USF hires Holtz to replace Leavitt

Updated: January 15, 2010, 6:37 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

TAMPA, Fla. -- 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.

The 45-year-old Holtz led East Carolina to the past two Conference USA championships. He inherits a talented but inconsistent team that's tasted the national limelight while also falling short of a goal of winning the Big East.

Skip Holtz

Holtz

Holtz informed his old team of his decision during a meeting with players Thursday in Greenville, N.C. USF will introduce him as the second coach in the Bulls' 13-year history on Friday.

AOL FanHouse was first to report the hiring.

"This is a really special opportunity, and I am incredibly excited. ... I believe there are great things on the horizon for this program," Holtz said in a statement released by the school.

"It's obvious to everyone that Coach Leavitt has built a successful program from the very beginning. There is a solid foundation in place that we will build upon."

Leavitt was dismissed last week after a school investigation concluded he grabbed a player by the throat, slapped him in the face, then lied about it.

Holtz was 38-27 in five seasons with East Carolina, including wins in the past two C-USA title games and high-profile victories against Virginia Tech and West Virginia in 2008.

"Coach Holtz's leadership qualities, his character, and his successful head coaching experience are exactly what we were looking for," USF athletic director Doug Woolard said.

Holtz was under contract through the 2013 season and had only a $100,000 buyout. He made $605,000 in base salary this year, though that figure rose to nearly $900,000 due to several incentives.

The son of former Notre Dame and South Carolina coach and ESPN analyst Lou Holtz has been an annual fixture on the list of top candidates for coaching vacancies. He flirted with Cincinnati and Syracuse in recent years, but insisted he wasn't looking to leave the program he rebuilt from its miserable state earlier this decade.

East Carolina had lost 22 of 25 games -- 19 by double-digit margins and seven by at least 33 points -- when he arrived after the 2004 season. The Pirates steadily rose from there, reaching a bowl game in his second season and winning one the following year.

The consecutive league titles were the first conference crowns for the program since 1976, sending the Pirates to the Liberty Bowl each time. East Carolina was an independent from 1977 to '96 before joining C-USA.

Meanwhile, East Carolina athletic director Terry Holland said a search for Holtz's replacement will begin immediately.

"Skip Holtz and his family have transformed our expectations of ourselves and our athletic program while contributing to every aspect of our community," Holland said.

"They will be missed, but have provided ECU with a solid foundation for future success. It will be up to us to build on that foundation."

South Florida has been one of the nation's fastest-rising programs over the past decade.

Leavitt was hired in December 1995, launched the Bulls from scratch a little less than two years later, and compiled a 95-57 record in 13 seasons.

USF was ranked as high as No. 2 in 2007 before struggling in conference play and tumbling out of the Top 25.

Fast starts the past two seasons, carrying the Bulls into the Top 25, also were followed by puzzling midseason swoons that undermined bids for Big East titles.

"I have heard great things about the young men in our program from a variety of people. I can't wait to meet with each one of them and to begin working together toward a Big East championship," Holtz said.

"My goal is to graduate our players, to foster their personal development and to establish USF as one of the premier programs in the country."

Leavitt, who just completed the second season of a seven-year, $12.6 million contract, was dismissed following a three-week investigation into an accusation that he grabbed sophomore walk-on Joel Miller and struck him during halftime of a game against Louisville on Nov. 21.

Although Leavitt told investigators he didn't strike Miller and was only trying to motivate the players when he grabbed Miller's shoulder pads, the school concluded the coach's account was not credible.

Miller, who also told investigators Leavitt did not hit him, said during a news conference Thursday that he attempted to cover up what happened because he feared it would harm his career and also cost Leavitt his job.

The player and his attorney called for a public apology, saying they may consider filing a lawsuit if Leavitt doesn't admit wrongdoing.

"We don't want to play hardball," attorney Barry Cohen said. "We can, and we will, to protect the dignity of this young man."

USF athletic director Doug Woolard contacted Holtz last weekend and met with him Tuesday while Holtz was in Orlando, Fla., for the American Football Coaches Association convention.

Holtz said at the time the South Florida opening was appealing for several reasons, including an opportunity to work in a BCS conference.

There were family considerations, too. The coach's parents reside in Orlando, and his wife is from nearby Port Charlotte.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.