When the founders of Ensworth High School first assembled in 2002, Ricky Bowers was asked how long it would take to create a successful athletic program.
“I thought it would take five years with the right ingredients,” Bowers said.
It was a bold statement considering the school would not open for two more years, but Bowers quickly has built an athletic powerhouse in his role as athletic director.
As the first games of the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association football season are played a week from tonight, the Tigers will start work on winning their fourth consecutive Division II-AA title in football. Ensworth also has won four of the last five state titles in boys basketball and three girls basketball titles. Much of that success was under Bowers’ leadership as football and boys basketball coach.
Ensworth has changed high school sports in the Nashville area, building the best facilities, hiring the best coaches, attracting some of the best athletes and winning the titles that used to go to other Midstate private schools.
The Tigers have done all this without recruiting or academic violations with the TSSAA, according to Executive Director Bernard Childress.
And while there are some hard feelings at the public schools that have lost players to Ensworth, it’s hard to find someone who will criticize the program publicly. Instead there is plenty of admiration.
“Early on, with the commitment (Ensworth) made to their facilities and their coaching staff, you could tell (success) was a priority, but it did happen kind of meteorically,” Brentwood boys basketball coach Dennis King said. “After about two or three years they were competing at the highest level. Success breeds success, and once you get a core of kids in there that win, the word spreads and other people want to be a part of it.
“They cut no corners in seeking excellence. It is the most impressive campus I’ve ever been on, and they decided to do everything first class from academics to athletics. It’s a remarkable system of success, and pretty much the envy of everybody in the Midstate.”
Ensworth’s campus has the feel of a small Ivy League college, complete with a brick clock tower in the courtyard.
All students have access to a 10,000-square-foot fitness center. A natatorium with a 50-meter, 10-lane swimming pool opened in January. The football field has a video screen that shows a live feed of the game, instant replay and slideshows. Everything is state of the art.
Ensworth opened as a pre-first through eighth-grade school in 1958 in the West End/Saint Thomas neighborhood. The board of trustees voted in 2002 to add a high school campus in Bellevue.
One reason was that Tommy Frist, then a member of Montgomery Bell Academy’s board of trustees, tried unsuccessfully to make the all-boys school coeducational in 2001.
Now he has eight grandchildren at Ensworth from pre-first through 12th grade and is one of the school’s biggest benefactors.
“In my business career I saw the world changing, and women were taking more and more leadership roles in the workplace, and I just felt that it was time to have a superb coed school,” said Frist, co-founder of Hospital Corporation of America. “But thank goodness I was not able to accomplish that (at MBA) because you need choices in the community, and there’s a role for single-sex schools and coed schools.”
Townes Duncan, president of the board from 2000 to 2006, said the school put a priority on hiring the best possible people in every aspect.
“I think we were very fortunate in the athletic director from a sports standpoint that Ricky expressed interest in joining,” Duncan said. “Ricky is the key figure in what’s happened out there. He is as good a teacher and coach as I have personally encountered. Ricky gets a lot of criticism. Mostly, I think it’s out of jealousy.”
Bowers left an established program at Montgomery Bell Academy to start the high school from scratch. He was the football and basketball coach at MBA from 1992 to 2001,winning three state titles in each sport.
“It was a challenge because everybody was going, ‘What are you thinking?’ because there wasn’t anything here,” Bowers said. “Now that it’s built I think people go, ‘Oh, OK, I get it.’ I think any time you start something from scratch there’s a little risk to it.”
The campus was built on the 26-acre Devon Farm off Highway 100 in Bellevue. The school borrowed $39 million to begin construction in 2002.
The Bowers effect
Frist believes Bowers is the main reason Ensworth has been so successful athletically.
“Ricky Bowers — he’s a Pied Piper,” Frist said. “He’s the greatest. Not only in just coaching, but he teaches great values to the kids. He’s a winner.”
Former TSSAA Executive Director Ronnie Carter agrees.
“I’m not surprised they’ve done well, and the reason I’m not is because of Ricky,” Carter said. “Anywhere Ricky is they’re going to do well. He’s just got all the qualities you look for in an outstanding coach, and he’s an outstanding leader.”
Bowers was an all-city football, basketball and baseball player at MBA. He went on to play basketball for Don Meyer at Lipscomb.
“He was ferocious (as a player),” said Meyer, who retired as one of college basketball’s winningest coaches with 923 victories. “He’s a multitasker and he has skills in a lot of different areas. He could do about whatever he wanted to do.
“I think you have to call him a great coach to win (13) state championships — (seven) at a relatively new school. If I was capable of adding somebody to my staff, I’d add Ricky in a second. That tells you all I need to say.”
Bowers has a 153-29 career record in football for an .841 winning percentage. He is 386-129 (.750) in basketball.
He played football for Tommy Owen, a coaching legend at MBA. Later, he was an assistant under Lipscomb Academy’s Glenn McCadams (319 career wins) in 1985 and Carlton Flatt (No. 2 in the state in wins with 355) at Brentwood Academy during 1986-90.
