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South Florida Bulls football coach Skip Holtz guided by perspective


He is obsessive, as most football coaches are.

He worries too long, thinks too much and sleeps too little. His eating habits get worse in the fall, and his mind can sometimes take a stroll in mid conversation. It's as if his brain has forgotten how to close shop for the night.

Yet, for all the maniacal devotion, there is something different about the way Skip Holtz prepares for a football season. Something reasonable. Something that looks suspiciously like perspective.

He doesn't sleep in a cot in the office. He doesn't pull all-nighters at home. He may actually spend five or six hours in bed, even if he sleeps for only two or three. His compromise is to keep a pen and pad on a bedside table so he can write down every thought that passes by.

And he wouldn't dream of turning on a light.

"I'll occasionally roll over in the middle of the night and see this glow from the other side of the bed," his wife, Jennifer, said. "He's got the light going from his cell phone so he can see what he's writing. You can pump me full of coffee at midnight and I'll still be asleep at 12:05, but his wheels are always turning. It's probably frustrating for him, but you know, he always comes to bed.

"Now the season is starting, so you are about to see this intense, emotional, driven coach. But he has managed — and praise God — to keep that inner core of his pure. Does he get it right all of the time? No. Does he miss some things with the kids because he's stuck in the office? Yes. But his priorities are there. The family still comes first."

So, do Skip Holtz's nocturnal habits have anything to do with the fortunes of the University of South Florida football team? Yeah, in a way, they do. His insistence on coming home — and making sure his assistant coaches also get home at a reasonable hour — is an indication of his mind-set, that his focus is on the long haul and not a week-to-week and day-to-day roller coaster of emotions.

And that's the perspective he's trying to bring to the USF program.

South Florida has been in a hurry from the moment the first practice field was mowed. And the program has come along further and faster than anyone could have imagined. A quick leap to Division I-A. A quick invitation to a BCS conference. Upset victories against programs that had about a century's worth of a head start.

But for all that success, USF has had trouble maintaining momentum. Fast starts are followed by disappointing finishes. Big upsets and high rankings are negated by too many struggles against conference teams. The Bulls have flirted with some attractive ideals but ultimately have gone 5-9 in the Big East the past two seasons. Rutgers and Connecticut have been better than that.

It's not that Holtz wants to eliminate the big moments. He just wants an understanding that the landscape is far more important than the details when you step back and look at the season as a whole.

"We had a great win last year at Florida State but finished 3-4 in the league. So is that a successful season?" Holtz said. "That's where we have to build the expectation, and the talent, on the team, and we have to get to the point where we are not up and down but become mature enough to play up to our potential every week. That's the biggest thing we have to get done here."

And as important as Holtz's playbook might be, his ability to get the players to buy into what he is preaching may be his most significant achievement in the coming days.

"I'm not a big believer in differences between (fired coach Jim) Leavitt's guys and Holtz's guys," Holtz said. "Or old recruits and new recruits. These are all my guys now. We're all South Florida. I told our team, 'You know the difference between you and me? I chose you. I chose to be here. None of you chose me.' So now it's my job to earn their respect and understanding."

Like the season itself, Holtz is not expecting to conquer the world in a week. Based on most preseason polls and predictions, the Bulls are not expected to make much noise in the Big East this season. They were below .500 in the conference last season and have less proven performers in 2010. So do the critics have a point? Is Holtz in line for a letdown in his first season in Tampa?

"We did lose some great players. We lost five players that are in NFL camps," Holtz said. "We've got some absolute studs to replace on the defensive side of the ball. We've got a hodgepodge of quarterbacks and running backs and defensive backs trying to play receiver. Yeah, we have a quarterback and an offensive line that has some experience, but our skill is as young as I've ever been around.

"So are people wrong about us? I don't know. I don't know. But we're about to find out."

In the meantime, there are practices to run and game situations to simulate. There are still roster and depth chart decisions to be made, and game plans to be finalized. And Holtz, 46, is still searching for that balance between football coach and real life.

He and Jennifer hosted a get-together over the weekend for about 40 USF staff members as a thank you for their hard work. And Skip took a break from film work Tuesday night to come home and watch a rerun of Shaq Vs. with their kids, sons Trey, 16, and Chad, 13, and daughter Hailey, 11.

If the calender doesn't tell him the season is about to start, his idiosyncrasies do. "I'm more of a nervous eater than a noneater," he said. "I normally gain weight during the season."

Jennifer laughs when she hears this. It's true, she says. And it's her job to monitor it.

"He can't afford to lose control at work. He's got too many people he's responsible for. So when he's eating is when he finally lets his guard down," she said. "I'll look at him and think, 'Seriously? Are you keeping track of how many plates you've had?'

"You're right, he's such a normal guy. He's an excellent football coach, but he's just a fun, energetic person to be around. He loves people. He seriously knows no strangers."

Come Saturday night, you can be introduced to Skip Holtz once more.

South Florida is now his team.

And this is his time.

USF vs. Stony Brook

7 p.m. Saturday, Raymond James Stadium, Tampa

TV/radio: BHSN;


South Florida Bulls football coach Skip Holtz guided by perspective 09/01/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 1, 2010 11:05pm]
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