Saturday, January 16, 2010

USF Hires Holtz

I interviewed Skip Holtz when he was at the University of Connecticut and I worked at WFSB-TV in Hartford in the mid-1990s.

UConn started 5-0 in 1995 and I went to the campus in Storrs to do a story. He had the same kind of wit his famous father, Lou, has but without the lisp. That weekend, Holtz' team lost. I went out the next week and interviewed him again. UConn lost again.

At practice the following week, I thought I was joking when I told the school's PR guy for sports (the official title is Sports Information Director) that maybe I had cursed the team. But there was no humor in his voice when he told me that if the team lost again, "don't come back."

Then again, that could have simply been his usual demeanor. The lack of warmth I felt in New England was not limited to the weather.

Speaking of chill...

One thing the University of South Florida gets in Skip Holtz that it never had in Jim Leavitt is someone who understands that being a head football coach at a major college program involves a lot more than coaching football.

Leavitt never grasped the public relations aspects of the job. He antagonized the local media — at least the TV stations — from the outset with a big-time attitude even as the team operated out of trailers and had yet to play a game.

USF invited local media to cover the first fall practice of the team's inaugural season in 1997. I worked at WFLA-TV at the time. Apparently no one in the sports information department informed Leavitt. After the stretching and warmup drills, Leavitt came over to the assembled cameras and asked if we had gotten everything — his way of dismissing us.

True enough, most major college practices are closed to the media. However at the time USF was not a major college program and we had been told that we would be able to shoot practice.

An unfortunate PR guy had to feel our wrath. "We might have to endure this in Tallahassee or Gainesville," I told him. "But not here. If this is how it's going to be, we won't come out."

And we didn't. We gave cursory coverage of games and showed up for the free lunch, I mean, weekly news conference, but we never gave the program the kind of attention we would have had we been welcomed.

And that's all on Leavitt. Even after USF had joined the Big East and made a run up the national rankings, his team was rarely fodder for local sports talk radio the way Florida, Florida State and Miami were.

Nobody cared. People did not develop the kind of passions about USF that they did about the other major programs. Part of that is a function of time and tradition. But much more of that is Jim Leavitt's alienation of people who could have helped him build interest in the program.

It may be fitting that USF football became a top talk-about story for the first time when the story was Leavitt's firing.

Now Leavitt is left with trying to extract a severance check from USF. He claims he did nothing to deserve his dismissal. The grabbing and slapping of walk-on running back Joel Miller never happened, he maintains, even in the face of the University's investigation which revealed otherwise and Miller's own admission that he originally denied the mistreatment to protect his coach.

I have heard suggestions that Leavitt needs to come clean about what happened. It's too late. Leavitt has cast his die. God-Kings do not bow to anyone. There is nothing to apologize for, he says through his lawyer.

It was this kind of coverup as much as the crime that cost Leavitt his job. Had he acknowledged his mistake soon after it happened, it might never have become public, let alone topple him from his throne.

Instead he stonewalled. The man who is reported to have proclaimed himself "the most powerful man in the building" failed to see that there were other buildings and that the most powerful man in the building that counted was not even a man. It was Judy Genshaft, USF's president.

Leavitt has already lost one job. His continued insistence of innocence will cost him a chance to redeem himself elsewhere. But I don't see him changing course now. And I can't see him getting another head coaching job at a major college program. Not now. Maybe not ever.

No comments: