Former players recall Holtz as 'unbelievable'
TAMPA -- Rick Mirer remembers that his offensive coordinator in his last two seasons at Notre Dame was only six years older than he was, but there was still much to be learned from Skip Holtz.
"We knew he was just getting started in coaching, but he knew a lot of football," Mirer said of USF's new head football coach, who he worked closely with in 1991 and 1992. "As a player, you were drawn to the guy because there was a positive energy around him. Not everybody is like that. He was always very positive, very enthusiastic, a high-energy coach, upbeat and optimistic."
Holtz has said he doesn't know yet what kind of offense or defense he will run at USF, and that he wants to evaluate the talent on his roster and find an offense that best matches the Bulls' strengths. His nine full-time assistants don't officially have individual titles yet, but those will be finalized after signing day.
What kind of coach can USF's players expect? Former Tampa Bay Storm quarterback Shane Stafford, who played for Holtz at Connecticut from 1995-98, said Holtz makes an impact on his players, off the field as much as on it.
"He's a great coach, but an unbelievable man. He's a father figure," Stafford said. "When you do something wrong, he'll be tough on you, but he'll make sure you understand why. He was my mentor, taught me how to be disciplined, how to be tough, how to be a good person, and not just saying thank you and please."
Stafford, who attended Holtz's introduction news conference Friday, said his favorite memory of playing under Holtz was earning Connecticut's first playoff win to clinch the program's first 10-win season.
Mirer, who spent 12 seasons as an NFL quarterback after being the No. 2 pick in the 1993 draft, thought highly enough of Holtz that was Notre Dame's head coaching position came open in Notre Dame, he sent an e-mail to his old school, lobbying for Holtz to be considered.
"I said he should throw his name in the hat for the Notre Dame job, bring back something that works, you know?" said Mirer, now retired and operating a winery near San Diego. "As far as USF, I'm all for it. I'm behind Skip 100 percent."
Of all the players who have played for Holtz, the most impressive right now is probably former East Carolina and current Titans running back Chris Johnson, who was named NFL MVP. Johnson, who joined the Pirates a year before Holtz did, became a breakout star as a senior in 2007, rushing for 1,423 yards and 17 touchdowns, with another 528 yards receiving and six more touchdowns through the air.
Johnson was a first-round draft pick in 2008, and this past season became the sixth player in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards in a season. His success will only help Holtz in recruiting, showing how a player can develop under his coaching and then shine at the next level.
"I've been blessed," Holtz said. "Chris Johnsons, Rick Mirers and so many great players. Jerome Bettis and Ricky Watters, Deion Sanders at Florida State, being around those type of guys. Not just Chris Johnson, but that may be the name the players know the most right now. From my standpoint, it's knowing what it takes to get to that level. It's not all about talent. The ones that make it at that level are the ones that have talent, that have character and work habits and what it takes to get there.
If you have talent, you're a flash-in-the-pan success. To be able to have the stability and longevity is all about the morals and work habits and the values, what it takes to be the type of person, student and player that you want to be."