COLUMBUS — The man who made the biggest defensive play in recent Cleveland Browns history and lifted the star-crossed franchise into the 2002 playoffs knows something about the impossible.
Can Earl Holmes achieve it again Saturday at Ohio State?
More than a decade later, Holmes is the first-year head coach at Florida A&M — a program similar to OSU in the sense that it plays the same sport.
Ohio State officials initially scheduled the Rattlers of the Football Championship Series because of its famed Marching 100. A Florida A&M troupe that has performed at Super Bowl halftime shows and presidential inaugurations and OSU’s revered all-brass and percussion band would wage a rollicking battle while the Buckeyes’ football team would sail to a stress-free win.
The battle of the bands, though, fell through. FAMU’s halftime attraction is in its first season back since a band member died in a hazing incident in 2011, and it will not make the trip to Columbus.
Now the only contest will be between the lines.
By any measure, it is one of the biggest mismatches of the college football season. FAMU’s $900,000 payday for the game represents nearly a third of its total football budget — the Rattlers’ $2.84 million in expenses is less than what the Buckeyes pay their assistant coaches. Ohio State football last year made $58.1 million while spending $34 million, according to federal records.
The Buckeyes (3-0) opened as 57-point favorites — a line that, if covered, would mark their most lopsided win since a 72-0 dismembering of Pittsburgh in 1996.
Yet the 40-year-old Holmes is undeterred. A former FAMU star who played 10 seasons in the NFL, the road trip is just the latest challenge in a life spent vanquishing them.
“I’m enjoying this,” he said in a phone interview this week. “I’d like to have a better record, but at the same time we are growing. You have to crawl before you walk, then you’ve got to learn to run. We’re going to find out exactly we’re made of Saturday, and we’re going to go in there to win. That’s what it’s about — competing.”
Holmes will return to a familiar part of the country Saturday.
Drafted by the Steelers in the fourth round of the 1996 draft, he played six seasons in Pittsburgh and three for the Detroit Lions. In between, he saved his best football for his one season in Cleveland.
Holmes had 128 tackles for the 2002 Browns, including the biggest of his career in the final seconds of a must-win season finale. His fourth-down, goal-line takedown of Falcons running back Warrick Dunn preserved a 24-16 victory and led the 9-7 Browns to what remains their only playoff appearance since 1994.
Browns radio voice Jim Donovan memorably shouted, “He doesn’t get in! He didn’t get in! Earl Holmes stopped him! Earl Holmes did it again! Wow.”
Afterward, Holmes celebrated with the fans who rattled Cleveland Browns Stadium.
“It was amazing, me being in Cleveland,” he said. “The Browns, the Steelers, there’s just a lot of support there. That’s an incentive to to the players. That 12th man is the fans, the crowd, it makes a difference. I enjoyed being a player up there, and now coaching up there, it’s about the crowd.”
Holmes returned to FAMU in 2009 as an assistant and was appointed head coach this season.
His aim is to add the latest chapters to a once-proud lineage. The Rattlers own 11 black college football national championships — second only to the 14 claimed by Grambling State — including back-to-back titles in 1977 and 1978 under Rudy Hubbard, a former Ohio State running back and Woody Hayes assistant.
The Rattlers went 4-7 last season and are 1-2 this year, but Holmes is confident better days are near. One reason is a staff that shares a unique perspective and bond. Eight Rattler coaches played at least four years in the NFL, with Holmes’ defensive staff including former teammates Levon Kirkland, Corey Fuller, and Chris Cash.
For Ohio State, the matchup could mark the last of its kind. The Big Ten has encouraged teams to eliminate FCS opponents from their appetizers while OSU athletic director Gene Smith said the school continues to work to beef up its schedule in anticipation of the four-team playoff that begins next season. Future nonconference opponents include Virginia Tech, Oklahoma, Texas Christian, Oregon, and Texas.
Saturday’s game represents the other extreme. Just don’t tell that to Holmes.
“I don’t care what the over/under is,” he said. “The reason we play the game is to find out what the outcome is.”
EXTRA POINTS: Urban Meyer said Tuesday quarterback Braxton Miller is “right on schedule” to return from a sprained left knee, though his status for Saturday remains uncertain. A day after labeling the junior star “probable,” Meyer shed little new light on his plan for Miller and backup-turned-starter Kenny Guiton. “The obvious [options] are one starts and one plays a couple series,” he said. “The other is, if Braxton’s not healthy, then he’s kind of a guy in an emergency situation. The other is, maybe a couple plays where they’re both on the field. You try to be creative and get your best players on the field.”