TAMPA — Like most mothers, Jennifer Holtz needs only to have her three children around her to make today special.
Just the same, the phone will ring throughout Mother's Day, with familiar voices on the other end, thanking her for being their mother away from home, or, in some cases, the mom they never had.
"The one area that I do love in football is being mother to 125 boys," said the wife of first-year USF coach Skip Holtz, sipping an orange tea at a Starbucks near their new home in South Tampa.
The Holtzes met in 1987 in the football office at Florida State — he was a graduate assistant coach, she a recruiting hostess — and as they settle in at their seventh college stop together, they've been married 18 years, which is to say 18 seasons and 18 large sets of adopted children.
Family was a big part of luring Skip, 46, to USF from East Carolina this year — Skip's parents live in Orlando, Jennifer's in Port Charlotte, with siblings in Tampa and Daytona Beach — and a conversation with Jennifer, 43, shows how much family is a big part of playing for her husband.
"I want those mothers and fathers to know that when their kids come … they know somebody's looking out for them," said Jennifer, proud mom to sons Trey, 16, and Chad, 13, and daughter Hailey, 11.
The football mom in the spotlight the past few months has been Leigh Anne Tuohy. She's the Memphis mother of two who, with husband Sean, adopted Ravens offensive lineman Michael Oher when he was a homeless teenager. Their story was made famous in a book and in Sandra Bullock's movie The Blind Side.
When East Carolina played in the Liberty Bowl in Memphis on Jan. 2, Tuohy spoke at the bowl luncheon. Afterward, Skip's father, former Notre Dame and South Carolina coach Lou Holtz, who has a cameo in the movie, introduced Jennifer to Tuohy, and the two had a short but memorable conversation.
"It may have only been 10 or 15 minutes, but I'm someone who can sum you up in 30 seconds. It wasn't hard to tell these were fine people," Tuohy said by phone. "They get very close to their kids, and she's a very hands-on person. Those kids are blessed to have her, because she's a keeper."
Said Jennifer: "I remember watching that movie and going, 'Oh, my gosh. Coaches' wives, all of us, are Leigh Anne Tuohys.' She's such a beautiful woman and so gifted, and she gets it."
Jennifer misses the days when her husband was a position coach, which gave her a chance to get to know a smaller group of players. Back then, every Thursday night they had Skip's players to their house for dinner. It's something they continued at East Carolina, less often but with more players. Half the roster — offense one time, defense the next — would pack themselves into the house, with borrowed card tables and chairs set up in the garage, the back yard and just about everywhere else.
Jennifer loves the memories all of this is giving her children, much like the ones Skip had with a father in coaching.
The young man setting their table might wind up being a star in the NFL, and the one giving a spelling test to one of her sons will still be a friend a decade later.
It's another way to let her family be a bigger part of a profession that can often get in the way of family life.
"(The kids) love it. They get depressed when the season's over. It's like, 'Aren't we going to have them over again?' " she said.
Jennifer knows that many players don't have the same family structure as hers growing up, so it means more to be in the Holtz kitchen, seeing a mother and father sitting down to dinner with their children.
"We take it for granted," she said. "I'm very respectful that not every family has to look like mine. There's a lot of people that need to have that experience."
The past few months have been challenging. Skip and Trey moved to Tampa in January so he could start classes at Plant High, and Jennifer stayed in Greenville, N.C., with Chad and Hailey, preparing for the move, selling their house and setting up a new life in Tampa.
After that distance apart, the Holtz family went to the other extreme, living in a two-bedroom apartment on Harbor Island while waiting to move into their house. One TV, one remote, one sofa, but one family again.
"The most fun," she said. "We're all huddled around one little table to eat, or we'd walk over to Channelside together. It was family."
Aaron Taylor, who played offensive line under Skip at Notre Dame and spent five years in the NFL, has kept in touch with the family in the 16 years since he was in college. A TV analyst for CBS College Sports, Taylor worked an East Carolina game last year, and walking into the football office, he wasn't surprised to see Jennifer there, dropping off bags of purple and gold "Pirates Treasure Munch" trail mix.
"She was always a cookie-baker," Taylor said. "She has this warm, Southern spirit about her. What makes her so special is she genuinely enjoys people. She's like the Pied Piper of college football players, because we hold her in such reverence. She's fun, and she cares about you. You feel appreciated as a person, as opposed to just as a player. That's why I'll always hold her in a very high place."
Jennifer makes sure she knows the players and can recognize them when they aren't wearing their number. Each fall she has taken a pair of scissors to the football media guide and carefully cut out head shots of all the players and made flash cards — pictures on one side, heights, weights, positions, hometowns and such on the other.
"She really embraces the role she has," Skip said. "She does a phenomenal job of making (the players) feel at home, and she does it with her heart. And the way they stay in touch with her, it makes it all the more rewarding for her."
Ask her for her husband's signature moment as a coach, Jennifer looks past two Conference USA championships and back-to-back upsets of ranked Virginia Tech and West Virginia in 2008. She points to the end of January's Liberty Bowl, when senior kicker Ben Hartman, who had kicked six winning field goals in his Pirates career, missed three late ones, two in the final 63 seconds of regulation and one in overtime, as East Carolina lost to Arkansas.
TV cameras showed Holtz talking with his kicker on the sideline, not so much like a coach but like a father. When Hartman came out of the locker room later, still crying, Jennifer walked over to offer support. "You will overcome this," she told him.
The young men who played for her husband, who chatted with her about girlfriends and breakups, are now men and coaches and fathers themselves. Some of them will call her today, thanking her for something that comes naturally to her.
"If one of my kids ever scraped their knees, I'd want someone there to embrace them," she said. "That's kind of what my job is. … I love that. What I always wanted was just to be a mom."
Times staff writer Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/usf and follow him at Twitter.com/gregauman.