Thursday, January 14, 2010

Little Lou headed to USF

The carousel keeps spinning:
Skip Holtz is the new football coach at South Florida, taking over a program recovering from a scandal that led to the firing of Jim Leavitt. USF will introduce him as the second coach in the Bulls' 13-year history on Friday.
A couple years ago, I was of the opinion that Holtz was a fairly mediocre coach whose name was worth more than his results. Winning one playoff game at UConn (a I-AA school at the time) and going slightly above .500 at East Carolina does not equal an overwhelming resume.

After two straight Conference USA titles and with a 38-27 record at a place that had gone 3-22 in the two seasons before his arrival, I'm willing to reconsider. That's pretty good. I don't know exactly how he's doing it (I'll get to that momentarily), but he's winning games.

I've heard a few people say that South Florida is basically a lateral move from ECU, but that's just wrong. USF hasn't won fewer than eight games in the past four years, is located in a great recruiting area, has a 65,000-seat NFL stadium and plays in a BCS conference with no clear-cut dominant team. All things considered, the Bulls are in great position to step up and become a player at the national level.

The question is whether Holtz is the guy to do that, especially when there are some pretty good coaches out there (cough Mike Leach cough) who would have been more than interested. Here's what he's done at East Carolina:

2005: 5-6
2006: 7-6 (lost Bowl to South Florida)
2007: 8-5 (won Hawaii Bowl over Boise State)
2008: 9-5 (lost Liberty Bowl to Kentucky)
2009: 9-5 (lost Liberty Bowl to Arkansas)

Again, this followed up a disastrous two-year stretch under former Florida defensive coordinator John Thompson, so 38-27 is pretty good, right? But when you try to figure out how East Carolina has taken control of the conference, that's where things get difficult.

Holtz was an offensive coordinator at Notre Dame and South Carolina (quick, guess who hired him) before taking over at ECU, yet his offenses were flat-out bad, finishing worse than 60th in total yards every year. And it wasn't for a complete lack of talent: Holtz coached Chris Johnson (the guy who just ran for 2,000 yards with the Tennessee Titans), Jets receiver Aundrae Allison and graduating quarterback Patrick Pinkney, who might not be drafted but was a pretty good starting QB for three years.

So while Holtz's offenses have underachieved, his defenses have carried the team by being ... well, pretty average (although by Conference USA standards, "average" is equivalent to "awesome"). Last year's defense was pretty good (30th in scoring and 41st in total yards), but this year's dropped off some (36th in scoring and 71st in total yards) and ECU still went 9-5 despite the offense staying very blah. An overtime win over Marshall here, a four-point win over UAB there -- ECU did just enough to get by. Granted, that's a significant improvement from 3-22, but we're not talking about Brian Kelly's Midas touch.

The number of close wins leads me to believe that Holtz is probably a good game-management coach (I haven't seen ECU regularly enough to make a definitive statement on that), but he'll have to produce more on offense to lift USF from its current plateau up to Big East power. I'm curious to see who he hires as coordinators, especially since East Carolina D-coordinator Greg Hudson just left to be Jimbo Fisher's linebackers coach at Florida State. For a guy who doesn't appear to have true strategic brilliance on either side of the ball, that will probably determine his long-term success (or, as his daddy calls it, thuctheth).

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