Enthusiasm, excitement mark Holtz's arrival
TAMPA -- The mere mention of Skip Holtz's name consistently drew raucous cheers from the crowd outside USF's Marshall center on Friday afternoon as the Bulls introduced their new football coach.
But the enthusiasm with which the 45-year-old greeted his new job took the excitement to another level. The high point might have been when a fan, unable to contain himself, interrupted Holtz by shouting "BEAT FLORIDA!" from the crowd, a nod to USF's long-awaited Sept. 11 game in Gainesville.
Holtz smiled, waited for the cheering to subside a bit, then sent the crowd into another frenzy.
"That's why I'm here," he said, looking out to a group of 10 students who had "COACH HOLTZ" spelled out on their bare chests.
Saturday's introduction was like the weather Friday -- warm and sunny, after a cold, cloudy week of uncertainty following the firing of Jim Leavitt, the program's only coach in its 14-year history.
Holtz, who spent the last five seasons at ECU, winning Conference USA championships in the last two years, didn't seem like a coach torn between two programs. Asked about the move Thursday night after a private jet landed in Tampa, he called it "a very easy decision," his words a dagger to Pirates fans back in North Carolina.
There were more unabashed comments Friday, like when Holtz talked about how much time it took him to accept USF's offer when it arrived Thursday afternoon.
"The invitation was offered. About three seconds later, I gladly accepted," he said.
Even Holtz's father Lou, the former Notre Dame coach and current ESPN analyst, had a jab Friday, talking about how he was excited about his son's decision, if only from a wardrobe perspective.
"I thought 'What color green do I have in my closet?'" Holtz said. "I look better in green than I did in purple and gold, I know that much."
Holtz's grand entrance was an emphatic way for USF to move forward, after a week in which Leavitt and his attorneys repeatedly asking to be reinstated as coach, saying his termination was unconstitutional. A university investigation found that Leavitt grabbed walk-on Joel Miller by the throat and slapped him twice in the face during halftime of USF's Nov. 21 game against Louisville, a "serious violation" of the school's conduct policies that cost him his job.
"Today is about USF's future," USF President Judy Genshaft said. "The most important consideration in hiring a coach is finding someone with the values of the institution, and we have found a perfect match with our values."
Holtz acknowledged the hard work Leavitt put in in bringing the program from nothing to a Big East team ranked in the national polls in the last three years, drawing a respectful applause from the crowd. USF's players, many of which wanted Leavitt to stay on as coach, said they were warming up to Holtz after a 20-minute team meeting Thursday night.
"Coach Leavitt's a great coach, and he did a lot of great things for the program, but sometimes you have to understand change," said freshman linebacker Sam Barrington, expected to be a starter on the 2010 defense. "Everybody is excited and Coach Holtz seems like a great person. It's emotional for me, but I'm going to do the right thing and accept the new coach. I won't hold anything back, and I'll let him coach me just as well as Coach Leavitt did."
Holtz will earn $9.1-million over five years as part of his new contract, and his job starts with two pressing tasks: entertaining 11 recruits in town this weekend for official campus visits, and choosing a staff of nine assistants, cobbled together from the best parts of his ECU staff and Leavitt's assistants.
Holtz can relate to USF's position, trying to establish itself as a challenger to the state's three traditional powers, Florida, Florida State and Miami. While at ECU, Holtz held its own against the state's ACC teams, beating Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State in his five seasons there.
"We're about to move into a much bigger glass house. Everything you do positively is going to be magnified, and everything we do negatively will be magnified on a much larger scale. That's the arena you want to be in. That's why I'm here."
Coming off two conference crowns, Holtz said his rising seniors want to win the school's first Big East championship this fall, and he aimed his goals even higher: "We came to the University of South Florida because we want to win championships. We want to bring the national championship to Tampa," he told the crowd Friday.
"You're better to shoot for the stars and hit the moon. Have you failed?" he said later. "The obligation we have is to set a lofty goal for what we're trying to do. ... Why not USF?"