Florida football: Catching up with Cornelius Ingram, who returned to lead Hawthorne to state

Kevin Brockway
The Gainesville Sun

HAWTHORNE — On a dusty field three days before guiding Hawthorne High School to a state championship, former Florida football standout Cornelius Ingram conducted a spirited practice.

 It began with an Oklahoma Drill, with encircled players cheering loudly as pads slapped on pads between the two teammates inside. Then came work on punt returns.

“The year before in the state championship game, we lost by one point, had a bad snap at the end on one of our punts,” Ingram said. “So that’s why we’re stressing special teams and we had all year. It was just a fluke play. It was definitely a fluke play.”

Hawthorne Hornets head coach Cornelius Ingram talks with his team after their win Friday night. The Hawthorne Hornets hosted the Blountstown Tigers in the 2022 FHSAA Football State Championships playoff game at Hawthorne High School Stadium in Hawthorne, FL on Friday, December 2, 2022. Hawthorne won 28-0.  [Doug Engle/Ocala Star Banner]

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This past season, Ingram’s eighth as head football coach at Hawthorne, he got the Hornets over the hump with a 13-2 win over Northview last month in the Class 1B rural state title game in Tallahassee.

The eight years to turn Hawthorne into champions didn’t come without hard work and obstacles. From 2015-2017, Hawthorne’s combination middle school/high school with an enrollment of between 300 to 400 students received a D Grade from the Florida Department of Education. It faced the serious threat of closure in 2018.

Ingram, whose NFL career was cut short by knee injuries, returned to his hometown school in 2014 to revive a program with limited resources. The practice field behind the school isn’t fully sodded, which makes tackling sometimes hazardous.  

“We can’t take guys to the ground because it feels like concrete underneath,” Ingram said.

 Some years, Ingram said he didn’t have enough equipment to pass out to his players.

 “I didn’t have enough game pants to give kids to dress,” Ingram said. “So again, we embrace those moments, and we just keep going. We don’t feel bad for each other, we just play hard for each other. I think that’s why we had a lot of success because we really do understand the process and not only that, even in hard times and adversity, we pull together even more.”

Two-sport star at Hawthorne

Ingram was a two-sport star at Hawthorne High School, talented enough to receive scholarship offers from major college football and basketball programs throughout the country. He played for the Hornets from 2000-04 before pursuing his dream to play football at Florida.

He began his Gator career as a quarterback and walked-on to the Florida basketball team for a season. Eventually, Ingram moved to tight end and was a key offensive cog on Florida’s national championship teams in 2006 and 2008.

Besides coaching football, Ingram also coached the Hawthorne’s girls basketball team to a state title in 2020. He said he’s taken methods from all the coaches he played under during his Florida career, which included Ron Zook, Urban Meyer and Billy Donovan.

“Coaching girls basketball, there some basketball sets that I learned at UF under Billy Donovan who is also another great coach and that’s what it’s about,” Ingram said. “I’ve been blessed to play under some great head coaches and I would be a fool if I didn’t use some of their plays or some of their practice (drills) or whatever.”

 All in the family for Ingram

Hawthorne football is a family affair for Ingram. His older brother, Greg, is the team’s offensive coordinator. His son, C.J., started at quarterback this past season as a freshman.

“It’s challenging,” Ingram said. “I think I’ve done a way better job lately on how to coach him because sometimes I can be hard on him here, sometimes it’s hard for me to not talk about what happened at practice on our ride home …

“I get caught up in his physique. He’s tall, he’s built and I’m thinking he’s a 17-, 18-year-old kid when he just turned 15 so I have to kind of rail it in sometimes and let him go through the process. But it’s still special. When I see him make plays, you know I have flashbacks and of course the plays that he’s making now I was making them as a senior in high school. He’s making them a lot earlier than I did.”

C.J. said it’s been a blessing so far to learn from his father, on and off the field.

 “He does a lot of stuff outside of sports, even for the kids on his team, even the kids that are in his PE class,” C.J. said. “He’s just a great guy to be around. Everybody probably doesn’t see that because they see him coaching so hard. But he’s probably the best person I know. He’s a huge role model to everybody in his community for what he did and what he’s still doing.”

Could coaching future include stop at Gainesville High?

 Ingram, 37, said he’s turned down offers in the past few years to coach at bigger high schools or to begin his college coaching career.

“Home has been special and these kids really needed me at that time,” Ingram said. “And you know, I’m not saying what I won’t ever do because there’s opportunities that really present themselves every single day.”

With an opening at Gainesville High, there is thought that Ingram would be an ideal candidate for another rebuilding project. The former principal Ingram worked under at Hawthorne, Daniel Ferguson, is now the principal at GHS.

Whatever the outcome, Ingram is at peace with where the path has led him.

“I knew what I wanted to do here,” Ingram said. “I wanted to build this program back up. I wanted to do it for my hometown and I wanted to coach kids that really needed me and I know for a fact that’s why we’ve had a lot of success over the years.”