His Father's Name, His Own Success

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skiplou.jpgNew York Times - After his first day of kindergarten, Skip Holtz returned home and told his parents the teacher never called his name. He mentioned there was another boy in the class named Holtz, with the first name of Louis. "He wasn't there," he said, "but I'm looking forward to meeting him."

Skip Holtz was 8-5 last year at South Florida, which opens the season at Notre Dame, his alma mater, on Saturday.

Holtz, the University of South Florida football coach, laughed as he told the story recently. He knows it sounds crazy, given his life's path, that he spent his first five years not knowing he was a junior, christened with the same first name as his father, the football coach turned motivational speaker and ESPN analyst.

"I was always Skip," Holtz said.

He didn't skip the family business. But the nickname, bestowed upon him by his parents, Lou and Beth, shortly after his birth in 1964, gave him a degree of detachment from his father as he forged his own coaching career.

Holtz's Bulls, who were 8-5 last year in his first season, will open the 2011 season Saturday at Notre Dame, where Holtz played football as an undergraduate and later coached under his father, who led the Irish to the 1988 national championship and nine straight New Year's Day bowl games from 1987 to 1995.

South Florida, which started playing football in 1997, cannot match the Irish's rich history. At a $125-a-plate kickoff dinner last month attended by more than 400 boosters, Holtz led the room in the singing of the U.S.F. fight song. The words appeared on two video screens that served as jumbo cheat sheets.

Holtz's father was the guest speaker. After a grand introduction by his son, Lou Holtz delivered a 40-minute speech that was a cross between a roast and a revival meeting. Then he and his son shared the dais. They stood side by side and addressed each other with obvious affection, but did not physically touch until Skip Holtz patted his father on the back and drew him closer.

That ability to connect with people, to bring young men into his embrace, is Holtz's gift, his father said.

"The rapport he has with his coaches and players is one of the impressive things about him," he said, adding: "He just gets along with everybody. It's like someone once said, 'He's got his dad's football mind and his mother's personality.' "

The Bulls are one of 15 teams nationally to have strung together five consecutive seasons with at least eight victories. They return 45 lettermen from last year's team, which ended its season with a 31-26 victory against Clemson in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.

South Florida is the kind of upstart opponent that would have exhausted the vocabulary of Lou Holtz, whose teams never faced an underdog he could not build up to be a juggernaut. The Bulls have a quarterback, in the junior B. J. Daniels, who is considered among the best in the Big East Conference, and the speed of a college track team.

And in Holtz, 47, the program's second-year coach, they have the ultimate overachiever, someone who in spite of his pedigree -- or perhaps because of it -- is accustomed to proving the naysayers wrong.

Daniel Ruettiger, the walk-on Irish football player whose story was immortalized in the 1993 film "Rudy," is a close friend of Holtz's. "Skip's success in life has come the Rudy way," he said in a telephone interview. "There's no sense of entitlement with him. People probably think he got to where he is because of his dad, but he overcomes that perception with his drive."

Holtz's story has much in common with Ruettiger's. He went to Notre Dame through the back door, as he likes to say, after two years at Holy Cross, where he took Spanish classes to fulfill Notre Dame's foreign language admissions requirement and improve his grades.

His father was coaching at Arkansas when Skip Holtz was a high school senior, and he thought about staying in Little Rock but fell in love with Notre Dame after visiting the campus.

By the time he took his first class at Notre Dame, his father had moved on to the University of Minnesota.

Holtz was a walk-on receiver and a special-teams player for one season under Gerry Faust, whose firing in late 1985 put him in an unusual position. He knew that his father had an escape clause, and mentioned it to his landlord, Joe Hickey.

"I don't know if I was the one who let the cat out of the bag," Holtz said.

This much is incontrovertible: Hickey's friend Gene Corrigan, the Notre Dame athletic director, hired Holtz as Faust's replacement, bringing father and son together for what was a mixed reunion.

"It was pretty neat being around my family again and being coached by my father," Holtz said, "but I had teammates who told me: 'I'm glad I'm not you. I wouldn't want to be held to that standard.' "

One day during his father's first spring overseeing Irish practices, Holtz and three other players were late for a meeting. Lou made all of them run extra laps -- and then made Skip run some more by himself.

"I talked to my father the next day and told him I thought it was unfair I had to run more than the others," Holtz said. "He told me I was wrong. He said he didn't know about the other players, but he knew he had raised me to know better than to be late."

Toward the end of Holtz's senior year, he approached his father again. He told him he wanted to become a coach upon completing his undergraduate degree in business management.

Lou Holtz, who graduated from Kent State, recalled his reaction: "I told him: 'I could have sent you to Kent State to be a football coach. I sent you to Notre Dame to become the president of a corporation so you could take care of me in my old age.' "

Holtz knew he had to strike out on his own. "It was important to me that my first job recommendation didn't come from my father," he said.

Hired by Bobby Bowden at Florida State to be a graduate assistant coach, Holtz met his wife, Jennifer, who was a student and recruiting hostess, on his first day in Tallahassee. They were married after a five-and-a-half-year courtship and have three children.

From Florida State, Holtz moved to Colorado State to learn under Earle Bruce. He returned to Notre Dame in 1990 to work as an assistant under his father, first as a receivers coach and then as the offensive coordinator.

The former Irish quarterback Rick Mirer, who compiled a record of 29-7-1 as a starter in the early 1990s, said, "Skip was a young guy who was a really great communicator."

Speaking by telephone, Mirer said: "I would get frustrated with Lou at times because we were a really good team and we didn't get to enjoy it a lot because he was on us about the things we didn't do right. I would say to Skip, 'Can't he tell us good job instead of getting mad about a fumble in a 40-point win?' "

Mirer added: "Lou's thing was, you have to focus, you can't ever relax. He was more like Woody Hayes. Skip's more like a Pete Carroll. He was far more positive. The attitude and energy is way up and everyone's feeling good."

Holtz left Notre Dame in 1994 for his first head-coaching job, at Connecticut, where he was 34-23 in five seasons. From there, he spent six years as an assistant head coach under his father at South Carolina. The plan was for him to succeed Lou. When that did not happen, Holtz moved to East Carolina, where he compiled a record of 38-27 in five seasons.

Holtz's arrival at South Florida came after Jim Leavitt, the coach who led the Bulls to a No. 2 national ranking in one poll in 2007, was fired after being accused of striking a player. In his first address with the team, Holtz delivered the same speech his father had when he took over for Faust at Notre Dame.

"I know you did not select me to be your football coach," Holtz told his new players. "That's not important. What is important is that I selected you."

At the kickoff dinner, Holtz, who was raised Catholic, acknowledged his team of supporters by name, and said, "Moses died leaning on his staff, and I, too, will die leaning on my staff."

He moved on, only to pause in midsentence, distracted by someone in the audience. Holtz leaned forward and listened. The man he calls Coach Dad was saying something. When Holtz resumed speaking, it was with a sheepish smile.

"I've been corrected," he said. "Peter died leaning on his staff."

Lou Holtz stopped coaching, not teaching. He has always had an eager pupil in his son, but lately it is hard to tell who is influencing whom.

"I'm now known as Skip's dad," Lou Holtz said, "and I'm proud to have it that way.

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