Tampa—The billboard along Interstate-275 is huge, proclaiming a “Holtz New Era” for football at the University of South Florida (USF). The oversized photo of Louis Leo (Skip) Holtz, Jr., son of Lou and Beth, has a big smile.
“Don’t think you’re going to sell a lot of season tickets with that face,” said Holtz, just moments before practice.
But here is what Skip Holtz can sell. He can sell the belief that tomorrow is going to be better than today. He can sell his knowledge that there are four BCS schools in the state of Florida (Florida, Florida State, Miami, and USF) and that he is at one of them. He can sell the fact that he knows how to build programs and win games because he did at Connecticut, a program he built from scratch that is now a member of the Big East, and at East Carolina, where he took the Pirates to consecutive Conference USA championships (2008-2009). He posted seven winning seasons in 10 as a head coach before he left Greenville, N.C. to take the South Florida job last January.
“We weren’t looking to move but when this opportunity came along we had to take it,” said Holtz. “Look at what we have here. There is simply no ceiling on this program and what we can do here.”
The circumstances that made the South Florida job become available for Holtz are regrettable. Jim Leavitt came here from Kansas State in 1995 when the entire football program consisted of a mobile home in an open field. It started from less than scratch. Before Leavitt would leave he had taken USF football from Division I-AA to Division I-A and from Conference USA to a member of the Big East Conference. In September of 2007 USF upset No. 5 West Virginia at home in Raymond James Stadium. Later that year the Bulls rose to No. 2 in the BCS standings. Once USF joined the Big East in 2005, Leavitt guided the Bulls to five straight bowl games.
“I have been signing Jim’s praises since I got here because he and his staff did a remarkable job,” Holtz said. “I hate the history of the situation and the way it ended for him. But that does not negate what he did here.”
Leavitt was fired on January 8, 2010 amid accusations that he had struck a player during halftime of a game. He was also charged with misleading investigators in an attempt to cover up the action. Leavitt has denied the charge but school officials determined that he was not being truthful and let him go. Leavitt has filed a lawsuit claiming that he was falsely terminated and seeks a $7 million settlement for the years remaining on his contract.
So Holtz walks into a program that has had some success on a national scale but has never been able to get over the hump to win a Big East championship. After rising to No. 2 in 2007, the Bulls lost their next three games and fell completely out of the BCS Standings.
“We’ve had our moments here and that is something to build on. But our goal is to win the Big East championship and go to a BCS bowl,” said Holtz. “There is no reason we can’t do that here. We have everything we need.”
USF plays in a first class NFL Stadium. There are over 46,000 students on a campus that is located in prime recruiting territory. Now, said Holtz, “we have to go out and convince great players that everything they want is right here. They don’t have to leave home.”
To do that, said Holtz, USF must have some success on the field against the Big Three—Florida, Florida State, and Miami. The Bulls won at Florida State last season in a major shocker. They will go to Florida (Sept. 11) and Miami (Nov. 27) this season.
“I want to play those guys because that is the level where we want to compete,” said Holtz. “And until we have some success against them, it’s going to be tough to win the head to head recruiting battles particularly in other parts of the state.”
Holtz won one of those early recruiting battles with a Big Three school when Tampa cornerback Terrence Mitchell, one of the best in the state, had verbally committed to Florida State but decided to sign with USF last February.
“That was big,” said Holtz. “Really big.”
Holtz is going to have to build his first USF team without five defensive players who were invited to the NFL combine. Defensive ends George Selvie, a two-time All-America, and Jason Pierre-Paul could play for anybody.
But he does have a quarterback. When senior Matt Grothe, a four-year starter and the Big East’s all-time leader in total offense, was lost last September to a knee injury, redshirt freshman B.J. Daniels stepped in. In his first college start Daniels had 341 of USF’s 348 yards of total offense in a stunning 17-7 victory over Florida State. Daniels, we might add, is a native of Tallahassee.
Like most coaches, Holtz has moved around in his career. The played his high school football in Fayetteville, Ark., where Lou was the head coach of the Razorbacks. He graduated from Notre Dame with a degree in business management. Between two coaching stints with Lou at Notre Dame (1990-93) and South Carolina (1999-2003), Holtz built the program at Connecticut.
But Holtz could be at South Florida a while. His parents’ primary residence is in Orlando. His wife is from Port Charlotte, about an hour away. He has a brother in Daytona Beach.
“It seemed like every Christmas, every summer, every spring break we would come down here,” said Holtz. “This feels like home.”
USF officials believe that Holtz will take what has been a moderately successful program and at least make the Big Three have to work a little harder in recruiting. “I’m not saying that we could go into Tallahassee and take their best player, but I am saying that we want to make it very difficult for one of those schools to come here and taken one of our best players,” said Holtz. “If we can do that, we’ll be headed in the right direction.”
It should be fun to watch.
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