 players. Williams and Johnson have declined to release the squad’s roster.

Johnson said the team mostly will practice at an indoor facility, SuperKick Columbus at 409 Orange Point Drive in Lewis Center, though he expects occasionally to practice outside at sites in Columbus and Delaware.

The team practiced Aug. 6 at Stratford Woods Park off Hawthorn Boulevard and Liberty Road in Delaware.

Williams said he did “a lot of research” looking for players who “fit the program we’re trying to have here” and the team’s schedule – which was established long before his team formed – helped attract many of them.

Another big draw, Johnson and Williams said, is some former Ohio State University players are involved – namely former wide receiver Jeff Greene and former defensive end Jay Richardson – along with Josh Harris, a Westerville North graduate who played at Bowling Green State University and in the NFL.

“Once our schedule went up, calls were coming; kids were calling,” Williams said.

Multiple central Ohio coaches have suggested COF Academy isn’t taking a passive approach to acquiring players, and OHSAA official Beau Rugg said the organization was aware of potential accusations about recruiting players. However, because COF Academy isn’t a member of OHSAA – and hasn’t yet applied to be, according to Rugg – it would not be subject to any such complaints at this time.

The issue of recruiting players, including why some local coaches have complained and how Johnson and Williams gave ThisWeek different responses concerning the rumors, will be the subject of a future story.

The schedule

Because of its schedule, COF Academy does not exist in a vacuum.

By scheduling powerhouses from Ohio and beyond, COF Academy has involved itself in the broader Ohio high school football picture, and the implications of its future will affect far more than those running and attending COF Academy.

For example, the school needs to become a member of OHSAA, but an OHSAA official told ThisWeek the organization hasn’t heard from COF Academy in months.

The OHSAA is the broad governing body of Ohio high school football and several other sports. Each year, the OHSAA football playoffs and state championship games are held to determine winners of each of Ohio’s seven divisions.

To be part of the playoffs, teams must be OHSAA members.

For COF Academy to join, it would need to verify that it is, in fact, an educational facility, that its students are under the age of 20 and that its enrollment matches what it has reported, according to OHSAA guidelines.

Rugg, OHSAA’s director of officiating and sport management, said he understands COF Academy is facing “a lot of obstacles and challenges,” but he is “not real sure” why OHSAA hasn’t heard a word from them in months.

“They seem to communicate with individual schools all the time, and they won’t communicate with us,” he said. “I’ll talk to one of our member schools on their schedule and they’ll say, ‘Oh, yeah, we just talked to them today,’ while we’re trying to get a hold of them to get information. I’m not sure what to make of that.”

Rugg said OHSAA officials sent the school an email, one of multiple forms of communication the organization attempted, detailing it had to provide all the needed information by their first game against an Ohio team – a Aug. 31 trip to Wayne High School in Huber Heights – in order to be part of OHSAA for the 2018 season.

As of Aug. 6, Rugg said, OHSAA officials had not heard anything from COF Academy.

In his time with the organization – about seven years – Rugg never has seen a last-minute approach like this, he said.

“I haven’t been here as long as some others, but I haven’t seen it,” he said. “We’ve been chasing down (other things) this late, but that’s more for getting schools or associations to get back with us and let us know. It’s not like they’re forming a school.”

For OHSAA to make COF Academy a member, Rugg said, it would need to verify enrollment. If classes don’t begin until Sept. 4, after the Aug. 31 deadline, he said he is not sure how that would happen.

Rugg said “the bottom line” is that any new member school has to follow “all regulations.”

He said he believes it would be “a long road” for COF Academy officials to “adjust what they’re doing” and become members.

Johnson said “of course” he was worried about being an OHSAA school, but he is not sure if it would be a major issue for COF Academy’s first year.

“I don’t know if it would be a big problem,” he said. “We’ll go and say, ‘This is what we are; this is what we do.’ ... We’ll just answer questions honestly and try to move forward.”

It would, however, be a noteworthy change for the schools COF Academy plays.

To make OHSAA’s playoffs, teams are scored on a points scale. Beating teams in higher divisions is worth more points than lower divisions. OHSAA officials research out-of-state programs’ enrollment to give them a score, and teams not recognized by OHSAA don’t factor in at all, according to Rugg and the OHSAA website.

St. Ignatius athletics director Rory Fitzpatrick said scheduling COF Academy was “a leap of faith.” But St. Ignatius is a Jesuit school, and he could imagine the difficulty of starting a private school, he said.

Because of St. Ignatius’ stature, Fitzpatrick said, the team struggles to fill out its schedule each season, and the promise of COF Academy being a Division I or II school was appealing to a team looking for as many points as possible.

According to OHSAA bylaws, enrollment required for each division changes per year. In the most recent divisional breakdown, an “adjusted enrollment” of 617 or more qualified for Division I, while 390 to 616 students was Division II.

Now, Fitzpatrick said, he still doesn’t know where the teams will play when COF Academy plays host to St. Ignatius.

He also said the prospect of COF Academy not being OHSAA-certified is worrying. Even if it had only enough students to be a Division IV or V school, Fitzpatrick said, he would prefer it be an official game.

“I would rather play them as an OHSAA school; that would be my preference. No question,” he said. “There’s a level of credibility there, a level of organization. There are certain thresholds, certain things you have to get done.

“I trust how the OHSAA administrates football, and if they’re in the realm of the OHSAA, it makes everything easier.”

Johnson said he doesn’t know how conversations will go with the OHSAA, and he does not know how the year will unfold for COF Academy.

But, he said, he knows “everything we do will be under the microscope.”

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