Inside Skip Holtz's efforts to save his first recruiting class at USF
After his hire, Skip Holtz had just 20 days to secure USF's recruiting class
Holtz had to contend with QB recruit drama, uncertain futures for assistants
SI.com was on hand to witness the program's final push to land its targets
TAMPA, Fla. -- South Florida coach Skip Holtz peered out his office window last week toward a practice field he has never coached on and spoke of the things he knew and the things he must learn.
He knew he was happy in Greenville, N.C. He knew every player on East Carolina's roster. He knew their strengths, their weaknesses and their mothers' names. He knew he loved his athletic director and chancellor. He knew he had the support of the community. He knew he could win; the Pirates claimed the last two Conference USA titles. "There were so many positives," Holtz said. "Then a tornado came by, and I jumped into the middle of it."
Holtz touched down in Tampa three weeks before National Signing Day. He needed to fire coaches, hire coaches and save a recruiting class shaken by USF's sudden firing of Jim Leavitt -- the only coach the young program had ever known -- on Jan. 8. He did it all, but not without equal doses of joy, pain and awkwardness.
Last week, Holtz gave SI.com a glimpse inside the tornado.
The incident that set the cyclone in motion took place on the afternoon of Nov. 21. Attorneys are debating the exact details, but an independent investigator hired by USF concluded that Leavitt struck walk-on Joel Miller in the face at halftime of the Bulls' win over Louisville and then lied about the incident. For those alleged transgressions, Leavitt was fired with cause. The St. Petersburg native who founded the program in 1996 would not return.
Almost immediately, USF athletic director Doug Woolard was flooded with inquiries from interested coaches. According to documents obtained by The Tampa Tribune, Southern Miss coach Larry Fedora, Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster, Oklahoma offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson and Michigan offensive coordinator Calvin Magee (who actually interviewed) were among the dozens who expressed interest. A Texan named Michael Moore also sent an e-mail expressing interest, but he didn't get far. Moore didn't have any coaching experience; he's still in high school.
Louis Leo Holtz Jr. didn't contact USF, but the eldest son of legendary coach Lou Holtz didn't need much convincing after Bulls officials got in touch. His wife, Jennifer, grew up in Port Charlotte, Fla., 100 miles south of Tampa on Interstate 75. His parents have had a home in Orlando -- 85 miles east on Interstate 4 -- since 1978. Holtz also knew USF sits in a recruiting hotbed that should make the Bulls the Big East's most athletic team every year. Between 2004-09, an astounding 919 BCS-conference signees have played high school football within 200 miles of USF's campus. That's an average of six full signing classes a year. Holtz knew that, if he wanted, he could recruit a team capable of winning the Big East title without ever getting on an airplane. "You could almost do it on a bike here," he said.
Holtz, who acts as his own agent, accepted the job on Jan. 14, 20 days before National Signing Day. On Jan. 15, he wore a green tie and a green USF hat as he was introduced at a pep rally masquerading as a press conference. Later that day, he would kick off his first recruiting weekend as the Bulls' coach. But first, he had to meet with a group of men, some of whom he was about to fire.
Leavitt was the only coach dismissed on Jan. 8. His assistants all remained employed by USF, and they recruited for the Bulls during the week the program didn't have a coach. When Holtz arrived, he asked all nine assistants to stay and help him recruit the high schoolers who would visit that weekend. Most of the players visiting had already committed to sign with USF. Committed to sign with Leavitt's staff, more accurately. Holtz was unsure if they'd still want to play for him.
Leavitt's assistants all stayed for that first weekend. Several, including offensive coordinator Mike Canales and defensive coordinator Joe Tresey, knew they would be fired as soon as the weekend ended. Holtz knew it, too. "They were thrown into a situation through no fault of their own," Holtz said. "All they did was go to five bowls in five years."
In any other business, a man on the cusp of firing might simply choose to leave, but football coaches rarely do. Coaches accept the fact that staffs turn over, that families get uprooted. If a lame-duck coach deliberately tanks a recruiting assignment because he knows he is about to get fired, that act would follow him into his search for his next job. The coaching fraternity is that tight-knit.
USF director of player development Pat Burnham understands that better than most. His father, former USF and current Iowa State defensive coordinator Wally Burnham, has coached at nine different schools with a USFL stint in between No. 5 and No. 6. The elder Burnham has gotten fired, and he has been brought in to replace a fired coach. Pat Burnham, who as of last week wasn't sure if he would be retained, said football people simply understand change is inevitable.
"You do realize at the end of the day that it is part of the business," Burnham said. "I've been lucky in one respect to be around it my whole life. Nothing that happens in college football would surprise me one way or the other. The days of coach [Bobby] Bowden and coach [Joe] Paterno are probably behind us."
With Holtz leading the way and the former Leavitt assistants recruiting to a school that might not employ them come Monday, recruits began checking into an Embassy near campus. Later, each was assigned to a current USF player, and the entire group -- coaches, players, hosts and parents -- traveled downtown for a tour of Raymond James Stadium followed by a dinner cruise around Tampa Bay.
There, Holtz made the rounds. Recruits accustomed to seeing Holtz's diminutive, wise-cracking father on ESPN probably didn't recognize the 6-foot-4 man with the voice like a bullhorn. That's OK. Holtz didn't recognize them, either. As the Tampa skyline glistened in the distance, Holtz approached each muscular young man in attendance with a handshake and a question. "Hi. Skip Holtz," he said. "Are you a recruit or are you a player?"
The following day went smoothly. Recruits visited with professors and toured USF's facilities. They met with coaches and checked out the dorms. That night, they dined at The Columbia, a turn-of-the-20th-century landmark in the Ybor City district.
Most of the players who had committed to the previous staff still wanted to play for Holtz. The former Leavitt assistants on the verge of losing their jobs assured recruits they could thrive under Holtz and whatever assistants he hired. That Sunday, after the recruits went home, the ax fell. Canales, Tresey, offensive line coach Mike Simmonds, linebackers coach David Blackwell and special teams coach John Hendrick were fired. Running backs coach Carl Franks and receivers coach Phil McGeoghan were retained with the promise of evaluation at a later date. Defensive line coach Kevin Patrick and offensive line coach Larry Scott were told they would keep their jobs.
The soon-to-be-fired assistants' loyalty to the program made it even harder for Holtz to break the bad news. "The professionalism of the way they handled themselves was unbelievable," Holtz said. "It touched me. They did a phenomenal job."
But Holtz had others in mind for those jobs. Within days, he had made five hires. From East Carolina, he brought offensive coordinator Todd Fitch, linebackers coach Vernon Hargreaves and secondary coach Rick Smith. To coach quarterbacks, he hired Peter Vaas, who had most recently served as offensive coordinator at Miami (Ohio). Holtz also hired former Marshall head coach Mark Snyder as his defensive coordinator.