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New football coach Skip Holtz getting to know USF Bulls, and vice versa

Skip Holtz

Skip Holtz

TAMPA

For now, his office is as bare as a freshly rented apartment. There are no photos on the walls, no mementos on the desk. Except for a leftover helmet here and a football there, the bookshelves are empty. An unopened welcome basket is on the counter, but otherwise, nothing in the room reflects the presence of a new occupant.

In other words, Skip Holtz still has a lot of moving in to do.

That goes for his office and his job.

It was late Saturday morning, and USF's second coach was working his way through his third day on the job. Already he had been at it for a while, and there were still things to do.

By now he has flashed the Bulls sign dozens of times, and he has shaken hundreds of hands, and he has answered thousands of questions. He has recruits to convince and parents to meet and players to get to know and a staff to complete and supporters to meet and films to watch and a new campus to navi­gate. He has a meeting coming up soon, and another one after that, and another after that.

This is what it is like to be the new coach of a program. Suddenly you are playing catchup, and your life has become a no-huddle drill. The world moves by so fast that if you take time to look out the window, the scenery outside is blurred. You could use five more seconds in every minute, and five more minutes in every hour.

"A whirlwind," is how Holtz described it as he sat in his office, the one Jim Leavitt used to have. Holtz compared these days to being the silver ball in a pinball machine. "And someone keeps going 'pow, pow' with the flippers and sending me this way and that way."

Holtz laughed softly, because when you get down to it, he wasn't complaining. He has worn the same uninterrupted smile since arriving in Tampa on Thursday night. All things considered, he was at work for roughly 411/2 of his first 52 hours in town.

"There is a lot to get done," Holtz said. "I have some pressing needs I need to get on top of. Recruiting, for instance. We have only two weeks of recruiting (left). I've got to put together a staff. And I have to get to know this team."

• • •

In a way, you can think of Holtz as a recruit himself. Except, of course, for the early signing day and the big paycheck. That ran through his mind Friday night when he went with the recruits to see Raymond James Stadium.

"I'm looking at it like they are," Holtz, 45, said. "I want to see how we present this school. Where is the academic center? How does Raymond James Stadium look? How are we presenting the school's strengths?"

Eventually, Holtz said, he wants to meet with every player on his team. He wants more than just a name and a face, he said. He wants to know where they're from, about their families, about their dreams. He wants to develop relationships, he said. He wants to build trust.

And, yes, he wants them to know who he is, too.

Who is Skip Holtz? Yes, he's a friendly sort. But underneath the smile, away from the affability, Holtz says, is a relentless, driven football coach. The word "obsessive" fits, he says.

And would you want anything less?

"I have a burning desire to be great," Holtz said. "I came here to accomplish some things from a professional standpoint. Championships. BCS bowls. National championships. That's what drives me, a burning desire to succeed. I don't want to be average. I don't want to be an also-ran."

Holtz paused.

"I have a hard time getting over losses," he said. "I am driven by a fear of failure that is 10,000 times greater than the drive to succeed. I don't want to fail."

So far, he has not. Things haven't always been smooth. He could not get into Notre Dame until he first went to Holy Cross Junior College in South Bend. Even though he played for his father, Lou, while with the Irish, he never caught a pass. Then he worked for his father there, spending two years as his offensive coordinator. His first head coaching job was in I-AA with UConn. After that, he went back to work as an offensive coordinator for his father, this time at South Carolina, so he could be close to his mother as she fought cancer.

It was not exactly the preferred highway for successful coaches. Friends advised him against going to UConn. They advised him against giving up a head coaching job to go back to work for his father.

• • •

Holtz said he wouldn't change anything, especially when you consider his career has allowed him to work for three head coaches — Bobby Bowden, Earle Bruce and Lou Holtz — who have won a combined 778 games.

Even now, Holtz agrees his personality is more like Bowden's than his father's. It was at Florida State that he learned "temperament and patience" from Bowden. "And a lot of his philosophy about a wide-open passing game," Holtz said.

Bruce, at Colorado State, was the opposite. Holtz compares Bruce, who began his college head-coaching career at the University of Tampa in 1972, to the strict teacher everyone looks back upon with fondness.

"He may be the hardest coach I've ever worked for," Holtz said, "but when you walked away, he made you a better coach. He pushed, and he pushed, and he pushed. He made you so thorough. If you weren't, he was going to rip you up one side and down the other. He would embarrass you, on the field, in front of the staff. But he made you better."

Then there was Lou, who bent over backward to make sure Skip had no shortcuts.

"He was brutal on me," Skip said. "He was hard on me as a player, as a coach and as a son. But he made me who I am."

For instance, there was a year when Lou called Bowden and asked for permission to talk to then-assistant Mark Richt about his open offensive coordinator's job. Bowden said sure, but if Lou hired Richt, Bowden wanted to replace him with Skip. Lou decided that if Bowden was going to hire Skip, he might as well forgo the trade and give the job to Skip.

"He never would have done it on his own," Skip said. "It took something like that."

This is who Holtz is. He is the sum of all the stories, all the mentors, all the moments he has been around.

Why, you ask him. Why does he coach?

"What do I get out of it?'' Holtz said. "Try standing on the field at East Carolina last year and watching those players hoist that conference championship trophy. Or being in the locker room and watching the smiles on their faces. Or going to graduation and watching a young man who has never had any member of his family graduate from college. To see the satisfaction when players accomplish something."

Who is Holtz? These days, he's the most popular man in the building.

Soon enough, you figure, he will have plenty of memories to fill his bookshelves.

New football coach Skip Holtz getting to know USF Bulls, and vice versa 01/16/10 [Last modified: Sunday, January 17, 2010 12:14pm]
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