This is a story of Rags to riches.
“I was lost. I spent three years wandering in the wilderness and had no place where I could contribute. Finally, my wife said, ‘Boy, you’re gonna drive me crazy or you’re gonna run yourself crazy. You need to find yourself something to do!’”
That was George Ragsdale, the Central State wide receivers coach, recounting his life from 2014 through 2017.
After a lifetime of glory – a Hall of Fame career as a running back and North Carolina A&T, enshrinement in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) Hall of Fame, a pro career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, brief stops with the Washington Redskins and USFL Oklahoma Outlaws and over 30 years as a high school and mostly college coach – he was suddenly out of football.
Ragsdale – or Coach Rags as many CSU players now call him – got mired in a nasty situation that was not of his doing at Grambling State in 2013.
After Louisiana politicians decimated the Grambling budget, facilities fell into disrepair and the contract of the popular coach and legendary former quarterback, Doug Williams, was reneged on by the school. That prompted a Williams lawsuit and eventually he was fired.
Ragsdale, his longtime friend and former Tampa teammate, was elevated from the Tigers’ running backs coach to the interim head coach.
Caught in an intractable situation, he lasted five games – all losses, in what was part of a 13-game losing streak – and suddenly found himself in the crosshairs of disgruntled players and then an administration looking for a scapegoat.
Players — upset about the firing of Williams, the conditions of the facilities and their travel by bus rather than plane on a 1,200 mile round trip to Kansas City and then a 1,500 mile overnight trip to Indianapolis that that included a 48-0 drubbing by Alcorn State the next day — boycotted practices.
Ragsdale was fired, though his departure didn’t change anything. The team forfeited the next game, the athletics director resigned and there were another six losses over the next seven games.
Meanwhile, Ragsdale had returned home to Greensboro, N.C.
“The whole thing really hurt my heart,” he said.
And then CSU head coach Cedric Pearl – who had coached alongside him at Morris Brown – called with a job offer.
R agsdale said he accepted immediately: “It was a true blessing.”
It was not a sympathy call by Pearl, who had his own problems. The Marauders had gone 1-9 in both 2016 and 2017. He needed to turn things around.
And he knew Ragsdale was a good coach, one whose “old school” ways could help a young team looking for a new beginning.
Farm provided work ethic
“My grandmama was Ollie Pride and my granddaddy was Charlie Pride,” Ragsdale said as he sat in the empty stands after the Marauders’ Spring Showcase on Saturday afternoon at McPherson Stadium.
“When I was growing up on their farm in Virginia, Charlie Pride was a big country and western singer (and also had been a talented Negro Leagues and minor league baseball player for several teams including the Cincinnati Reds), ” Ragsdale said. “He was pretty well-known, but people used to holler at me, ‘Charlie Pride ain’t your granddaddy!’
“And I’d say, ‘Look, Charlie Pride the farmer is my granddaddy…Not Charlie Pride the singer.’”
Ragsdale stayed on the farm – where they had cows and pigs and raised tobacco, peanuts, corn and soybeans – until he was 11. That’s where he learned his work ethic.
He eventually moved to Baltimore, where his mother and two sisters lived. As a high school football player, he got looks from Youngstown State, Vermont, Maryland, the U.S. Naval Academy and North Carolina A&T, where he would begin his long association with HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities.)
He ran for 1,989 yards for the Aggies, was a 12th-round pick by the expansion Buccaneers in 1976 and made the regular roster in 1977. Over the next three seasons he played 39 games for the Bucs. His biggest contributions came as a kick returner.
Although the Bucs started out 0-26, they eventually went 10-6 in 1979, his last season with the team, and made the playoffs before losing the NFC title game to the Los Angeles Rams.
Ragdsale’s coaching career – which included an internship with the Washington Redskins – began at his alma mater, where in two different stints he was briefly elevated to interim head coach.
He coached at Morris Brown, Norfolk State, Arkansas Pine Bluff and Greensboro’s Dudley High School before Williams added him to his staff at Grambling.
When Williams – who won six SWAC titles in 12 years – was fired after a 1-10 season and an 0-2 start in 2013, Ragsdale was upset:
“Doug was my friend before any of this happened and he’s my friend now. We just talked the day before yesterday. We’re all going over there (Williams works with the Redskins) for OTAs next month.”
Saturday, the 66-year-old Ragsdale worked the Marauders sideline with a floppy white hat atop his head and his emotions on the sleeve of his black-striped polo.
Often animated with the players, one moment he might be chewing them out and then next he’d be patting them on the back.
Jaray Jefferson, a big freshman tight end from Youngstown, saw both sides.
He was standing off by himself at the end of the Showcase when Ragsdale called him over once, then again and again, the last time with a voice raised in irritation:
“Don’t let me call you a second time. You hear me over there. Get over here, now!
And soon he was nose to facemask with the freshman.
Yet once the scrimmage had ended and the players were assembled on the field, there was Ragsdale with an arm draped over the tight end’s shoulder pads.
“I had an old coach who always told me, ‘You gotta kick that butt sometimes, but you got to love ‘em a lot,’” he explained.
Pearl likes Ragsdale’s approach:
“He’s honest with the kids and they love him.”
Ragsdale already helped make an impact last season when the Marauders finished 5-5 and junior college transfer Kevin Greenhow turned into the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference’s (SIAC) top receiver.
Although sidelined two games because of transfer paperwork issues, he still finished with 34 catches for 880 yards and nine touchdowns in eight games. He won All-SIAC first team honors and was named the league’s newcomer of the year.
“He’s a next-level guy, but it depends on him and how bad he wants to do it,” Ragsdale said.
Greenhow thinks Ragsdale can help him on that path: “He brings a lot of energy to our team. He’s got a lot of experience. He can give us the ins and outs of the things that we don’t know yet.”
As for Ragsdale, the guy who was “lost” a couple of years ago has found a new home at CSU.
He lives in an apartment just beyond McPherson Stadium and next fall he said his youngest daughter will come to the school as a freshman.
“I feel good again,” he said. “And I told Pearl, ‘I can’t leave here ‘til we win a championship.’”
And that – for a program whose last title of any kind was the NAIA national crown 24 years ago – would be a real rags to riches story.