Skip Holtz deserves the faith USF Bulls have invested

TAMPA — The guy knows how to make a first impression. If Friday's pep rally of a press conference didn't convince you, just consider the story of the former recruiting hostess at Florida State University.

She was in Bobby Bowden's office, helping the secretary with some paperwork when the new graduate assistant coach from Notre Dame showed up for his first day of work in 1987. He had a $400-a-month salary and no clue how to get around campus.

When a recruit showed up two hours later expecting a tour of the facilities, she grabbed the young coach by a sleeve and off they went. Twenty-two years, one wedding and three children later, Jennifer and Skip Holtz are still arm in arm.

"That just shows you he's a phenomenal recruiter. He got the player, and he got the girl," Jennifer Holtz said Friday. "Although I always remind him he'd still be stuck in some broom closet at FSU if it wasn't for me."

So, yes, it's no wonder the new football coach had the crowd in the palm of his hand at a mini amphitheater at the University of South Florida. Although, let's be fair, it's pretty hard to screw up when your first day of work includes a pep band, a handful of students body-painted with your name and someone else's scandal fading in the rearview mirror.

Still, it was hard not to be impressed by Louis Leo Holtz Jr. on Friday afternoon. He was funny. He was energetic. He seemed down-to-earth and intelligent. And by the end of the afternoon, he had you wondering if USF didn't just upgrade its football program.

That's not offered lightly. For as ugly as the end was for Jim Leavitt, he did a phenomenal job building USF from the bottom up. And, yet, it's not unreasonable to question whether the Bulls hit a plateau and whether Holtz is better-suited to take the program to another level.

Or, to put it another way, on the list of schools scrambling for head coaches in mid January, who did better?

He's 10 years younger than Tommy Tuberville at Texas Tech. He's more accomplished and has none of the character questions that followed Lane Kiffin to USC. And, as opposed to Tennessee, USF was not turned down by approximately 47 other coaches.

True, anyone can sound like a winner with a microphone in their hand and a crowd at their feet.

But Skip Holtz makes it easy to believe.

• • •

The guy has a knack for coaching. And that's not just a reflection of the bowl games or the conference championships. If you doubt that, just listen to the story of a redshirt quarterback crying in a bathroom in Harrisonburg, Va., in 1995.

The first Division I-AA postseason bid in University of Connecticut history was in sight when quarterback Shane Stafford stepped up to the line of scrimmage while leading 9-0 in a game at James Madison University. The quarterback spotted something in the defense's scheme and called an audible. But before the ball was snapped, James Madison made its own adjustment.

Stafford threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown, and the game's momentum turned.

"I got to the sideline, and coach Holtz dog-cussed me something good," Stafford said.

UConn went on to lose 24-16, and Stafford blamed himself for the outcome. At least until Holtz found him crying near the toilets in the visiting locker room.

"He had gotten his point across on the field, but once he saw how much it meant to me afterward, he showed me all the compassion in the world," said Stafford, a former Tampa Bay Storm quarterback. "He helped turn me into a man. And in the end, that's what you're after in a college coach. He'll win. He's going to win, no question about that.

"But, more than that, he's somebody you can trust. You can give your kid to him for four years and know he'll be in good hands. He's not going to be involved in crazy scandals or scams. If a player buys into what he is offering, they'll end up being a better person for it."

• • •

The guy understands the bigger picture. He's not some X's and O's guru. And he's not some self-important fanatic. He realizes the job description involves more than a whistle and a command. If you don't believe that, just listen to the play-by-play announcer who has seen a half-dozen head coaches pass through East Carolina in 22 years.

"He became the face of the program because he was so accessible," East Carolina broadcaster Jeff Charles said. "I've never known him to turn down one request to talk to some small-town rotary club with 12 guys in the audience. He knew he had to be a salesman, and he did the job as well as anybody. No one is ever a stranger around Skip. You meet him on the street, and you're his best friend.

"I was around Coach Leavitt a little bit at the (2006) Papa John's Bowl, and Skip is the exact opposite. He's a real people person."

In the three seasons before his arrival in Greenville, N.C., the Pirates averaged between 29,629 and 33,012 a game. By the time he left, the school had set a host of attendance records and was regularly selling out a 43,000-seat stadium.

It was not done with flash, and it was not based on overnight success. The Pirates had a wide-open, passing offense in Holtz's first season, but that was based more on the roster than a philosophy. East Carolina ran the ball more and more every succeeding season. And the victories became more dependent on the performance of a bend-but-don't-break defense.

"You do what you have to do to win," Holtz said. "This isn't about Skip Holtz bringing his philosophies here. Our job as a coaching staff is to figure out what our strengths and weaknesses are and highlight the strengths."

Things may change, but I've got a pretty good idea of USF's strength today.

He's the guy in charge.

Skip Holtz deserves the faith USF Bulls have invested 01/15/10 [Last modified: Friday, January 15, 2010 11:16pm]

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