The Florida A&M football team Joe Taylor inherited in 2008 was coming off a 3-8 season, had gone 29-35 since winning the 2001 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference title and was reeling after the loss of 14 scholarships in four years.
The Florida A&M team Taylor brings in his first trip back to Hampton University on Saturday is 7-2 (5-1 MEAC), ranked in the top 25 and thinking playoffs.
FAMU athletic director Bill Hayes said of Taylor, who in 16 years at the helm became HU's all-time winningest coach.
"Joe had such a solid plan and approach to building winners until the players just bought in. They bought into what he was trying to do, and it didn't take him long."
Taylor is concentrating on winning his final two games to keep the Rattlers' hopes of an at-large postseason berth alive. But he knows it won't be just another Saturday when he stands on the visitors' sideline at Armstrong Stadium against the team he led to a 136-49-1 record — including five MEAC championships — before his abrupt resignation in December 2007.
"It's a special thing, and I can't deny it or look beyond it, but over the years in the business, you have a lot of opportunities to practice your focus," Taylor said. "So as much as I'll be glad to see a lot of people, I still have to understand that it's bigger than me."
The Rattlers, whose only MEAC loss was to first-place South Carolina State, are ranked No. 21 in the FCS coaches' poll and No. 22 by The Sports Network, and are coming off a 9-3 record in Taylor's first season. The Pirates are 4-5 (2-4 MEAC) and need to win their final two games to match last year's 6-5 record under Taylor's first successor, Jerry Holmes, in his only season.
First-year Hampton head coach and longtime Pirates assistant Donovan Rose worked on Taylor's HU staff from 1992-2007.
"He's still like a mentor to me, (but) this game is not Coach Rose against Coach Taylor," Rose said. " … Before the game, you'll say hello, (and) then after the game, you'll speak again. I wish him well in every game he plays, except us."
Rose said Taylor took the discipline, leadership and organizational skills that were his trademarks with the Pirates to the Rattlers.
"He was always one of the best at that," Rose said.
The Rattlers' road to respectability under Taylor had several stops. After assembling a coaching staff that knew the game and cared about its players, Taylor turned to his team.
During open tryouts his first spring in Tallahassee, Taylor said, he auditioned 180 young men who either had played or wanted to play football for the Rattlers. He asked them why they were there and what they thought had gone wrong in 2007.
"To a man, not one guy had anything to do with the 3-8 season," Taylor said. "I thought, 'Uh-oh, we got a self-esteem problem here.' "
Taylor addressed that issue with 5:45 a.m. practices and a battery of fitness tests. He and his players made community appearances and listened to motivational speakers. He agitated for $100,000 in weight-room improvements, a beefed-up academic support system and a modern video program.
"A lot of things you would have thought maybe would have been in place were not," Taylor said.
By the time summer workouts began, Taylor said 90 would-be Rattlers remained.
"There were some people here that were on (scholarship) that I didn't see why, and there were some that I thought should have been on, so we put them on," Taylor said. "Then we went the high school route, and I signed about 10 or 15 (recruits), and then we had a couple of transfers."
In the second game of Taylor's first season, that group took defending MEAC champion Delaware State to overtime in a 35-28 road loss.
"I sat the young men on their knee afterward and I said, 'Based on what I just saw here, we really have a chance to be pretty good,' " Taylor said. "From that point on, I guess out of the next 10 games, we won eight of them."
This year's FAMU team can match last season's total of nine victories after posting just two winning records from 2002 to 2007.
"You had to put some expectations out there," Taylor said. "And then once the expectation is there, you need to think of a strategy of how to reach those expectations. We just announced and recognized what it is we want."
This weekend, Taylor wants a win against the school he coached for almost two decades.
"When you've been at a place and had such a great experience and met so many good people and had great support, those things just don't leave you," Taylor said. "I know it's going to be some sentimental moments there, but I still say when it's business, it can't be personal."