Why Didn't Skip Holtz Work Out?

Jeff Griffith-US PRESSWIRE

When he was hired, everyone thought Skip Holtz and USF were a great fit. Why weren't they?

Even if Skip Holtz ends up Kragthorpe-ing this thing, we're still going to feel bad that it didn't work out. -- Jamie DeVriend, February 5, 2010

He Kragthorped it.

And I do feel bad that it didn't work out. But my primary emotion is more one of... puzzlement. Why didn't it work out?

Skip Holtz seemed like the perfect man for the job. Everybody said so. The local media praised the hire and applauded Holtz's way of doing things. CNNSI rated the hire an A-minus and celebrated Holtz's efforts in saving USF's 2010 recruiting class. Judy Genshaft called Holtz "a perfect match with our values." The USF official site cited Holtz's "rapid turnaround" and "fundamentally sound defensive effort" at East Carolina. Heck, even the Internet approved. (For more EDSBS fun, see here and here.)

So what happened?

With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, and the sort of personal insight you gain the first time you can rationally examine a relationship that needed to end, it's clearer to me why it didn't work:

Skip Holtz's personality wasn't a good match for USF football.

It's weird to think that USF football has a personality. It's even weirder to think that there are identifiable qualities of coaches who should and shouldn't lead it. But I do. In fact, personality is what led us to Skip Holtz in the first place.

Let's go back to the end of the Leavitt era. The popular version of the story is that he was dismissed for a slapping a player. But that was just the tip of a very nasty iceberg. Leavitt's termination letter also cited "interference with the University's investigation" and "treat(ing) a student athlete adversely during the investigation," both of which are also grounds for termination at USF (and pretty much everywhere else). Furthermore, the football team's progress seemed to have stalled, and players were getting in a lot of off-field trouble.

Against that backdrop, Skip Holtz seemed the perfect rebound. He was the anti-Leavitt. He was calm and professional, the type of person who'd never strike another human being in anger. His resume spoke to the gaps in Leavitt's: winning conference titles, improving a program's record, stressing integrity and academics, not leading the nation in penalty yards every year. Holtz had other positives: famous name, Florida ties, relative loyalty.

And USF had been this road before. In 2001, fifteen-year athletic director Paul Griffin had to be forced out over the Dione Smith affair. USF's dream replacement was already in the building: Lee Roy Selmon. He helped heal an ugly situation, and maneuvered USF into the Big East. So why couldn't it happen again?

Because such a good outcome is the exception, not the rule. But ten years later, when Skip Holtz seemed just as perfectly tailored to clean up a mess on and off the field, USF had reason to believe it would go just as smoothly. Unfortunately, Holtz is the more common case of what happens when a long relationship ends badly, and you embrace the polar opposite of that person: you end up with someone with their own, different set of shortcomings, who isn't right for the job either.

Specifically:

  • Holtz was a CEO-type head coach, but failed to perform that role effectively. One of Holtz's many anti-Leavitt traits was his less hands-on, more organizational approach. That management style can succeed in college football: Bobby Bowden comes to mind. But if you're going to trust and empower your assistants, your assistants need to be, you know, good.

    And if they prove to be something less than good, the CEO needs to take decisive action. Mid-season firings would be extreme, though not without precedent. But there is no evidence that Holtz got more involved, reassigned assistant tasks, or made any major changes when it became obvious that the men he hired were doing their jobs poorly.

    There also appeared to be basic management problems, like the Hand Lotion Game at UConn, and whatever equipment problems caused USF to fumble and slip all over the place at Cincinnati. Those incidents suggest inattention to detail.
  • Holtz didn't handle adversity well. He showed no ability to rally the troops and keep the team focused when things started going downhill. He looked increasingly flustered in press conferences. He also tended to make excuses; the statements after the aforementioned UConn game are a good example.
  • Bad game management. Further reading here, here, here, here, and here, if anyone actually needs it.
  • The team wasn't fun to watch. Jamie tackles this subject at great length in "For USF Football, Safe is Death", so I won't do so here.
  • Holtz's personality negated one of USF football's best qualities; its belief in itself. I wrote about this previously.
  • Squandered talent and opportunities. This team wasted a lot of talent through misguided redshirting (Lindsey Lamar); misguided un-redshirting (Bobby Eveld); questionable position moves (Evan Landi to tight end, a position we had plenty of and rarely throw to anyway, and never figuring out how to get the most out of players like Lamar and Victor Marc); schemes poorly suited to our best players' abilities (trying to make BJ Daniels a pocket passer, and wherever Chris Cosh hid Ryne Giddins this season).

    Holtz's teams also wasted innumerable chances to win football games -- enough to have gone to bowl games in 2011 and 2012.

So how can USF make sure they get the right man for the job this time?

USF's decisive action in removing Holtz, and public statement that they would not hire a search firm, suggest that Doug Woolard already has his man lined up. Ignoring that for the moment, the Holtz era gave us a more refined idea of what qualities a USF head coach -- and shouldn't -- possess. Let's start with the shouldn'ts:

Management Style: USF football doesn't need a CEO; it needs a small business owner. It needs someone who minds the details, and understands the need to wring as much value as he can out of the resources we have. (Besides, the CEO approach would be tough for anyone to pull off at USF, because it's difficult to attract the Mark Richts and Mickey Andrewses you need on staff to make it work.)

