Holtz fired, USF football moves in 'new direction'
TAMPA -- Three seasons ago, Skip Holtz came to USF football with optimism and excitement, hopeful he could elevate the Bulls to their first Big East title and more.
On Sunday, less than a day removed from a humbling end to the worst season in USF history, that chapter closed, with Holtz fired after a disappointing 5-16 record in conference play, easily the worst in the league.
Athletic director Doug Woolard called it a "very difficult" decision, and it will be an expensive one, costing USF $2.5 million over the next five years, but the Bulls now turn their focus on finding the third coach in their short football history.
"It's not easy to part ways with such a good man," Woolard said in addressing the media at USF's Lee Roy Selmon Athletic Center. "I am thankful for his friendship, and what he has done for USF Athletics. However, my responsibility to our students, our fan base and the university as a whole is clear: We must put a more successful football program on the field. Beginning today, we move in a new direction toward that goal."
Only six months ago, Woolard thought Holtz was part of that direction, giving him an extension through the 2017 season despite the Bulls losing seven of their final eight games last year. He saw other programs courting Holtz and wanted the stability of a new deal, but as a result, USF's buyout is $1.5 million more than it would have been under his original contract. Woolard said that move had "zero" impact on his decision to fire the 48-year old coach, who had won two Conference USA championships at East Carolina before coming to Tampa.
"I want to thank my assistant coaches, staff, the players and their families for their dedication and loyalty," Holtz said in a statement released by USF; he did not return messages seeking comment. "I'm extremely proud of how they fought through adversity during this time. Throughout my time here, the young men on this team never gave up, and that reflects on their character, as individuals and as a team."
Holtz's teams could compete with anyone, but were best known for uncanny late-game collapses. Three games last season were lost on the final play and a fourth with 12 seconds left; this year, the Bulls saw three leads lost on 75-yard touchdowns drives allowed in the final two minutes. Nine of Holtz's losses came by four points or less, which only added to the frustration of USF's fans.
"I am keenly aware of how difficult the 2012 football season has been to our loyal and faithful fan base," said Woolard, one day after USF's final home game drew an actual attendance of just 18,841 fans, barely half of the tickets distributed for the announced attendance of 35,141. "While our program is young ... our history is rich, and the expectations of coaches, players, students, administrators and fans are high. That is why the past few months have been hard for all of us."
Holtz remained positive and upbeat, stressing the progress his players were making everywhere but the league standings. Woolard was quick to point out the huge academic strides USF football has made under Holtz, consistently resetting records for the highest team grade-point average one semester after the next. Football coaches are ultimately judged by the scoreboard, which is why Holtz had a 2 p.m. meeting to say goodbye to his players, an emotional gathering for a close team.
"It's somber," said assistant coach Larry Scott, himself a member of USF's original football team in 1997. "It's a really good group of kids. He's a great man, great husband, great father, great leader of men. ... If you're not performing well, if you're not putting a product out that you want, things like this at some point are inevitable. That's not the focus, not what you think about. You find a way to come to work every day, be positive, continue to build. You don't worry about the writing on the wall."
USF will move quickly to find its next coach, and one popular choice is Western Kentucky coach Willie Taggart, young enough at 36 that he had three touchdowns as a quarterback in beating the Bulls in the first month of the program's assistance. Taggart coached under Jim Harbaugh at Stanford and helped lowly WKU upset Kentucky this season.
"Every program experiences highs and lows on the way to national prominence," Woolard said. "Brighter days are ahead. ... Our fan base deserves to know that we are committed toward making USF successful on a national scale. We will conduct our search for the next head coach with that in mind."