“I played under Ricky Bowers, and I know a lot of people over there that are around the athletics program,” said Barton Simmons, a 247Sports.com national recruiting football analyst who played at MBA. “They’re just a group that knows how to win, and Coach Bowers knows how to build a program. He sees the big picture, but he doesn’t lose sight of the details.”
Jerry Meyer, a 247Sports.com national recruiting basketball analyst, was an assistant under Bowers at MBA.
“I watched Ricky play for my dad (Don) when he was in college, and he’s had success in everything he’s done in athletics,” Jerry Meyer said. “He’s extremely smart and extremely competitive. He knows how to manage people, and I think he learned a lot playing for my dad.”
Bowers had concerns over whether students would want to attend the new school.
Among the 82 freshmen in the first class in 2004 was lineman Kevin McDermott, who went on to play for UCLA before signing as a free-agent long snapper with San Francisco in April.
He intended to go to MBA, but changed his mind.
“Those (82) of us who made the decision to go there — it was pretty much a leap of faith,” McDermott said. “The buildings weren’t even finished when we started our first day at camp at school my freshman year, but we all kind of wanted to try something new and be a part of the first class there, and it worked out.”
The 2004 team used a utility closet as its locker room as construction crews finished work on the athletic building. But the facilities quickly developed to a top-level status.
“I think, compared to other high schools, you’re really not going to find much better facilities particularly when you’re talking about the weight room,” Simmons said. “You could compare that weight room to most college programs, and I would include (major college) programs. They’ve got great basketball facilities. Their football stadium is smaller because they don’t really need a bigger stadium just yet.”
“Their facilities are on par with a lot of colleges around the country. Obviously, they’re not on an SEC or a (major college) level, but I think you can absolutely put them up against a lot of Division I-AA and Division II programs and things of that nature.”
In terms of facilities, Ensworth has done in 10 years what it took Brentwood Academy more than 40 years to do.
“They’ve got really good coaches, facilities and finances,” said Flatt, who won 10 state football titles at BA before retiring in 2006. “Ensworth has the things that Ricky needs. I think facility-wise they had a lot of things that we never had when we got started. When we first got started we didn’t have a field, we didn’t have a gymnasium, we had no cafeteria, we didn’t have anything. It took us a while to get it there.”
Tennessee offensive tackle Antonio Richardson, who left Mt. Pleasant in Maury County to play at Ensworth in 2009-10, believes the formula for the Tigers’ success is a combination of good coaching, athletes and facilities.
“Everything has to come together from the coaching to the players and, of course, (Ensworth) has the training facility, which is a plus for all the young players,” Richardson said. “I know for me it was a big part of my development when I was there, getting in that weight room — coaches critiquing me on what I needed to get better at.”
Giles County football coach Walt Smith has lost two standouts to Ensworth: Rico McGraw with the Bobcats and Richardson when he coached Mt. Pleasant. McGraw, a junior defensive back, has five offers, including Alabama and Miami.
“A kid sees all the facilities that (Ensworth) has and all the (athletic) trips that they’re taking, and it’s definitely a big draw for them,” Smith said. “It’s definitely hard for the public schools to compete with stuff like that.”
Battle Ground Academy coach Roc Batten, a former Ensworth defensive coordinator, is surprised at how dominant the Tigers have become in football and basketball.
“In the 2005 season we ended up playing Brentwood Academy in a game, and we were basically a JV program at the time, and they had major DI players and they mopped the floor with us,” Batten said. “That was a humbling experience for those kids.”
Two years later Ensworth went 9-3, making it to the DII-AA semifinals.
Brentwood Academy offensive line coach Jason Mathews, a former Titan who coached the same positions at Ensworth in 2008, isn’t surprised by the Tigers’ success.
“I got over there right before it exploded,” Mathews said. “Ricky has done a great job of building a great coaching staff. They rode and rode (tailback) Corn Elder (six state titles combined in football and basketball), and he was able to make it through all those years without a serious injury.
“We knew every game we played them over the last three years what they were going to run, and we have yet to stop them. They’re the biggest offensive line our defensive linemen see all year. Add to that the best running back Middle Tennessee has seen in a long time. Unfortunately for us, they’re loaded for years to come.”
The impact on Ensworth’s top private-school competitors in the Nashville area has been dramatic. Ensworth has won nine state titles in football and basketball in the last five years. Brentwood Academy and Montgomery Bell Academy have each won one during that time in those sports.
In the previous five years, starting with fall 2003, Brentwood Academy and MBA combined for seven titles in those sports, and Ensworth had one.
The annual tuition is comparable: $21,655 at Ensworth, $22,180 at MBA and $19,875 at Brentwood Academy.
Many of the boys at Ensworth’s pre-first through eighth grade school used to attend MBA, and many of the girls used to attend Harpeth Hall for high school, but now more than 80 percent go to Ensworth High School, said Sarah Buchanan, associate head of school.
While MBA has lost students to Ensworth, it is near full capacity with a high school enrollment of 493, said Director of Admissions Greg Ferrell.
