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April 15, 2010

Holtz introduces himself to USF, fans

TAMPA, Fla. - Skip Holtz spent his first three months on the job doing something his predecessor at USF didn't have to do very often: Holtz had to introduce himself.

Jim Leavitt recruited every football player whose picture or nameplate hangs in the USF athletic offices and nearly every player on the current roster. His fundraising helped move the USF football offices out of trailers and into a $15 million on-campus athletic facility.

Welcoming the new guy is new territory for the Bulls. After Leavitt's dismissal stemming from allegations he mistreated a player, USF changed head coaches for the first time in the program's 14-year history.

Holtz acknowledges he isn't here under ideal circumstances. He is trying his best to make the transition as comfortable as possible, starting by shaking as many hands as he can.

He started on his first day on the job, slipping out of Greenville, N.C., and into Tampa for a late-night meeting with his new team.

"It was probably 9 at night," quarterback B.J. Daniels said. "He flew down and it was just to address us. He didn't come down for the media or fanfare. He came for us.

"I thought that was pretty cool."

From there, once he settled in Tampa, Holtz met with each player individually to get the pulse of the team.

The most vexing problem as far as the on-field product is USF's recent tendency to fade down the stretch. The Bulls started 5-0 in each of the past two seasons but finished both seasons with a losing record in the Big East. In 2007, USF started 6-0 but went 3-4 the rest of the way.

"I asked them what their evaluation was of our program," Holtz said. "Had them evaluate the weight room, the equipment room, the coaches, how close are we as a team, what are the biggest things we should have changed."

Then came Holtz's public-relations blitz.

Leavitt's work to build the program brought respect, but he wasn't always the most personable person in the athletic offices or in the community. He buried himself in the football part of being a coach - breaking down film and putting together game plans - at a time when many coaches opt to be the CEO type.

In media interviews, Leavitt could be short and gruff - especially during the season. He had a policy of limited radio interviews other than his contractually obligated coach's show. Not that Leavitt was a great sound bite to begin with: Through the course of a game, Leavitt often tore his voice to shreds.

But Leavitt's style worked for USF. The Bulls moved from Division I-AA to Conference USA to the Big East in the course of only a decade. The Bulls have made five consecutive bowl appearances. After defeating Florida State 17-7 in Tallahassee in September, the Bulls are knocking on the door and trying to join Florida's "Big Three" on the top floor.

"There's a lot of ways to win games and run a football program," said Carl Franks, a Leavitt assistant since 2004 and now an assistant in an administrative role. "Coach Holtz is putting his stamp on the program."

Start with the radio policy. In that respect, Holtz and Leavitt couldn't be more different. Instead of arriving at the football offices before dawn, Holtz has visited the sports radio stations in the Tampa Bay area to do in-studio interviews during morning drive time. At one point, he did promo reads for a hip-hop station.

When he wasn't talking USF football on the radio, he did so in person. The day before spring practice began, Holtz spent part of the day participating in a pro-am golf tournament for charity while his assistants put the finishing touches on practice preparations. Holtz attended every home basketball game after he was hired, talking to fans and students. He also held three "town hall" meetings with fan groups in Tampa and St. Petersburg.

"It was a state of the union, get to know Skip Holtz." Holtz said. "I talked for three to five minutes, and I answered questions for two hours."

The most important interaction, though, came with the players.

"He gave the regular speech all coaches give, that he was here to win and to get better and things like that," Daniels said. "It's not what you say; it's how you say it. At that point, I felt like it was actually a coach I could trust and play for. That was a hard time for our team."

Although the Bulls have been impressed with Holtz's demeanor, they can't say he's overly lenient. One of his first actions was to dismiss running back Mike Ford, who arrived at USF as a top prospect but had dealt with a series of off-field problems.

For now, though, Bulls players have welcomed a culture change around the program.

"He's real cool, real laid-back, and keeps his composure," linebacker Sabbath Joseph said.

That's easy to say during the spring. Holtz might not be so relaxed when USF faces in-state foes Florida and Miami on the road this fall.

Spring practice ends Saturday, and Holtz's top priorities no longer involve meeting and greeting the Bulls' supporters. USF's biggest challenge is to sustain success over the course of a full season. Even had Leavitt remained in Tampa, the Bulls would have had a changing of the guard on the field in 2010.

Defense was the bedrock of Holtz's teams at East Carolina, which won the past two Conference USA titles. USF returns only four defensive starters, losing stalwarts George Selvie and Nate Allen along with projected first-round pick Jason Pierre-Paul. Offensively, USF returns 11 players who started at least six games, but there are questions at wide receiver and running back.

"It would have been a new time whether I was here or not," Holtz said.

In addition, USF faces the potential distractions of legal wrangling off the field. On March 16, the first day of spring practice, Leavitt filed a lawsuit to recoup the $7 million left on his contract. Leavitt alleges his firing was a breach of contract because the investigation into his alleged mistreatment of a player was "biased, flawed and legally unsupportable."

USF officials have not commented on the lawsuit.

"I hate the situation that happened here," Holtz said. "I hate what both sides are having to go through. I have great respect for Coach Leavitt and what he's going through right now. I hate what these players are going through. I don't think any one of them have asked for the situation they're going through."

Holtz, though, has done what he can to ease the pressure.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

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