It's hard to believe now, but just 15 years ago, USF football was a blank slate. The program had no face, no personality, and no memories. It was a concept. A concept that was finally becoming reality, but still a concept.
Against this lack of a backdrop came the 1996 USF football season. Yes, there was a 1996 USF football season. It consisted of three intrasquad scrimmages: one at the USF Soccer Stadium, and two at area high schools. The purpose was to give USF a first look at its football team, drum up local interest in the new college program, and add a little fun to an unrewarding season of nothing but practices as the entire team redshirted.
These scrimmages introduced us to some of the players we grew to know in the early days of the Bulls: likable fullback Otis "Dump Truck" Dixon; smooth tailback Rafael Williams; diminuitive return man Charlie Jackson; lithe pass-catcher Leon Matthews; talented but troubled linebacker Demetrius Woods; and dependable guard Joey Sipp.
And leading the show was the man who would be USF's first quarterback, the man who quickly mastered USF's complex, BYU-inspired West Coast offense, the man whose actual college football experience would make him a valuable veteran on a roster riddled with freshmen.
In 1993, Lance Hoeltke of Palm Beach Lakes High School led the state in passing yards. Recruited by elite football programs like Tennessee, Michigan, and North Carolina State (it was the early '90s, remember), he signed with the Naval Academy, who told him he would be their only quarterback signee. (Epilogue: Chris McCoy, signed as a defensive back, won the quarterback job after a coaching change and became one of the school's all-time greats at the position.)
After a year of prep school, Hoeltke instead found himself at Austin Peay State University, a I-AA program in Clarksville, Tennessee. He won the starting job as a freshman, and put up a stat line that still has a place in the school record book. Frustrated with the program's lack of ambition, and, presumably, the fact that the school's primary cheer is a pee joke, Hoeltke took a chance on the faceless USF program. "I think (Austin Peay) just wanted a program. They didn't care how the team did," he told the St. Petersburg Times in 1996.
As the USF football team finally became a real thing, sort of, in the fall of 1996, Hoeltke quickly commandeered the starting quarterback position from erstwhile prospect Glen Gauntt and two other freshmen. His maturity and experience were cited: "If he stays in this system he'll be fine. I suspect if things go in the right direction he'll move this team pretty good," said Jim Leavitt.
On the first play of the first intrasquad scrimmage, Hoeltke hit Charlie Jackson with a 70-yard touchdown bomb. "USF's first touchdown," they called it. Rumor had it somebody paid $500 for the ball used in this play:
To those relative few who attended the Bulls' first practices, or even cared about the team at that time, USF finally had some actual football players to get excited about. And as with any football team, the starting quarterback took center stage. For the first time, USF football had a face that wasn't their unknown head coach, some university board member who worked to add football, or that poster everyone had of Lee Roy Selmon tossing a football into the air. And that face was Lance Hoeltke. His teammates voted him a team captain for the inaugural 1997 season. Newspapers wrote about his gregarious personality and his inevitable future as the answer to a trivia question.
Then, this happened.
Chad Barnhardt, having lost the starting quarterback job at South Carolina to Anthony Wright at the start of the 1996 season, transferred to South Florida. "I think it's to get closer to home," said South Carolina assistant Wally Burnham. Yes, that Wally Burnham.
In the practices leading up to the 1997 season, Barnhardt and Hoeltke were side-by-side. Leavitt refused to anoint an inaugural starter, even after Barnhardt excelled in the spring game and hints were dropped that Barnhardt was "slightly ahead." The Sarasota Herald-Tribune called the position battle "USF's first problem."
On September 2, the Tuesday before Kentucky Wesleyan, Barnhardt was officially named the starter. Leavitt, Barnhardt, and Hoeltke said all the right things: "Lance could play in a lot of places," "I'm mentally preparing myself for a chance to compete," etc. But the die was cast. Barnhardt displayed a strong arm and excellent decision-making in the blowout of Kentucky Wesleyan. The quarterback controversy -- and any talk of Lance Hoeltke -- rapidly disappeared.
Despite proclamations that Hoeltke would have a part to play in USF's inaugural season, he really didn't. He did get to start the second half in a close game against Southern Illinois, one of the better teams on USF's 1997 schedule... but Leavitt just wanted Barnhardt to get a look a better look at their defense. After three incomplete passes and a sack, Hoeltke was out of the game. Other than that, he saw only garbage time, including the final game of the season against Davidson, where he threw one of his two touchdown passes in a USF uniform:
After briefly being moved to safety in the spring of 1998, Hoeltke left the team. Contemporary news reports said he transferred again, but he didn't. He remained a student at USF, went on to get an MBA, and now works in the health care field.
So what's the moral of the story? Well, two things come to my mind. First is the alternate history angle of Hoeltke being USF's first quarterback instead of Barnhardt. Where would USF football be right now if South Carolina's then-genius head coach Brad Scott had figured out that Victor Penn and Phil Petty weren't the answer to anything? Beyond the obvious implications the loss of Barnhardt would have had on USF's quick ascent to BCS football, one wonders how differently USF football's personality would have formed if its first on-field leader were the wisecracking Type A Hoeltke instead of the less talkative but focused Barnhardt. Jim Leavitt was clearly one to favor less talkative but focused guys.
But the more important lesson of Lance Hoeltke's USF's career is that football can be a cruel, dream-crushing game.
I said earlier that the 1996 scrimmages introduced us to future NFL players Anthony Henry and Ryan Benjamin, familiar alumni like Dixon, Williams, and Sipp, and the rest of the Original Group. The 1996 scrimmages also starred guys like Garrett Jagdmann, Anthony Paradiso, Kevin Glenn, Zack Powell, Jariya McIntyre, Bernardo McFadden, and, of course, Hoeltke.
Some are remembered warmly by USF fans; others, not at all. But all the players in that paragraph went to practice, went to meetings, hit the weight room, and endured the same thankless 1996 "season." It's easy for us fans to forget that all the players on the roster, not just those who get on the field, make the sacrifices. Football can compel you to put in years of study and effort and work and pain to no promise of glory, or even a chance to play the game. Some, like Hoeltke, will lose that chance over the slimmest of margins in talent, or the cruel randomness of external events.
In our Stampeding Through The Roster series, we've met dozens of USF football players, many of whom you'll never think about again about once the ball goes into the air at Notre Dame. So let's take a moment to honor Lance Hoeltke, the first USF football player to take the unfulfilled career path that so many other college football players have followed, and always will.