Ensworth’s high school enrollment is 435, and Brentwood Academy’s is 491.
“Currently, there seem to be the right number of independent school spaces for the kids who want independent schools,” MBA Athletic Director Scott O’Neal said. “I think what families want, and what we in the community want, is for kids and families to have great options, and frankly I think they’ve got great options.”
“It definitely has not impacted our enrollment,” said Harpeth Hall Athletic Director Karen Sutton, who attended Ensworth through eighth grade and Brentwood Academy for high school. “There are so many good private schools in Nashville. A lot of the private schools have waiting lists.”
Cody White, who coached in Texas before becoming Brentwood Academy’s athletic director and football coach last year, quickly has developed respect for Ensworth.
“There are some pretty good football teams and good football being played in (Division II-AA), and (Ensworth) has owned it,” White said. “They’re about as good as I’ve seen in a high school offensive line. They’re huge. They look like a college.”
“But then you go back to … something I don’t think people have talked about enough is how good they are defensively. They’re really athletic, and their coaches do a really good job of putting them in position to make you beat them, and it’s difficult.”
Schools that participate in Division II of the TSSAA aren’t allowed to recruit athletes or give athletic scholarships, but they can offer need-based financial aid to students.
Ensworth gave 45 football and boys and girls basketball players need-based financial aid last year, according to the TSSAA, compared with 74 for Brentwood Academy and 31 at MBA.
MBA has morning bus service in Davidson, Wilson and Williamson counties. Ensworth has bus service in Davidson and Williamson counties and at one time had it in Rutherford.
Brentwood Academy does not have bus service.
Ensworth also hosts more than 40 summer camps in 11 sports, giving potential students a chance to see the facilities. MBA has 46 camps in 15 sports. Brentwood Academy has 25 camps in 14 sports.
Tulane running back Orleans Darkwa decided to go to Ensworth after some coaxing from his parents.
He rushed for 6,338 career yards with the Tigers in 2006-09, ranking him among the top 10 in state history.
“At first I didn’t even want to go to Ensworth because it was something my parents forced me to go to,” Darkwa said. “I came from Meigs Middle School, and I was supposed to go to Hume-Fogg, and all my friends were going there as well. As far as football was concerned, I was either going to play for Hillwood or go to M.L. King and play for Hillsboro or Antioch.
“But going to Ensworth really was the best decision for me, looking back at it now. I’m glad I did. What intrigues you is the facilities and how (Ensworth) looks, but (my parents) were impressed with the education that was provided there, the study hall hours and those type of things.”
Darkwa is on track to graduate early with a degree in sociology at Tulane.
It’s a 45-minute drive from Darkwa’s home in Antiochto Ensworth, but his father, Orleans Darkwa Sr., said it was worth it.
“It was very different for (Orleans) to just change schools like that, but when I set foot with him that first day — the classrooms, the people I met — it was not a difficult decision for me at all,” Darkwa Sr. said. “This was a good setting for him, so it was a no-brainer for me. The size of the classrooms, the layout of the school — it was just excellent. In this day and age, education is everything.”
Some of Ensworth’s top athletes have come from Rutherford County, including Elder andD’Andre Ferby.
Oakland’s Thomas McDaniel and Siegel’s Greg Wyant, who coach two strong football teams in Murfreesboro, declined to talk about Ensworth’s success.
Elder, who won two Mr. Football awards and three state basketball tournament MVP awards in leading Ensworth to six state titles, considered Oakland, Siegel and Brentwood Academy before selecting the Tigers in 2009.
“I know a lot of people from Murfreesboro, Smyrna and La Vergne want to come (to Ensworth),” said Elder, now a freshman football and basketball player at Miami. “Once you see people doing good things, you want to go. (Ensworth) was just a great opportunity. They say everything happens for a reason, and good came out of this, so I’m happy with my choice.”
Ferby, a senior, is a candidate to replace Elder in the backfield.
Andrew Fleming, a major-college basketball prospect, moved to Franklin from Jacksonville, Fla., 10 days before his freshman season in 2011.
“I was open, really, to any school, but the school everyone thought I was going to was CPA because that’s a basketball school, and they’ve got five or six (major college) players on their team,” Fleming said.
“But whenever I got on campus at Ensworth it was clear to me that was the school that I wanted to go to. They had already won a basketball and football state championship, and I had this good feeling that I could actually build on that and help. And I guess I have.”
Former Ensworth coach David Pack left Hubie Smith a good foundation in girls basketball. Smith went 117-27 the past five seasons at Ensworth before taking the Brentwood Academy boys basketball job in March.
“There were still some good juniors left when I got there,” Smith said. “They actually had won the state championship in an upset over Knoxville Webb and Glory Johnson the year before I got there. But there are a lot more boys there than girls as far as athletes.”
Justice Swett, the MVP in last year’s state basketball tournament, went to Ensworth from second grade until her graduation in the spring. She believes the school’s success attracts more good athletes.
“Everybody wants to be at a winning school, so why wouldn’t you want to come here?” Swett said.