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Inside Skip Holtz's efforts to save his first recruiting class at USF

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.

Finally, Mary Trump had some answers to provide. Trump, in her third year running the Bulls' recruiting office, essentially turned into a switchboard operator the moment Leavitt was fired. For almost two weeks, she fielded hundreds of phone calls from concerned recruits and their parents. They all had questions, but she had little information to give them. "People wanted answers," she said, "that I couldn't give them."

In her time running the recruiting office, Trump has learned the best response in that situation is the simplest and most truthful one: I don't know. "People get frustrated, but I don't know what else they want me to tell them," she said. "I don't know."

Armed with the identities of assistants and a clearer picture of the program's new CEO, Trump could handle most of the questions. The Bulls' recruiting machine began to hum again, and the coaches hit the road to finish out the class.

When Holtz and company arrived at East Carolina on Dec. 3, 2004, they started from scratch. Fortunately, there is a recruiting dead period in late December. With no coaches on the road, Holtz and his assistants had time to catch up. For almost two weeks they pored over videos, trying to identify the players who were capable of playing for East Carolina and willing to sign with the Pirates. Equally fortunately, Holtz had just spent six years working for his father at South Carolina. He knew the best players in the Carolinas, and he knew which schools they would consider.

At USF, Holtz faced a different problem. He had all the recruiting information, but he had no time. With Signing Day looming, he decided to recruit the players Leavitt's staff had recruited. He also decided he wouldn't recruit players who had committed to him at East Carolina, even though several called him to express interest in USF. "We had a number of commitments at East Carolina that kept calling us here that wanted to change, that wanted to come," Holtz said. "I wouldn't get involved with them. I didn't want to take them away from East Carolina. Some of them turned around and committed to other schools."

Even though not all of the dozen or so players already to committed to USF were the kind Holtz would necessarily recruit, he pledged to honor their scholarships on one condition: They had to commit to him and decline to take other visits. That message got lost in translation with one key recruit, and the situation mushroomed into a mess that cost the Bulls a quarterback and left Holtz scrambling to repair a damaged relationship with a legendary coach.

Brion Carnes, a 6-foot, 181-pound quarterback from Manatee High in Bradenton, Fla., committed to USF in December 2008. He was the first player to commit to Leavitt for 2010, and Carnes fully expected to be a Bull until the day Leavitt was fired. "He had no other visits set up until all this happened," said Manatee coach Joe Kinnan, who coached former Nebraska quarterback Tommie Frazier and former Green Bay Packers cornerback Tyrone Williams and who also once served as an assistant at Arkansas.

Carnes, shaken up by the change, decided he wanted to examine other options. Soon after Leavitt was fired, Carnes scheduled a visit to Nebraska for the weekend of Jan. 23. He made his official visit to USF the weekend Holtz arrived. Then Carnes went to Lincoln. For the weekend of Jan. 30, he scheduled a visit to Western Kentucky, where Manatee grad Willie Taggert had just taken over as head coach. The visit seemed a mere courtesy, and Holtz, who shuddered every time he looked at his quarterback depth chart, wanted to know where the Bulls stood with Carnes.

USF has a potential star in B.J. Daniels, a redshirt freshman who took over in September 2009 after senior starter Matt Grothe suffered a season-ending knee injury. But Daniels is the only quarterback the Bulls have on scholarship. His former backup, Evan Landi, is a likely starter at receiver, and Holtz didn't want to ask Landi to become a backup again. Holtz absolutely had to sign a quarterback in this class. "Spring is going to be interesting," Holtz said. "We may be in the Wing-T in spring practice."

At the same time, Holtz didn't have many scholarships left to give. The NCAA allows schools to keep 85 players on scholarship at a given time, and at the moment the Bulls had just 13 open slots. Holtz said he told Carnes days before he visited Western Kentucky that he needed an answer. Either Carnes wanted to play for the Bulls, or he wanted to play for someone else. If he wanted to play at USF, he needed to re-commit and cancel his final visit. "He said he needed to take some other visits," Holtz said. "He needed to be able to compare South Florida to another school. He needed to take some other options, and he did. ... I understand that, but at the same time, we have one quarterback on scholarship. I can't afford to go to the 11th hour and have no quarterbacks."

Further muddying the issue was Holtz's impression that Carnes didn't want to play for any coordinator but Canales, with whom he'd developed a bond. "When I let Canales go, I more or less lost the quarterback," Holtz said. "I hate it. But you could sit there and try to lie and mislead and keep everybody in place until recruiting ends and then let everybody go."

Kinnan said neither Holtz nor any of his assistants gave Carnes a hard and fast deadline. "Coach Holtz was under the impression that information had been conveyed," Kinnan said. "However, I never got that information. Brion said he never was aware that was the case."

Kinnan said Carnes had just arrived at Western Kentucky on Jan. 29 when he learned he no longer had an offer from USF. Two days later, it became apparent why. Multiple outlets reported Jamius Gunsby, a 6-4, 220-pound quarterback from LaGrange, Ga., had committed to USF. "I've lost a lot of respect for the South Florida program," Kinnan told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune on Jan. 29. Carnes, meanwhile, followed in the footsteps of Manatee grad Frazier and signed with Nebraska.

Reached by SI.com on Feb. 5, Kinnan didn't seem angry. Because of his college experience, Kinnan understands the concept of a scholarship numbers crunch. What he couldn't understand is why neither he nor Carnes knew Carnes needed to make a decision. "If they had ever said that to him or said that to me, then I would have had no problem," Kinnan said. "They never said that." Kinnan said has spoken to Holtz once on the phone, and the men plan to meet down the road to discuss and hopefully iron out the misunderstanding.

Holtz, for his part, is sick about the entire ordeal. He doesn't want a reputation as a coach who pulls scholarship offers. Nor does he want to start off on the wrong foot with a coach whose program produces top-shelf talent every year. "It's unfortunate," Holtz said. "I hate the way it is."

Some good may come of the Carnes' recruitment, though. Kinnan said he plans to hold an information session for players and parents to explain the ins and outs of the recruiting process. One of his key points will be this: If you aren't 100 percent sure you want to attend a certain school, don't commit. "If you get married," Kinnan said, "you don't keep dating."

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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