When Hampton meets Jackson State in the MEAC/SWAC Challenge on Sunday at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Fla. (ESPN2, 2 p.m. ET), the Pirates' Jerry Holmes will be making his head coaching debut.
Actually, Holmes will be doing more than that.
He will be replacing a legend, Joe Taylor, who spent 16 years at Hampton. Taylor posted an impressive 136-49-1 record, including three consecutive MEAC titles from 2004 to 2006 before slipping to a 6-5 mark in 2007. He also won four Black College National Championships.
During the offseason, Taylor sent shockwaves through the league when he left Hampton to become the head coach of conference rival Florida A&M. Holmes, who had been Taylor's defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, was named the Pirates' new boss. He knows a lot of eyes will be on him, but he doesn't feel any pressure. In fact, he gives Taylor a lot of credit for bolstering his coaching career.
"I know a lot of people have asked me about taking over for Joe Taylor," Holmes said. "I feel real good about it. I'm looking forward to it. Joe is an outstanding coach. He had a great career here. He was a big help to me. He gave me my first opportunity to coach [in 1992] as the linebackers coach. I know I'll certainly have some attention on me. This is a great program. We're used to winning. I'm not trying to fill his shoes. I'm just going to build on the foundation."
Holmes definitely has paid his dues. After playing 12 seasons of pro football, which included stints with several NFL teams and a few stops in the USFL, he got his start with the Pirates in 1992 under Taylor. He spent three seasons at Hampton before moving to the Division I-A ranks with West Virginia (his alma mater), where he stayed for four seasons (1995-98). Then, he was on the move again. He spent five years coaching defensive backs with the Cleveland Browns (1999-2000), Washington Redskins (2001) and San Diego Chargers (2002-03) prior to returning to Hampton. He also was a big football star at Bethel High School in Newport News, Va., near Hampton.
"I used to come to a lot of Hampton football games," Holmes said. "Football is really big around here. My family is from the area. I just feel blessed to have the opportunity to coach here."
Jackson State coach Rick Comegy has established a terrific foundation in just two seasons. In 2007, the Tigers posted an 8-4 record and defeated Grambling State for the SWAC championship. He believes Holmes will be able to maintain the Pirates' high level of play.
"Jerry Holmes is very familiar with the program," Comegy said. "He's very knowledgeable. He has some good players there, too."
Hampton does have some quality players. Wide receiver/punt returner Jeremy Gilchrist is one of the most exciting players in Division I-AA. In 2007, he caught 69 passes for 1,043 yards and scored seven touchdowns. He also averaged an impressive 19 yards per return, including one for 86 yards and three touchdowns.
On defense, cornerback Sam Pope is coming off a sensational year. He collected 41 total tackles (32 solo) and snared five interceptions.
The Tigers, too, appear to be loaded on defense. Jackson State has some major players to watch, including defensive end Marcus Benard (45 tackles, 26 solo, 13.5 tackles for loss, nine sacks), cornerbacks Domonique Johnson (22 tackles, 18 solo, five interceptions, 14 pass breakups) and Malcolm Palmer (68 tackles, 46 solo, four interceptions), and linebacker Marcellus Speaks (85 tackles, 42 solo, three sacks).
"Jackson State has a great defense," Holmes said. "They have good experience. It's not easy to score against them. Coach Comegy has done a great job down there. They won the SWAC last year. His players have worked extremely hard -- as a result, they've been very successful."
• This is the fourth year of the MEAC/SWAC Challenge. The MEAC holds a 2-1 lead in the series. In 2007, Southern nipped Florida A&M 33-27, giving the SWAC its first win.
The Challenge has been a tremendous showcase for HBCU players. The game has produced some NFL players: Tarvaris Jackson (Alabama State, Minnesota Vikings), Justin Durant (Hampton, Jacksonville Jaguars) and Kendal Langford (Hampton, Miami Dolphins).
• Four teams from the SWAC have made their way into the Sheridan Black College preseason poll. Jackson State, the defending conference champion, is ranked No. 3, followed by Southern (No. 5), Grambling State (No. 7) and Alabama A&M (No. 10).
• Texas Southern and Prairie View A&M will battle each other in the Labor Day Classic on Saturday at Houston's Reliant Stadium (ESPNU, 8 p.m. ET). The Tigers, behind coach Johnnie Cole and his brother and assistant, L.C. Cole, could be a team to watch in the SWAC. Texas Southern's roster features senior quarterback Bobby Reid, who transferred from Oklahoma State.
• Johnnie Cole will be making his coaching debut with TSU. However, Cole isn't the only new coach in the SWAC. Former NFL standout Monte Coleman will get his head coaching career started at Arkansas-Pine Bluff, and Ernest Jones will make his first appearance on the sidelines at Alcorn State.
Joe Taylor will start his first season at Florida A&M following 16 years at Hampton. FAMU will host Alabama State on Saturday at Bragg Memorial Stadium in Tallahassee.
• Lincoln University, the oldest black college in the country, has brought football back after 48 years. Lincoln, a Division II program, will host George Mason University on Saturday. Kareem Dennis, taking his first snaps from center, will be the starting quarterback for Lincoln. Dr. Frank "Tick" Coleman, 97, who played quarterback for Lincoln from 1931 to 1935, will be at the game. (You can read more about Coleman here.)
Donald Hunt is a columnist for The Philadelphia Tribune.