Inside Skip Holtz's efforts to save his first recruiting class at USF
TAMPA, Fla. -- South Florida coach
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
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
Almost immediately, USF athletic director
Louis Leo Holtz Jr. didn't contact USF, but the eldest son of legendary coach
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
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
"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 [
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
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
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
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.
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
USF has a potential star in
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
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
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
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
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.
As the coaches waited for the first fax, chaplain Rev.
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
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.
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
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."