As he walked around the school last week, Mike Holcomb was struck by just how much things had changed since the first time he stepped onto the Madison Central campus.
“It’s like night and day,” Holcomb said.
There were quite a few days — and decades — in between.
In 1977, Holcomb took a position as a volunteer assistant at Madison Central.
On Thursday, he was officially introduced as the school’s new head football coach.
“I’ve had a lifetime affiliation with this program,” Holcomb said at his introductory press conference. “I have a lot of family and friends in Richmond. I’ve always had a little bit of Madison Central in my blood.”
Holcomb began coaching more than 40 years ago when he was still a student at Eastern Kentucky University.
It was the start of a legendary career.
Holcomb won three Kentucky High School Athletic Association state championships (1995, 1996, 2002) at Breathitt County High School.
His 289 victories are 13th-most in state history.
“His resume is second to none, but what was most exciting is that he is still hungry,” Madison Central principal Brandon Fritz said at the press conference. “He still wants to have an influence on kids in our school and take them to places they didn’t think was possible.”
Holcomb takes over for Mark Scenters, who did not have his contract renewed earlier this month after seven seasons.
The Indians claimed the school’s first-ever region title in 2018, but have lost 19 of their past 21 games since.
“Throughout this process, I talked to a lot of people,” Fritz said. “I talked to college coaches. I talked to high school coaches. I talked to retired coaches. Anyone who would listen to me, I talked to them. I really wanted to have the right person for this job who could take this program to heights its never been.”
Holcomb has proven he can do just that.
He led Breathitt County to the state championship game four times. The Bobcats also had a 42-game winning streak during the 1990s.
Before leading Breathitt County to new heights, Holcomb worked under one of the most successful coaches in Kentucky.
Ed Miracle led Lynch High School to eight Class A state championship games and won four titles (1959, 1960, 1963 and 1968) before coming to Madison Central.
“He was one of the hottest coaching names in the state of Kentucky,” Holcomb said. “We had a common friend and I got to start working with him.”
Holcomb grew up in small town of Boston in Nelson County. He played basketball and football, but didn’t come to EKU to play either of those sports.
“I wasn’t college caliber,” Holcomb said.
His cousin convinced him to come to Richmond by offering him a job at his Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise, which was on the bypass.
“He was a pretty good business man,” Holcomb said of his cousin. “He said he would help me get through college. It was a lot of work.”
Holcomb wasn’t sure what to expect when he joined Miracle’s coaching staff at Central.
The legendary coach, though, treated the college kid with lots of respect.
“He put me right to work,” Holcomb said of Miracle. “I thought I might be carrying water and things like that, but he treated me just like a coach. He had me work with the young kids and, in time, I had varsity responsibilities.”
At times, Holcomb was coaching players who were just a couple of years younger than him.
“I see some of the those guys now and I ask them, ‘Were you older than me when I was coaching you?’” Holcomb said.
After four seasons at Central, Holcomb spent two years as an assistant at Breathitt County.
In 1983, he took over as the head coach.
He would hold that position for 30 years and lead the Bobcats to 272 wins.
Breathitt County enjoyed its biggest success after Holcomb installed a spread offense in the 1990s.
“(The Bobcats) began throwing the ball before throwing was cool in Kentucky,” former University of Kentucky offensive coordinator Tony Franklin said in his book ‘Fourth Down and Let It Go’. “Holcomb has taken average athletes at best and year-in, year-out put up dazzling displays of aerial mastery.”
Breathitt County was regularly among the state-wide leaders in scoring and total offense.
Justin Haddix had 58 touchdowns passes (third-most in state history) and 4,359 passing yards in 2002 as the Bobcats claimed their third state title.
It wasn’t always about passing, though.
In 2008, Breathitt County rushed for 4,649 yards and advanced to the Class 3A state title game before falling to (Louisville) Central.
“We have a system that is very adapted,” Holcomb said. “In fact, I still have the numbering system that coach Roy Kidd used at Eastern, that I learned from him. We can run it out of anything — the Power I or we can be in five wide. We can run it with whatever personnel we have.”
The Indians have averaged just 15.8 points a game combined in the past two seasons.
Holcomb left Breathitt County in 2013 and spent three seasons at Letcher County Central, where he won just one postseason game.
For the past five years, Holcomb has served as a volunteer assistant coach at Breathitt County under one of his former players — Kyle Moore.
“That’s made me a better coach,” Holcomb said of working under Moore. “I’ve learned a lot. I have a sign in our locker room that says, ‘If you are through learning, you are through.’ I’ve always tried to live by that.”
Holcomb isn’t through coaching.
And life has brought him back to a place that holds a special meaning to him.
“I thought maybe this had passed me by,” Holcomb said. “I’m excited to get this opportunity.”