How Skip Holtz saved first USF class (cont.)
On the day USF and Carnes parted ways, the Bulls still had reason to celebrate. The previous night, Holtz had sat in the living room of Tampa cornerback Terrence Mitchell. Holtz thought he had a shot at Mitchell, but he couldn't be sure. Mitchell, ranked the nation's seventh-best cornerback and No. 89 overall prospect by Rivals.com, planned to sign with Florida State. Though Leavitt made considerable strides during his time at USF -- including beating the Seminoles in Tallahassee in 2009 -- the Bulls rarely won recruiting skirmishes against FSU, Florida and Miami.
Mitchell's father peppered Holtz with questions, and the elder and younger Mitchell liked the answers. On Jan. 29, Mitchell pulled the switch and told Holtz he would sign with USF. "I felt like I could do something special right here at home," Mitchell said, "instead of building somebody else's program elsewhere."
Even though Holtz had been on the job just two weeks, he understood the significance of the switch. "That was a big day," Holtz said. "For us to turn and take this program where we want to take it, that's the level we're going to have to recruit at. That's the level we're going to line up and play with. That's the level we're going to have to recruit against."
The next dead period began Feb. 1. Visits -- official and unofficial -- stopped. Calls from recruits slowed to a trickle. For the most part, USF's recruiting hay was in the barn.
So Holtz turned to the business of getting to know the players already on his roster. He scheduled three days of meetings. By the end of Signing Day on Feb. 3, Holtz would meet with every player on USF's roster. He wanted to know his players' majors, their family situations. He wanted to know everything.
Meanwhile, Holtz's assistants cloistered themselves in their meeting rooms. Before USF could unveil its basic offensive and defensive schemes, the staffs had to agree on common languages. "Get ready," defensive coordinator Snyder said on Feb. 2 as he cued up a series from the 2009 USF-FSU game. "You're about to hear French, Italian and Spanish."
Indeed, it sounded as if the coaches were speaking different tongues. Defensive line coach Patrick translated USF's terminology for Hargreaves and Smith, who spoke East Carolina. Snyder, meanwhile, spoke Marshall. "If you want him in the box," Smith said, using a laser pointer to highlight a defender, "you call White Shoot."
The task of internalizing and codifying the agreed-upon new language fell upon program coordinator Pat St. Louis, a recently graduated USF player hoping to launch his own coaching career. Once the language is assembled, St. Louis will have to catalogue every play run by the USF defense and by opposing offenses so coaches can find them easily using video management software.
While the defensive coaches took a few minutes to unwrap their sandwiches before getting back to work, offensive coaches watched a sequence from last year's Conference USA title game between East Carolina and Houston. As Fitch called out plays, offensive line coach Scott inquired about the names of protection schemes. Every once in a while, running backs coach Franks asked Fitch a question about the backs' roles in the offense.
Franks, who served as USF's interim coach between Leavitt's firing and Holtz's hire, probably could have skipped the meeting. He wants badly to stay at USF, but last week, he didn't sound optimistic. Still, he tried his best to recruit, and he tried his best to prove himself valuable in the meeting room. "I don't know that I have to sit in there, but it beats the heck out of sitting and doing nothing," Franks said. "And that's fun. If you're a football coach, that's fun."
Franks knows he has led a charmed career. In 25 years as a college coach, he had been fired only once. The Duke graduate hitched his wagon to Steve Spurrier's star, working for the Head Ball Coach for two seasons with the Tampa Bay Bandits, three at Duke and nine at Florida. Franks returned to his alma mater as head coach before the 1999 season. He was fired after the 2003 season, and that's when he landed at USF. He had hoped to work the rest of his life in Tampa, and he certainly doesn't relish the prospect of being unemployed for any length of time when he has one daughter in college and another about to graduate high school.
