By Morgan Culler
After 10 seasons as a linebacker in the NFL, Earl Holmes was content with a life away from the gridiron. 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. Having played a total of 140 games, earned 958 tackles, caused seven forced fumbles and amassed 11.5 sacks, Holmes retired in 2005.
Two short years later—in 2007—the game called him back.
“When I retired—my home is in Orlando—I started coaching high school football in Lake Mary, and one day, Coach Taylor called and asked if I was interested in coaching for my alma mater. Of course!” says Holmes.
At the other end of the line was former Rattlers head coach Joe Taylor, well known as one of the most successful coaches in the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision. Taylor had stepped into the Florida A&M head coaching position in 2007, replacing Rubin Carter. Last November, with two games remaining in his fifth season at FAMU, Taylor announced his retirement.
Not only would Holmes be going back to the game he loved, the Tallahassee native would also be returning … home. As a former 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. With a total of 309 unassisted and 200 assisted tackles, Holmes’ grand total of 509 tackles set a Rattlers career record.
Holmes was immediately named interim head coach after Taylor’s retirement. He was formally offered the head coaching job in January.
Holmes’ first big test comes on Sept. 1, in the nationally televised MEAC/SWAC Challenge Presented by Disney, when the Rattlers will face Mississippi Valley State in the ninth installment of the annual HBCU matchup.
Expectations will be high, as 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 archrival Bethune-Cookman).
Having played at the highest level, Holmes knows the spotlight is on him; however, he’s 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.
“The discipline is the first thing and most important thing, because if I can’t trust you off the field, I can’t trust you on the field,” says Holmes. “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—they beat 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 the two teams, and first meeting 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.”
According to Jackson, Holmes has adapted to the head coaching position well. Even though Jackson no longer gets the one-on-one time he previously did, he is excited for his teammates to experience Holmes’ coaching ability.
“He has 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,” says Jackson. “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.