Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Colleges

USF Bulls, Skip Holtz fueled by hurt of last season

TAMPA

If you wish, you could move the game to Saturday afternoon. That would be just fine with Skip Holtz.

Come to think of it, why wait? Why not play on Saturday morning? Early, if that would make the TV people happy; it's no problem with Holtz. Just tell the Tennessee-Chattanooga players to skip breakfast and show up at dawn.

Friday night's all right. For that matter, so is tonight. Who has anything better to do?

Heck, as far as Holtz is concerned, a half-hour from right now is good. Just let him pick up the first down markers on the way to the stadium and he's ready to get this party started.

Frankly, Holtz is tired of waiting for USF's football season to begin. These days the coach is wound tighter than your grandfather's watch. He talks fast, and he walks around his office like an expectant father, and you get the feeling that if he had to wait another week to play, his head might explode.

In his coaching career, Holtz has never been like this. He has never wanted — never needed — so badly for a new season to begin. He is like a stir-crazy boxer who needs to hit something soon. Have you heard about the countdown clock in the Bulls' locker room that tells the players how long it is until kickoff? In the pit of his stomach, Holtz has one of his own.

Why? Because this season is so promising.

Why else? Because last season was so painful.

At USF, it is impossible to talk about the season to come without remembering last year, the season that got away. Game after game, week after week, the Bulls would be in great shape in the fourth quarter and somehow or another they would find a way to lose. UConn. Cincinnati. Rutgers. Miami. Louisville. West Virginia. Week after week, nightmare after nightmare.

It was a maddening, frustrating 5-7 season, one Holtz calls the worst he has endured. It was a Wile E. Coyote of a season. Every episode, the accursed Road Runner would be in trouble, and by the time the cartoon was at its end, a giant boulder was crashing onto a familiar head.

On Wednesday afternoon, Holtz sat in his office revisiting the pain. No one had to bring up last year. It is never very far from Holtz. Eight months after the season ended, his voice quivers as he talks about the recurring heartache of 2011.

"Whenever I think about it, I just get sick," he said. "I don't know if I've recovered from just having your heart torn out. It was gut-wrenching to be that close and not be able to get over the hump. You would go into the locker room and you could see the tears and the empty faces. That was the hard thing.''

It was hard, Holtz said. It was painful, and it was bitter, and it tasted like something vile.

Then he said this: He doesn't want his players to forget it. Not any of it.

"I want them to realize how close we were and how we shot ourselves in the foot," Holtz said. "We controlled whether we won or lost those games. I want them to think about what could have been.

"I don't want them to forget that hurt. I don't want it to go away. That's our fuel. That's the chip on the shoulders. The only way we can get rid of that bad taste in our mouths is in December if we're hoisting that trophy."

For USF, "that trophy" is for the Big East championship, a title the Bulls have never made a serious run toward. This year, however, they have most of the defense back, and they have a fifth-year quarterback in B.J. Daniels. Louisville is the consensus favorite in the Big East, but most people have USF at No. 2, which leads to this question: Why not USF?

"If we can stay healthy," Holtz said carefully, "we have a chance."

After all, this team is deeper, and it is more talented, and it has been through tough times. You can say that about the players, and you can say that about the head coach.

"It was definitely the toughest season I've been through," Holtz said. "You beat yourself up and say 'What could I have done to avoid this? What could I have called?' "

As a head coach, Holtz had lost five games on the final play in his 12 seasons before last. Last year he lost three, a fourth on the next-to-last play.

Yeah, that will leave a chip on a coach's shoulder, too, though Holtz tweaks it to "a fire in his belly." Either way, he says he would have started this season last December if he could have.

Instead, it begins Saturday night against Tennessee-Chattanooga.

"I want us to execute," Holtz said. "We're not playing Tennessee-Chattanooga. We're playing ourselves."

Right. And the Bulls are not playing with just 2012 in mind, but in healing 2011 along the way.

As for Holtz, the game can't come fast enough.

Listen to Gary Shelton from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays on 98.7-FM The Fan.

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