In spite of all that, Franks came to work every day with a smile. "In life, you get a choice. I could have chosen to be frustrated, mad," he said. "But what good would that have done me? Not a bit. It would have made me feel worse, made me be the guy moping around. I chose to do my job. I chose to try to do it the very best I could do it."
On what might have been his last significant day on the job at USF, Franks brought bagels. On Signing Day, coaches filtered into the office shortly before 7 a.m., the first moment prospects could file a valid National Letter of Intent. Steve Horton, USF's associate athletic director in charge of compliance, stationed himself next to the HP LaserJet 9050 next to Burnham's office. The printer/copier/fax machine is where the magic happens on Signing Day -- provided the recruits send in their documents in a timely fashion.
As the coaches waited for the first fax, chaplain Rev. David Lane sat in the reception area outside Holtz's office, near a table filled with doughnut boxes. "We've got a reverend in here," assistant athletic director Chris Freet said, "to talk people off ledges." At 7:25 a.m., the HP finally rumbled to life. Out popped the letter-of-intent from Tony Kibler, a 315-pound offensive lineman from Belle Glade, Fla. Unfortunately, the fax didn't include Kibler's grant-in-aid form, so kicker Chris Veron (7:57 a.m.) went down as the first official signee. The rest of Kibler's documents arrived at 8:24.
They might have arrived earlier, but the HP had some issues. "We've got action," offensive line coach Scott said as the fax line rang. But the machine did not spew forth any signed documents. As four sets of eyes stared at the machine, Vaas muttered something about a "watched pot" and walked away. Burnham came to the rescue. "You've just got to press buttons," he said, "until it starts."
Incomplete forms were a recurring theme. Scott pulled a major coup when he coaxed a signature out of Miami defensive tackle Todd Chandler, who had once committed to Miami and, as late as early last week, seemed keen on joining new coach Charlie Strong at Louisville. Chandler announced on television that morning that he would sign with USF, but unfortunately for Scott, Chandler sent in his grant-in-aid form but not his letter-of-intent. Scott worked the phone and finally tracked down Chandler, who was celebrating his college choice with lunch. When he learned he still needed to fax a form, Chandler and his mother tore around Miami looking for a FedEx Office branch. They found one, and a few minutes later, a relieved Scott thanked Chandler for acting so quickly. That led to this exchange, according to Scott.
Scott: "We got it. Everything's good."
Chandler: "That's good, coach. Now can I go eat my chicken?"
It wasn't all great news for Scott, USF's ace recruiter of Miami. Jose Jose, a 370-pound lineman, had told Scott he planned to sign with USF. On Signing Day, the sports information director at Central Florida released a message on Twitter that Jose had signed with the Knights. Scott walked down the hallway at almost the same moment. "I just heard," he said. Later, Scott went to Holtz's office to report that Jose had gotten away. Scott left the office and walked down the hall, staring at his cell phone.
Scott wouldn't stay down long. He also helped recruit Mitchell, the Tampa cornerback USF swiped from FSU. At a noon ceremony at Hillsborough High, Mitchell donned a white Bulls cap and pledged his allegiance to USF. While that brightened the mood, the coaches couldn't completely relax until Mitchell's paperwork rolled off the fax machine. By that point, 17 members of USF's 19-member class -- some will grayshirt and enroll in January 2011, while some might attend junior college or prep school first -- had either enrolled or faxed in their forms. Finally, at 1:46 p.m., Mitchell's forms arrived. Prichard, Ala., lineman Quinterrius Eatmon would send his 18 minutes later.
With the class complete, the tornado finally stopped spinning. Holtz wrapped up his meetings with USF's current players, and he returned to Greenville to help his family prepare for the move to Tampa. Difficult decisions awaited upon his return to Tampa. Which staff members would he keep? Which ones would he fire? What offense will he run? How will he approach spring practice?
With each question, the cyclonic wind gathers strength. That tornado will rage again soon, but Holtz plans to enjoy the ride. "This is a sleeping giant," he said. "There is no ceiling on this program."
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