Adversity: USF is not Florida or Florida State. The school is susceptible to the occasional downturn, a la 2004. USF's coach needs to be someone who can keep the team fighting, and bravely face the ravenous USF beat writers. Especially for any young, ambitious types who might view us as a stepping stone. Because if the Tampa sports media rattles you, you're probably not cut out to be an SEC head coach.

Of course, "man who successfully handles adversity and media pressure caused by his own mis-managment" isn't quite the track record you're looking for in a new head coach. But it would make a damn good interview question.

In Game Decisions: If there's one thing an athletic director ought to be able to vet in a potential coaching hire, it's this. Pretty much every college football game is on television now; you can see a coach's behavior and decision-making just by firing up video. And not just the big games, either; how does a head coach handle a mundane conference game with no potential future employers watching? I'd certainly be checking for that if I were hiring a coach.

Fun: "Fun" doesn't necessarily mean throwing 60 passes a game. But it's not asking much of USF football to be less risk-averse than kicking a field goal on 3rd and goal from the two yard line with 24 seconds left in the half.

Furthermore, I think our fans are sophisticated enough to find fun in the greatness of Andre Hall, or a brilliant overall defensive performance like Florida State in 2009 or West Virginia in 2007. And the idea of fun overlaps with the next item:

Passion: I think USF fans loved the fire, emotion, and genuine confidence the team had under Leavitt. Especially those who haven't been going to games lately. I think if you can bring that back, you can bring a lot of fans back as well, without waiting for the won-lost record to turn around.

Now, I know what you're thinking: I'm arguing for a Leavitt clone. Not exactly. If anything, I hate to keep bringing up Jim Leavitt; we just don't have have any other examples to use.

As I said earlier, we don't want to go bounding into the arms of the polar opposite of what we just had. We may not have needed an anti-Leavitt in 2010, but we don't need an anti-Holtz now either. In addition to the above qualities associated with Leavitt, USF's football coach should be:

Calm when it's needed. I know that seems to contradict the last item, passion. But truly great leaders can be passionate or calm or angry or nurturing as the situation calls for -- and they know which one it calls for. Furthermore, the ability to adopt a calm demeanor requires a level of impulse control that Leavitt never had.

And to be fair, there were a couple times when Holtz's personality was just what USF football needed that moment. Arriving after Leavitt's ugly exit, he was able to bring everyone together, including the initial recruiting class. I also think his sideline calmness helped during the Notre Dame win. That whole game, I had the feeling that one mistake would turn that game to Notre Dame's favor. That mistake never came, because Holtz kept the team focused in a highly distracting environment. Screaming probably wouldn't have worked; it certainly didn't help on the other sideline.

Concerned about behavior and academics. To Skip Holtz's great credit, he established a much higher standard of discipline than previously existed. There were very few off-field incidents, and Holtz promptly booted anyone who got in serious enough trouble.

Academics improved greatly under Holtz. APR scores and GPAs are way, way up. The number of Big East All-Academic players more than doubled. The GoUSFBulls.com biographies of almost all the exiting seniors say "expected to graduate in December 2012" or that they already have.

Professionalism. Holtz may have lost football games, but he didn't lose football games and then embarrass the university like this guy.

Loyalty. Leavitt loved USF, and Holtz seemed to embrace it. We need another coach with this quality, and not someone looking for a stepping stone.

A sense of humor. I have mixed feelings about this one, because the ol' folksy bit wears thin real fast when the team's not winning. Still, Skip Holtz did say some pretty funny things in his day:

On realignment: "I’ve said this before, if you ever want a question answered, go to the organ grinder, don’t go to the monkey. I’m just a monkey on the end of the chain, dancing on the sidewalk."

On being the next Lou Holtz: "I'd look like Bozo the Clown walking around with shoes that big."

On the team's injury status: "They'll be healthy as commercials for a dairy product come next week."

"I get so excited when I talk about B.J. I can't stand it." He was talking about B.J. Daniels, we hope.

And of course, his wife Jennifer got in this zinger: "Why would anyone want to hire you? You were 5-7."

Okay, now I really feel bad that Skip Holtz didn't work out.

To wrap this up: there's a lot of talk about who our next coach should be. Should it be a mid-major head coach, a prominent coordinator, an older coaching veteran, an NFL person? Honestly, I don't care. What I care about is that USF finds a person with the right personality and skills to succeed here.

It'll never happen, but: I'd love to see USF Athletics pull out their HR notes from the interviews they did in 1995. No, not to try to find someone just like Jim Leavitt. Rather, to see what they were thinking, and why, at a time when USF football was a blank slate. They had to focus on the personality they wanted for the job, because they had zero preconceived notions about what USF football was. Of course, the hiring process can't be that simple anymore. But it's an insight few schools have to draw on, and drawing on it could be what finds the perfect coach to take USF football to the level we all know it can achieve.

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