TAMPA — The program has had bigger days. For that matter, the coach has, too.
Still, you have to admit they kind of looked good together Saturday night. It sort of felt like they belonged, this football team in search of a fresh direction and its new coach with his sights set on the stars.
The Skip Holtz era has begun at South Florida, and even if the game was insignificant, the moment was not. For the first time since they began keeping score at USF, a game did not begin with Jim Leavitt running full tilt toward mayhem.
In a way, this was the first tomorrow the Bulls have known. The team is no longer part of Leavitt's vision. The game plan is no longer a product of Leavitt's design. Hard as it is to believe, the USF football program is no longer Leavitt's very own prized possession.
The change had actually been made close to eight months ago, but it wasn't going to feel real until the moment Holtz showed up on the sideline. And when it was done, when USF had blown out Stony Brook 59-14 in the season opener, you finally got a sense of the shift in custodianship on the field at Raymond James Stadium.
South Florida players hung around for a few minutes extra after the game, mingling near the student section in the bleachers. They had waited so long for this night to arrive, it was as if they were not yet prepared for it to end. Holtz, meanwhile, stood nearby soaking it all up as the USF band played on and on.
When he finally began jogging off the field, Holtz started yelling in the direction of the fans gathered around the tunnel leading toward the locker room.
"Thank you all for being here," Holtz shouted. "Thank you. Thank you all."
At least for now, the feeling seemed to be mutual.
For all the acrimony surrounding Leavitt's messy departure last winter, USF can finally focus on screen passes and zone coverages again. The Big East Conference is once again more important than law firms, and the University of Florida is the only date on the docket.
"It's obvious it's a new era," said senior cornerback Mistral Raymond. "In a way, every year feels like that. Every year you have a new team, because they're never exactly the same. But it did feel different running out of the tunnel with so many new faces all around."
All in all, it was a pleasing opening night. Not spectacular. Not overly impressive. Merely acceptable in the sense that USF accomplished nearly everything it was expected to.
The defense contributed a touchdown. The special teams, too.
Even Joel Miller scored a touchdown, and ain't that a slap in the face.
"There are probably a million things I could harp on," Holtz said. "But we're 1-0."
Oh, there were some issues. The kind of issues that are annoying against a Big South Conference team and could be humiliating against a Southeastern Conference team.
For instance, the Bulls had trouble holding on to punts. Their secondary was shaky at times, and the pass rush was fairly weak in the first half. And for a team that threw for 383 yards, USF played nearly half the game before allowing receivers to venture far beyond the huddle.
Remember, Stony Brook is a Division I-AA team. And not a particularly good one. You start adding up Stony Brook's record over the past 10 years and you discover a few more losses than victories for essentially a Triple-A team.
So Stony Brook joined Wofford, Tennessee-Martin, Elon and McNeese State as opening-day punching bags for USF. And as we've seen before, the results of the opener have no bearing on the days to come.
Overall, it looks like the offense will be better off this season. And the defense will be chasing a lot of ghosts. Given the names on the roster, none of that comes as a surprise, but now USF has a starting point to work from.
"I obviously wasn't here when Leavitt was, but you do get a sense that this is a new start," said backup quarterback Bobby Eveld, who was 9-of-12 for 119 yards in his college debut. "I think you could call it a new era."