TAMPA — For the first time in 14 years, USF has a new football coach to celebrate.
Less than a week after the firing of Jim Leavitt, the Bulls announced the hiring of former East Carolina coach Skip Holtz, who has won back-to-back Conference USA championships and now leads the challenge of bringing a Big East crown to USF.
"This is a really special opportunity, and I am incredibly excited about joining the USF team," said Holtz, 45, the son of ESPN analyst and former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz. "I appreciate the confidence that President (Judy) Genshaft and athletic director Doug Woolard have shown in me, and I am grateful for their support. I believe there are great things on the horizon for this program."
Holtz's contract will pay him $9.1 million over five years, with a raise for his assistants.
"I will tell you, we are very fortunate to be able to announce Skip as our head football coach," said Woolard, who has a news conference planned for noon today. "Coach Holtz's leadership qualities, his character, and his successful head coaching experience are exactly what we were looking for."
Hours after accepting USF's offer and telling his East Carolina players, Holtz arrived in Tampa on Thursday night, flashing the Bulls sign with his hand as he got off a private jet and took a Lincoln Navigator SUV limousine to campus.
"I think they made a great decision," said former USF athletic director Lee Roy Selmon, who was part of the search committee. "There were a lot of impressive candidates, but obviously this is the one."
Holtz said the biggest allure to the USF job wasn't moving into a BCS conference, or to the Big East, as he was courted for openings at Syracuse and Cincinnati in the past two offseasons. It was family — his parents retired in Orlando, and his wife Jennifer's parents live in Port Charlotte. Four grandparents will be within two hours of their children — Trey (15), Chad (12) and Hailey (10).
"You say, 'Oh, well, it was BCS.' I've had other opportunities to go BCS, and I didn't accept them," Holtz told reporters in North Carolina. "You can say it was the conference they play in, but I've had some other opportunities to go to the conference and I haven't taken them. The thing that really put this one over the top was the relationship it had to family."
USF can only hope that Holtz can bring about the same improvements he did after arriving at ECU five years ago. The Pirates, 3-20 in the previous two years, have been to four straight bowl games, with a record of 38-27. There are 120 jobs in Division I-A football, but few had what USF offered.
"I was not looking to leave," Holtz said. "There are probably about 120 other jobs in the country that I wouldn't have considered. I mean that.
"Probably 110," he joked.
Holtz was a special-teams player on his father's Notre Dame teams, graduating in 1986 and taking his first coaching job as a graduate assistant at Florida State. He spent four years as an assistant at Notre Dame, took over as head coach at Connecticut in 1994, then spent six years as an assistant at South Carolina before settling in at East Carolina in 2005
His Pirates team lost 24-7 to USF in 2006 at the Papajohns.com Bowl in Birmingham, Ala., the Bulls' first bowl victory.
His hiring ends a busy week as Woolard and a search committee sought a successor to Leavitt, who was fired last week after a university investigation found he grabbed walk-on running back Joel Miller by the throat and slapped him twice in the face during halftime of a Nov. 21 home game against Louisville. Leavitt denied it, but the school deemed the incident a "serious violation" of its conduct policies, along with lying to investigators and interfering with the investigation.
Leavitt, who on Thursday morning still was asking to be reinstated to his old job, extended congratulations to his successor.
"Skip Holtz is an old friend, a wonderful person and a great football coach," Leavitt said in a statement.
USF's first football coach stayed with the Bulls for 13 seasons — only three coaches in the country had longer tenures than Leavitt when he was fired. Holtz said Leavitt's work in guiding the Bulls from their first season in 1997 to Division I-A to the Big East provides the momentum for his coaching future at USF.
"It's obvious to everyone that Coach Leavitt has built a successful program from the very beginning," Holtz said. "There is a solid foundation in place that we will build upon."
Times staff writer Izzy Gould contributed to this report. Greg Auman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/usf.