TAMPA — Three years ago, Skip Holtz came to the USF football program with optimism and excitement, hopeful he could elevate the Bulls to their first Big East title and more.
Sunday, less than a day removed from a humbling end to a 3-9 season, the worst in USF history, that chapter closed. Holtz was fired as coach after a 1-6 Big East record this year left him 5-16 in conference play during his tenure, easily the league's worst record in that time.
Athletic director Doug Woolard called the firing a "very difficult" decision. It is also an expensive one, costing USF $2.5 million over the next five years under the buyout terms of his contract.
The Bulls now turn their focus to finding the third coach in the program's 16 years.
"It's not easy to part ways with such a good man," Woolard said during a news conference at USF's Lee Roy Selmon Athletic Center. "I am thankful for his friendship and what he has done for USF athletics. However, my responsibility to our students, our fan base and the university as a whole is clear: We must put a more successful football program on the field. Beginning today, we move in a new direction toward that goal."
Six months ago, Woolard thought Holtz was part of that direction, giving him a contract extension through the 2017 season despite the Bulls losing seven of their final eight games last year to finish 5-7, 1-6 in the Big East. Woolard saw other programs courting Holtz and wanted the stability of a new deal, but as a result, USF's buyout is $1.5 million more than it would have been under his original contract.
Woolard said the extension had "zero" impact on his decision to fire Holtz, 48, who won two Conference USA championships at East Carolina before coming to Tampa. His Bulls record overall was 16-21.
"I want to thank my assistant coaches, staff, the players and their families for their dedication and loyalty," Holtz said in a statement released by USF. "I'm extremely proud of how they fought through adversity during this time. Throughout my time here, the young men on this team never gave up, and that reflects on their character, as individuals and as a team."
Holtz did not return messages seeking further comment.
Holtz's teams could compete with anyone but were best known for late-game collapses. Three games last season were lost on the final play and a fourth with 12 seconds left. This year the Bulls lost three games by allowing 75-yard touchdown drives in the final two minutes. Nine of Holtz's losses came by four points or fewer, which only added to the frustration of USF fans.
"I am keenly aware of how difficult the 2012 football season has been to our loyal and faithful fan base," said Woolard, one day after USF's season finale, a 27-3 loss to Pittsburgh, drew an actual attendance of 18,841 at Raymond James Stadium, barely half the number of tickets distributed for the announced attendance of 35,141. "While our program is young … our history is rich, and the expectations of coaches, players, students, administrators and fans are high. That is why the past few months have been hard for all of us," Woolard said.
Holtz remained positive and upbeat throughout, stressing the progress his players were making everywhere but in the league standings. Woolard was quick to point out the huge academic strides the program made under Holtz, setting records for highest team grade-point average one semester after the next.
But coaches are ultimately judged by the scoreboard.
Holtz had a 2 p.m. meeting Sunday to say goodbye to his players, an emotional gathering for a close team.
USF did not allow the players to talk to the media, but they expressed their sentiments on social media. They were disappointed by Holtz's firing and thanked him for his positive influence on and off the field.
"All I can say is (Holtz) taught me more than football," freshman linebacker Corian Hamilton said on Twitter. "He taught me how to be a good man and one day be a great father. Thanks."
"It's somber," said assistant coach Larry Scott, a member of USF's first team in 1997. "It's a really good group of kids. He's a great man, great husband, great father, great leader of men.
"(But) if you're not performing well, if you're not putting a product out that you want, things like this at some point are inevitable."
USF will move quickly to find a replacement for Holtz. One popular choice is Western Kentucky coach Willie Taggart, young enough at 36 that he had three touchdowns as a Western Kentucky quarterback in beating the Bulls in their first season. Taggart coached under Jim Harbaugh, currently the San Francisco 49ers coach in the National Football League, when Harbaugh was a college coach at Stanford, and this season he guided Western Kentucky to an upset at Kentucky of the Southeastern Conference.
"Every program experiences highs and lows on the way to national prominence," Woolard said. "Brighter days are ahead. … Our fan base deserves to know that we are committed toward making USF successful on a national scale. We will conduct our search for the next head coach with that in mind."