New coach wants USF to get to Florida’s level
Someone in the crowd ringing the amphitheater outside the University of South Florida student center shouted "Beat Florida!" Skip Holtz smiled and waited for the applause to wane.
"That’s why I’m here," he said, setting off another round of cheers.
A week after firing Jim Leavitt for mistreating a player, South Florida introduced Holtz as the second coach in the school’s relatively brief football history.
The son of former Notre Dame and South Carolina coach Lou Holtz talked Friday about winning Big East championships and achieving even loftier goals of elevating South Florida to the level of Florida, Florida State and Miami and competing for national titles.
"We want to build one of the better programs in the country," he said following a news conference that was more like a pep rally.
Hundreds of enthusiastic students, including at least one who knows Florida is on next season’s schedule, stopped by.
"It’s not going to happen overnight," Holtz added. "But it can happen here."
The Bulls lured the 45-year-old coach from East Carolina with a five-year, $9.1 million contract and an opportunity to work at a BCS school near family that resides in Florida.
Holtz’s parents live in Orlando, east of Tampa. His wife is from Port Charlotte, less then two hours to the south.
The coach said it was difficult saying goodbye to his old team, which won Conference USA titles the past two seasons. He also told USF athletic director Doug Woolard that "it would have been a lot harder for me to watch that airplane take off without me."
Holtz’s contract calls for base salaries of $1.7 million in each of the first two years; $1.8 million in 2012, $1.9 million in 2013 and $2 million in 2014. It includes a $1 million buyout clause for the first two seasons, $500,000 in 2012 and $300,000 in 2013.
While East Carolina was in need of a drastic overhaul when he joined the Pirates in December 2004, Holtz inherits a program that has been one of the nation’s feel-good stories for much of the past decade.
That was until Leavitt was accused a grabbing a player by the throat during halftime of a game in November, slapping him in the face twice and then lying about the incident.
The only coach South Florida had in the first 13 years of the program was fired last week when a university investigation concluded the coach’s account of what happened was not credible and that Leavitt also tried to interfere with the probe.
Holtz met with the Bulls after arriving on campus from Greenville, N.C., late Thursday.
His message was simple.
"I know there needs to be some healing," the coach said, adding he respects what Leavitt accomplished in starting USF’s program from scratch and guiding the Bulls to a 95-57 record that included numerous signature victories.
"I told them this is not about Jim Leavitt’s players, Jim Leavitt’s recruits or Skip Holtz’s recruits. It’s about coming to together as the University of South Florida football team and doing what it takes to get to the next level."
Holtz is one of four coaches to win conference championships the past two seasons.
He took over a program at East Carolina that had lost 22 of its previous 25 games and rebuilt the Pirates into a team that’s had winning records and played in bowl games the past four years.
USF is the only BCS school in the country to begin each of the past three seasons with at least five straight victories. But each of the promising starts was followed by a midseason swoon that dropped the Bulls out of the Top 25 and contention for a Big East title.
Holtz expects to have a staff in place by early next week. He anticipates keeping some of Leavitt’s assistants.
"They have been to five straight bowl games. Obviously they’re doing a lot of things right," the coach said. "I’m not looking to come in and reinvent the wheel. I’m looking to build on the success that this program has already enjoyed."
Holtz, 38-27 in five seasons at East Carolina, said he’s going to be open-minded about the team’s style of play. USF returns nine starters on offense, including quarterback B.J. Daniels, and six on defense.
"This isn’t about Skip Holtz running his system. This is about what talents and abilities do we have on this football team," the coach said. "I’ve thrown the ball 14 times a game and won a lot of games. I’ve thrown the ball 65 times a game and won a lot of games."