It's not often that a coach is asked to take the reins of a program from the only coach the program has ever had. It's also rare for a coach to take over for a man that had the program consistently in the postseason and had notched several landmark wins in his tenure. Still, those were the circumstances that surrounded the South Florida football program when it fired the only coach it had ever known, Jim Leavitt, and replaced him with East Carolina head coach Skip Holtz. Holtz took over a program that, while successful, had leveled off in its development. Seen as a program ideally situated for football success, the Bulls hadn't won a Big East title and weren't maximizing their potential as a BCS team in a talent-laden state. After one season under Skip Holtz, there's reason to believe the Bulls are on their way to reaching that potential.
Wins and Losses
It might not make sense, but the Bulls 2010 8-5 (3-4) record is demonstrably better than the 2009 8-5 (3-4) record. How is that possible? First, the Bulls played a much more difficult schedule in 2010. In Big East play, South Florida traveled to West Virginia, Cincinnati, and Louisville while out of conference the Bulls faced road games at Florida and at Miami. This made for a much more difficult schedule than they faced in 2009. Still, the Bulls battled through the transition growing pains that come with adjusting to a new coach and accomplished much in year one. The Bulls ended a four game losing streak to Rutgers and Cincinnati, rallied to beat Miami on the road, won in Louisville for the first time ever, and upset Clemson in the bowl game to get win number eight. While the totals were the same, there were wins that signaled this was not the same Bulls team with Skip Holtz now at the helm.
The biggest change that Skip Holtz brought to the Bulls in year number one was a calm that former coach Jim Leavitt could never seem to instill.You can tell that the changes to the team were psychological because the Bulls actually got worse in almost every statistical category both offensively and defensively. The Bulls gained roughly 40 yards fewer per game and allowed 40 yards more per game in 2010 compared to 2009. They scored almost three points fewer per game while allowed the same number as they did in 2009 (20 ppg). The statistical regression for the Bulls only serves to highlight how good of a job Holtz did. The Bulls played a tougher schedule with better opponents, battled through injuries at quarterback, and still notched groundbreaking wins for the program.
There are a couple of places you could point to as points in the season where things changed for the better for Holtz and the Bulls. If forced to pick one where the Bulls seemed to finally take on the personality of their coach, the win on the road at Louisville in the cold weather seems the best. Two seasons ago the Bulls traveled to Louisville still ranked in the top 25 and lost to a subpar Louisville team. That loss triggered what became the hallmark of Jim Leavitt coached teams: the November meltdown. In 2010, the Bulls were outgained by Louisville, but got one big pass play, a special teams touchdown, and a stellar defensive effort in overtime to notch their first win ever at Papa Johns Cardinal Stadium. While the Bulls still suffered tough losses to UConn and Pitt (the conference co-champions), they won at Miami and played a fantastic bowl game to beat Clemson and build positive momentum for 2011.
If He Had It to Do Over Again
I imagine the UConn game still wakes Holtz up from a dead sleep. With a chance to take the lead and first and goal to go late in the game, the Bulls inexplicably threw multiple fade passes into the end zone instead of at least trying to run the ball, kill the remaining clock, and punch it in on the ground. Instead, both pass attempts were incomplete, the Bulls were forced to kick a game tying field goal, and UConn was able to use the remaining time to drive down and kick a game winning field goal with 17 seconds left in the game.
There were opportunities to knock off one of the worst Florida teams in years that Bulls struggling offense wasn't able to take advantage of and the chance to knock of the eventual champion that questionable play-calling kept from happening, still, there was marked progress for the Bulls in year one under Skip Holtz. For the first time in years, the Bulls actually grew and improved as a team as the year wore on and that bodes well for the future. He inherited a team with talent on defense and questions at quarterback and held them together through injuries. The 2011 recruiting class was ok, and if there is anywhere we'd like to see Holtz improve it's in getting a bigger and better share of the talent in central Florida, still, the Bulls should be happy with the job Holtz did and should expect bigger and better things in the future with him at the helm.