After 10 seasons as a linebacker in the NFL, Earl Holmes retired in 2005, content with a life away from big-time football.
Two short years later -- in 2007 -- his alma mater, Florida A&M, came calling. More specifically, Rattlers coach Joe Taylor.
“When I retired -- my home is in Orlando -- I started coaching high school football in Lake Mary," Holmes said. "One day Coach Taylor called and asked if I was interested in coaching for my alma mater."
It didn't take Holmes long to answer.
"Of course!” he said.
Not only would Holmes be getting his break as a college football assistant, the Tallahassee native would also be returning home. As an All-American at FAMU, Holmes was a three-time first team All-MEAC selection and earned the Sheridan Broadcasting Network College Defensive Player of the Year award in 1995. Holmes’ 509 tackles set a Rattlers career record.
In addition, Holmes would get an opportunity to coach under Taylor, one of the most successful coaches in the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision, who had replaced Rubin Carter as Rattlers head coach in 2007.
In November, however, with two games remaining in his fifth season at FAMU, Taylor announced his retirement, and Holmes was immediately named interim head coach. He was formally offered the head coaching job in January.
Holmes knows the spotlight is on him, replacing Taylor, who went 233-96-4 in his career. Holmes is focused on putting his imprint on this Rattlers team and staff. In addition to Holmes, the Rattlers have five new coaches who previously played in the NFL.
Holmes’ first big test comes in the MEAC/SWAC Challenge Presented by Disney: Florida A&M vs. Mississippi Valley State on Sun., Sept. 1 (ESPN, 11:45 a.m. ET). It is the the ninth installment of the annual HBCU matchup.
The Rattlers are coming off of a 4-7 season, including two disappointing losses at the Bank of America Atlanta Classic (against Southern University) and in the Florida Classic (against rival Bethune-Cookman).
“The discipline is the first and most important thing, because if I can’t trust you off the field, I can’t trust you on the field,” says Holmes, who will also serve as defensive coordinator. “Our guys understand that and buy into the type of football we’re trying to play here. It’s pretty much line up and play. You have to be physical, and you have to be smart. You can’t beat yourselves. It’s hard enough to win on Saturdays.”
FAMU is making its second MEAC/SWAC Challenge appearance -- it lost to Southern 33-27 in 2007 – and Holmes understands that this game is a Super Bowl, of sorts, for both schools and both conferences.
“I think [this game] is good for both conferences,” says Holmes of the second-ever meeting between FAMU and Mississippi Valley, and first since 1990. “It’s good for both programs because any time you have a big game as your first game, and kids understand that, then they understand the sense of urgency.”
Holmes’ players are getting the message. “[Last year] we were a slow-pace, casual team,” says senior linebacker Bobby Jackson. “Coach wants to focus a lot on increasing the speed of play, and he wants us to be a physical -- don’t think, just a react-type of team. With Coach Holmes being a younger coach and having prior knowledge with the NFL, he can relate more to how we want to play.”
Drafted in the fourth round of the 1996 NFL draft by the Steelers, Holmes played five seasons in Pittsburgh, one in Cleveland and his last three years in Detroit.
“He will have to split his time with everybody, but with his methods and beliefs toward the linebackers and defense, he now has to spread it out to everybody," Jackson said. "I think it will be very beneficial to us, and will help us win a lot of games.”
Adds sophomore linebacker Akil Blount: “Coach is trying to perfect every aspect of the game to help us become better on and off of the field. He always helps players. He is very supportive and gives a lot of great constructive criticism.”
Morgan Culler is a junior at Florida A&M University, majoring in business management and broadcast journalism.