Earnest Graham said the North Fort Myers (Fla.) High School football coaching job came along at the right time.
The 1998 Mariner High School graduate and retired Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back once signed a three-year, $10.5 million contract.
Graham told North Fort Myers principal Dale Houchin on Monday that he would become the new coach of the Red Knights for a stipend of $4,085 a year. The hiring became official Thursday morning.
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Graham, who will turn 34 on Jan. 15, said the money or the hours never were issues. He will continue to operate his new insurance agency while coaching.
“This was something I considered and mulled over,” Graham said. “It’s not about the X’s and O’s. I want to create a winning environment.
“You see where the path takes you. I surely wouldn’t do this if I weren’t planning on doing it for a long time. My calling has always been football. It’s my ministry, you could say. It’s not about the glory. I want to develop young men to be positive influences in their community.”
Graham becomes the 12th man to have the North coaching job dating back to 1962.
Deion Sanders, Warren Williams, Richard Fain, Jevon Kearse and current New York Jets fullback Tommy Bohanon all have represented the Red Knights in the NFL ranks as players over the years.
“Why do I like the hire?” said retired North coach Ron Hoover, who held the post for 18 seasons, longer than any of the others. “Well who wouldn’t like the hire to get a guy like Earnest to come in and coach?
“That guy worked his tail off to make the Buccaneers. He was cut a couple of times and all that kind of stuff. He’ll put the time in.
“He’s willing to do it. I’m sure he’ll do a good job.”
Graham, who ranks behind only former North Fort Myers running back Noel Devine on the all-time Lee County rushing list, has played for a variety of coaches over the years at all levels, including Mike Spencer, Mike Vogt and Joe Roles at Mariner, Steve Spurrier at the University of Florida and Jon Gruden and Raheem Morris with the Buccaneers.
Gruden, now an ESPN color commentator, said he was thrilled to learn Graham has joined the coaching profession.
“Anyone who knows me knows Earnest is one of my all-time favorite players,” Gruden said. “He’s into thorough preparation. I just hope that every kid in the school goes out for football to say they played for Earnest Graham. He’s got a tremendous ability to get along with people, to teach and to motivate.
“Times are different now. Coaching needs guys like him. It just fires me up to hear that he’s in the profession and taking over a program of this stature and helping to re-establish them as a force in the state of Florida.”
North Fort Myers principal Dale Houchin, an assistant principal at Mariner during Graham’s time there, said he interviewed six of the 29 applicants and that Graham was the obvious choice.
Houchin said he would give Graham an office for use at the school. Every other Lee County football coach also teaches at his respective school.
Graham said he would get to work on his first aid and CPR certifications in order to be eligible for the job.
“It’s not usual,” Houchin said of hiring a football coach from outside the school. “You have to look at the individual and what that individual brings to the school and the district and the community. You would like to see the coach be an employee in the school, of course. But there are some other circumstances that would lead a principal to the conclusion that we can make an exception.
“This is a game-changer for us.”
Houchin called the Florida High School Athletic Association’s director of compliance Thursday. Denarvis Thornton said he would assist Graham with understanding and following FHSAA rules as he builds the program.
“We recognize the impact of highly recognizable names in an athletic program,” Thornton said. “The transition period is keeping education in focus. There are a number of people who are former professional athletes who find a way to coach here in Florida.
“Recruiting is allowed in college, but it’s not allowed in high school. I told him I would give him a couple of references to principals who have hired some former athletes who might fit the mold of Earnest Graham.”
Graham said he looked forward to the challenge. The Red Knights had a 3-7 record last season under Brian Makar, who resigned last month. North Fort Myers has not had a winning season in football since Devine helped take the team to an 11-2 record in 2006 under former coach James Iandoli.
“I have thought about the kids I am going to coach,” Graham said. “I want to give them my experiences. I’m looking forward to it.”
David Dorsey also writes for the News-Press.