TAMPA — The mere mention of Skip Holtz's name consistently drew raucous cheers from the crowd outside the Marshall Student Center on Friday afternoon as USF introduced its 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!" 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 10 students who had "COACH HOLTZ" spelled out on their chests.
The introduction was like the weather: 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 past five seasons at East Carolina, winning Conference USA championships in the past two, 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."
There were more unabashed comments Friday, such as when Holtz talked about how much time it took him to accept USF's offer when it arrived Thursday afternoon.
"About three seconds later, I gladly accepted," he said.
Even Holtz's father, Lou, the former Notre Dame coach and current ESPN analyst, took 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?' " the elder Holtz said. "I look better in green than I did in purple and gold. I know that much."
Skip Holtz's entrance came after a week in which Leavitt and his attorneys repeatedly asked to be reinstated as coach. A USF investigation concluded Leavitt grabbed walk-on Joel Miller by the throat, slapped him twice in the face during halftime of USF's Nov. 21 home game against Louisville and lied about it during the investigation.
"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 to bring the program from nothing to a Big East team ranked in the national polls during parts of the past three seasons, drawing a respectful applause from the crowd. USF's players, many of whom 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 next season.
"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, and his job starts with two pressing tasks: entertaining 11 recruits in town this weekend and compiling a staff of nine assistants cobbled from the best of his at East Carolina and Leavitt's at USF.
Holtz can relate to USF's position of trying to establish itself amid three state schools in BCS conferences. North Carolina also has the ACC's Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State.
"We're about to move into a much bigger glass house," he said. "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 title in the 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.
"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?"
Greg Auman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/usf and follow him at Twitter.com/gregauman.