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North looks to rebuild football program
April 11, 2018

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Last week, former North Fort Myers High School football coach Earnest Graham looked as though he was enjoying his time away from football.

He was at Mariner High School watching his daughter play softball, which was one of the things he wanted to do when he announced his resignation two weeks ago.

Since then, North Athletic Director Joseph Bowen and Principal Debbie Diggs formed a committee to look for new head football and basketball coaches.

There is a sense of urgency to fill the football position, since the first day of spring practice is in less than two weeks, April 23.

Diggs said that a decision on Graham's replacement should come by the end of the week, perhaps even before this edition goes to print.

"We're in the process of identifying a new coach. We've gone through the process, we've advertised, interviewed and done screenings," Diggs said. "We should have an announcement this week. There's a lot that goes into making the right pick."

Diggs said she has four finalists, but would not give further details as the decision will be made quickly.

As the basketball coach was a top lieutenant of the football coach, that person had to be found as well.

Diggs said the school has hired Leeland Clifford as North's a new boys basketball coach, who formerly coached at Gateway Charter.

Clifford replaces Mack Mitchell, defensive coordinator for the football team, who took the head football coaching position at Oasis High School.

"Mack got a tremendous opportunity to coach at Oasis, which is something he has always wanted to do," Diggs said. "He has family members who go there and he has already gone to work for them."

Graham resigned after four seasons as North Fort Myers High School head football coach, citing health concerns and the desire to spend more time with his family.

In a letter to Diggs, Graham said his coaching responsibilities have made it difficult for him to be a father.

"The head coaching position has made it challenging for me to meet my goal of being 100 percent involved in my kids' academics and hobbies, as well as living a healthy life. It is time for me to take care of myself and fully support their needs and dreams," Graham said in his letter.

Diggs in a statement said the school was blessed to call Graham one of their own in his time as coach.

"Through his work with our football program, student athletes, fellow coaches, staff, parents and community, he rebuilt a program into one we are all proud of," Diggs said in a statement.

Graham, who starred as a running back at Mariner High School, played at the University of Florida, then had a nine-year NFL career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, retiring after the 2011 season.

In 2014, Earnest Graham took over a moribund program that had seen its glory years slip further in the rearview mirror and oversaw a team that went from a talented but undisciplined team to an area powerhouse.

The Red Knights went 5-5 in his first two seasons before having its first winning season in a decade, finishing 6-3 in 2016.

Last year the team went undefeated in the regular season and advanced to the second round of regionals, where it was beaten by archrival Fort Myers to end a 9-1 season.

There were bumps in the road. In fact, Graham resigned briefly after his first season at North and was in consideration for taking over at Lehigh. He cited a lack of clarity and chemistry with the administration that had taken over at the school, but later reconsidered.

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