TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Earl Holmes had a two-minute warning.
The decision would change the course of Florida A&M football, but one of Joe Taylor’s sons, Aaron, had a hunch that his dad would announce his retirement before an early November road game.
Holmes, the Rattlers’ defensive coordinator, heard Aaron say this and dismissed it without a second thought. Florida A&M was just a few hours away from playing a game. “Good joke,” Holmes said to Aaron Taylor.
A few minutes later, Joe Taylor stunned the players and his coaching staff by saying that he would step down after the 2012 season.
Sooner after, Holmes got the phone call from Derek Horne, the school’s athletic director.
“They’re making me the acting head coach,” Earl Holmes told wife, Tiffany.
Holmes would serve as Florida A&M’s interim coach for the final two games of the season. The team was 3-6 and Holmes was given a chance to unofficially audition for the job at his alma mater. And he impressed right away against the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference’s top two teams, North Carolina Central and Bethune-Cookman.
“When I really sat down that first day of practice, I thought, we have our last two games left, the biggest two games of the season: homecoming and the (Florida) Classic,” Holmes said. “We got to make it count. The guys came with a lot of energy. I appreciate the kids’ focus. They never complained.”
The Rattlers played some inspired football. Florida A&M defeated N.C. Central to win its homecoming game 22-21 (Holmes’ defense was especially motivated, holding the Eagles to just 129 yards on offense).
The next week, the Rattlers nearly upset Bethune-Cookman in the Florida Classic before the Wildcats hung on by recovering a fumble late to seal a 21-16 win.
Holmes had been a head coach for just 10 days but it was more than enough to show administrators that he was ready to take over. School officials interviewed other candidates, but Holmes separated himself from the group.
On Jan. 11, Holmes was no longer the interim coach. That title was removed and the only thing left is for FAMU’s Board of Trustees to approve the 39-year-old Holmes at a February meeting, something that is considered a rubber-stamp decision.
“I am impressed with his plan to develop the whole person, not just the student’s athletic ability,” interim Florida A&M president Larry Robinson said. “Coach Holmes is a solid choice when you consider his vision for the program, 10-year career in the NFL as a linebacker and experience gained at FAMU as a defensive coordinator and linebackers coach. I look forward to the launch and achievements of the Earl Holmes Era.”
A dream job
Holmes played 10 years in the NFL as a linebacker from 1996-2005, spending six years with Pittsburgh, a year in Cleveland in 2002 and then his final three seasons in Detroit before retiring in 2005. But really his heart was in Tallahassee.
He grew up Tallahassee. He attended FAMU High, just on the edge of Florida A&M’s campus. The Baby Rattlers even played at Florida A&M’s Bragg Memorial Stadium. So when Holmes was ready for college, he simply enrolled across the street at Florida A&M.
And he was a star on the football field – one of the best to ever wear the Rattlers’ green and orange. Florida A&M has had some exceptional football players in its more than 100 years of football, including Bob Hayes (once considered the World’s Fastest Human) and Willie Galimore. Jake Gaither had been the program’s legendary coach for 25 years.
Holmes is right there in an exclusive group of Rattlers. He was a three-time all-conference pick and recorded 509 tackles, a record that still stands. His numbers in 1995, his senior season, seem almost impossible to imagine – a school-record 171 tackles.
Few football players have made the jump from Division I-AA to the NFL and had success. Holmes had more than 90 tackles in seven of those NFL seasons.
He wants to take his knowledge and experience and instill that in the Rattlers.
“Those kids have to play the way you played the game,” Holmes said. “When I was with Pittsburgh, the way we played the game was Bill Cowher’s. It was Bill Cowher’s way.”
Even toward the end of his NFL career, while he was still recording 100 or more tackles a season, Holmes was a player-coach. He now realizes how those years prepared him for coaching at Florida A&M.
“I did a lot of coaching in the NFL as a player,” Holmes said. “When you play 10 years, those young guys coming up, they’re big, they’re fast, they’re strong, but they really don’t understand what it takes to be a professional. I was coaching those guys.”
Moving Florida A&M forward
The odds of making the jump from a Football Championship Subdivision school to the NFL are slim. Players and coaches know this. Holmes feels that football can give student-athletes experience that makes them not just competitive on the field but in life.
“When you love the game as much as I have — and this game has changed my life — my whole thing now is to change their lives,” Holmes said. “If you can learn how to compete on that football field, you are going to learn how to compete in the business world.”
And Florida A&M should be more competitive in 2013. The Rattlers won just four games a year ago but there is plenty of talent coming back. Florida A&M returns Damien Fleming, who he sees as the leader of the offense and is a quarterback with a strong, accurate arm. Fleming threw for 2,156 yards and 16 touchdowns with just five interceptions last season.
“He’s the foundation,” Holmes said of Fleming. “Never complains. That kid does everything right.”
Much of Holmes’ defense returns, led by defensive back Jonathan Pillow (66 tackles) and linebackers Brandon Denmark (54 tackles, 4.5 sacks) and Michael Ducre (52 tackles). And kicker Chase Varnadore made 15 of 18 field-goal attempts a year ago.
Holmes thinks he can add plenty of contributors in the coming weeks as National Signing Day approaches on Feb. 6. He has only been officially the head coach for a few weeks, but the response from recruits has been positive.
“It’s the courting season, everyone is trying to win that prospective student-athlete over,” Holmes said. “It’s been going great. But I won’t feel great about it until Feb. 6 when they sign and I can see that NLI (national letter of intent).”
Holmes, who will turn 40 in April, is motivated of course by winning a championship. He won a pair of Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference titles in the mid-1990s. And he made a few playoff runs in the NFL. But he’s still chasing a ring. And he’d love to do it in his hometown.
“I’ve won two conference championships as a player,” Holmes said. “I won my division as an NFL player. Never won a Super Bowl. As a coach now I want to win the ultimate championship. I don’t mind the journey. That’s what I love about it. I don’t mind the grunt work. I’m just looking at the end. I enjoy the journey.”