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For USF Bulls football, coach Skip Holtz is the first step toward healing

Soon, we will see if Skip Holtz can recruit.

Eventually, we will see if he can run an offense, or if he can develop a defense, or if he can transform potential into performance. Before he is done, we will see if he can communicate, if he can motivate, if he can put an end to late-season swoons.

First, however, we must see if he can heal.

For Holtz, the second head coach in USF history, that is the first test of his tenure.

There has never been a more difficult time for USF. There has never been an uglier controversy than the allegations of abuse against former coach Jim Leavitt. There has never been such a struggle to decide who is lying and who is not. It doesn't matter if you do not believe a word Leavitt says, or if you do not believe anyone else. At USF, there have never been so many raw wounds, never so many injured feelings, never such a feeling of betrayal.

At USF recently, there have been too many lawyers and not enough healers. For Holtz, the job starts by leading both sides away from the discord. The first task on his to-do list is make everyone think about football again.

The good news? Holtz has a chance. Think of this as a solid hire that has a chance to be sensational. Unless you were one of those pie-in-the-sky fans who thought Tony Dungy was going to be the coach, and he was going to bring Jon Gruden and Bill Belichick with him as coordinators, you ought to be tickled pink. When you consider his age (45), when you consider his resume, Holtz was the most proven coach on USF's list.

Let's see. Division I head-coaching experience? Check. Winning record? Check. Success against big-name opponents? Check. Respected nationally? Check. Good bloodlines? Check.

All in all, wouldn't you prefer to debate a Skip to a slap?

Here's how good this hiring was: Moments after the Bulls made it, some fans immediately started to question how long Holtz was going to stay. It's fairly impressive that fans are worried about a coach's fifth or sixth season when he has been on board for five or six minutes.

Get used to this kind of talk. For a couple of years now, Holtz has been one of those usual-suspect coaches who gets tossed into the headlines whenever a major conference school needs a coach. He was going to Virginia, or to Syracuse, or to Louisville. His name was mentioned at Notre Dame, and at Cincinnati, and at Kansas. It will be mentioned again, and soon.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing, mind you. After all, if Holtz isn't successful, then no one is going to want him. Put it this way: If you knew Holtz was going to stay five years, and the Bulls were going to win two Big East titles and go to two BCS bowls, wouldn't you sign up for that now? Of course you would.

Can Holtz have that kind of success? Sure, if he's the right fit. There is no reason USF can't be as successful as, say, Cincinnati has been. There are certainly enough recruits in the state. There is talent on the roster. The Big East looks winnable. As of today, USF points Skip Holtz at all of it.

First, however, Holtz has to unify the Bulls' followers. It is one thing to follow a coach who has won three games in two seasons, as Holtz did at East Carolina. It is another to replace a coach who spent 14 years building a program and a following.

Every day, it seems as if the discussion gets louder. Take Thursday. One minute, Barry Cohen, Joel Miller's lawyer, wanted an apology from Leavitt. The next, Leavitt declined. A little later, Miller said there were clandestine meetings with Leavitt to go over his testimony, which may be a worse allegation than the slap itself. After that, Holtz is hired, which may be a severe obstacle in Leavitt's attempt to get his job back.

And so it goes. By now, there are so many attorneys involved, someone needs to compile a depth chart.

It is up to Holtz to quiet it all. He needs to make people talk about recruiting, about what kind of offense he will install, about what kind of defense he prefers, about which assistant coaches he will keep. He needs people to talk about what he learned from his dad and what he learned from his time working for Bobby Bowden. Just for the fun of it, he needs to make a joke at Lane Kiffin's expense. After all, everyone else has.

Shortly after Thursday's announcement, I was talking to former Rays owner Vince Naimoli, who has known Holtz since Holtz played on special teams for Notre Dame. For the record, he thinks USF made "a wonderful'' hire.

"Whatever the wounds are, I think he can bring everyone together,'' Naimoli said. "He's a calming influence. I think USF is a big-time program, and it's getting bigger. I think Skip is a natural.''

Eventually, the controversy will fade. Soon enough, this will all be an unpleasant memory about how the first coach in USF history lost his job. Before long, the debate will turn to what Holtz was thinking on third and 1.

At USF, it is time to move on.

When the Bulls introduce Holtz today, it will be the first step.

For USF Bulls football, coach Skip Holtz is the first step toward healing 01/14/10 [Last modified: Thursday, January 14, 2010 11:15pm]
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