TAMPA — Of all the transitions USF's football players have made in eight months with Skip Holtz as football coach, the most startling might have come Friday afternoon. Halfway through the team's second practice, with the on-field heat index at a muggy 109 degrees, the Bulls took a five-minute break, with cold Powerades passed around to players.
"I've been here five years. That's history in the making," senior linebacker Sabbath Joseph said, smiling in disbelief. "I thought it was a test, trying to expose the weakest link or something. But it wasn't, and it was a good feeling. It reminded the guys we can buy into what he's selling."
At the end of practice, as players walked off the field — that itself is a novelty, as under longtime coach Jim Leavitt, there was an ironclad rule that all players ran off the practice field, as they did in entering — they were greeted by a group of the coaches' wives and kids, offering popsicles from a large cooler.
Players laughed and repeated the slogan seen on billboards all over town: "A Holtz New Era."
It's not that everything is easier or even simpler with Holtz coaching the Bulls — the 46-year-old has his own idiosyncrasies, like exactly where and in what direction a player's face mask (as he calls a helmet) must be resting while players stretch at the start of practice.
"That's what the game is. It's the details and the little things," Holtz said. "We put it on the right. The face mask goes on the back edge, and they all have to be in a line. I told them if we can't get that little thing down, we'll learn to flex with our helmets on. It's amazing how quick they pick it up."
The details are where Holtz thrives, as his old assistants from East Carolina well know, and as his new assistants have quickly discovered.
"I had a pretty good feel, philosophically, of where he was coming from," said defensive coordinator Mark Snyder, who had faced Holtz's East Carolina teams each year as head coach at Marshall. "I've learned quite a bit in some areas, where you sit there and go, 'Wow. That's pretty smart. I wish I had done that.' He dots the I's and crosses the T's, no question about that."
The Bulls will cross a big T — and the entire state — tonight as Holtz takes the team to Vero Beach for a 12-day camp away from campus, designed to bond a new team closer together, something he sees as being as vital to the season ahead as any scheme he can teach them.
"He showed us he's ready to take this program to a level it's never been," said Joseph, who was among Leavitt's most outspoken supporters but has embraced Holtz and the new atmosphere around the program.
Where USF might be most different from Holtz's two previous head coaching stints is that the Bulls aren't a reclamation project. When he arrived at Connecticut in 1994, the program had never won more than eight games in a season. He matched that his second season, then won 10, still a school record, and reached the Division I-AA playoffs in his last season in 1998.
After a stint assisting his father, Lou, at South Carolina, Skip Holtz inherited an ECU team in 2004 that had gone 3-19 the previous two seasons. He won five games his first season, then seven, then eight, then back-to-back Conference USA championships.
This time, he takes over a USF program that has been to five straight bowls, winning at least eight games in each of the past four seasons. But with a difficult schedule, including road games at Florida, Miami, West Virginia and Cincinnati, he will be hard-pressed just to match last year's win total. Take away three road wins at lowly Syracuse, and the Bulls have lost six straight Big East road games for a 3-12 road record against the rest of the league.
Holtz's East Carolina teams had no such problems, going 10-3 in conference road games the past three years. His worst conference road record in five years at ECU — 2-2 in 2005 and 2006 — matches USF's best conference road record in the same five-year span.
Holtz has praised the job Leavitt did in building USF's program in his 13 seasons as coach, saying the overall changes he needs to make aren't nearly as significant as in his past arrivals as head coach.
"We don't need to reinvent the wheel," Holtz said. "The last two programs I've gone into, I've said, 'Take an eraser. Erase it. I don't care what you've done, this is how we're doing it.' Here, it's not broke. There's some things we need to tweak. I don't want to just turn the program upside down because there are a lot of parts of this program that are run very efficiently to give us a chance to have success."
Remember, too, that Holtz has equated success with championships, so he won't measure his progress at USF with single upsets as the Bulls have enjoyed in recent years, only to stumble and finish in the middle of the conference standings.
"(We had) the great win against Florida State a year ago, but if we finish 3-4 in the league, that's not a successful league," he said Tuesday at the Big East preseason media gathering in Rhode Island. "What we've got to do is reset our sights for what we want to do. The names that are around on these walls, those are the ones we need to line up and say, 'This is the level we need to compete at.' "
West Virginia coach Bill Stewart knows about taking over a winning Big East team — his tenure started after a title in 2007. In the second game of his first season, his Mountaineers stumbled and were dominated 24-3 on the road by an unranked ECU team coached by his new Big East rival.
"We got our butt beat at East Carolina two years ago. You better not take his team lightly, because they will beat you and beat you soundly," Stewart said. "We know Coach Holtz. He's pretty special. He'll have a good plan."
Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at tampabay.com/blogs/bulls and follow him at Twitter.com/gregauman.