COLUMBIA — It was in motion.
Lou Holtz turned South Carolina into a winner. The turnaround, featuring 17 wins and back-to-back bowl victories on the heels of an 0-11 season, was magical.
A large part of it was son Skip Holtz, the offensive coordinator and assistant head coach. It was Skip who overhauled the run-based offense of 1999 to a spread, Skip who emphasized speed and the open field.
It was Skip who was next in line to be head coach. It was promised.
That didn’t happen.
“There was (an agreement),” Skip said Thursday. “It was talked about quite a bit. I understand that South Carolina had to do what they felt was in their best interests. I’m not carrying a cross over the whole thing.”
Saturday, Skip Holtz will finally be a head coach in Williams-Brice Stadium.
Enter stage left
Mike McGee, USC’s athletics director at the time, lured Lou Holtz from the broadcast booth and Holtz asked Skip to help, despite Skip constructing Division I-AA Connecticut into a winner. Skip wasn’t a head coach in the big leagues but he was still a head coach.
Why leave to be an assistant?
“My mother had been diagnosed with Stage 4 throat cancer at the time,” Skip said. He admitted that it wasn’t the right move to make professionally, but it came down to spending as much time with his parents as possible.
“I was immediately impressed with him and his knowledge of the spread,” USC quarterback Erik Kimrey said. “A lot of our first-year schemes were carried over from Lou, and it was a bit of a marriage between what he did at Notre Dame and what Skip did at UConn.”
He also began recruiting. “He came to Ohio in a snowstorm, and I lived in the backwoods, and recruited me,” said running back Ryan Brewer. “He was nervous as anything driving a rental car through the snow.”
The first year, running the I formation, USC was smacked with weekly offensive line injuries and a QB rotation that started three and played six. The Gamecocks didn’t win a game.
That started the resurgence. Lou gave the offense to Skip. “It was rough for everybody but at the same time, you knew what the future was,” Brewer said.
USC won three straight to open the 2000 season before facing Mississippi State. Trailing 19-13 with 4:47 to play, facing fourth down and starting quarterback Phil Petty hurt, Kimrey was summoned.
He became a legend in six seconds. His pass down the left sideline was caught by Jermale Kelly in one of the most storied plays in program history.
“(Todd Fitch, a USC assistant and currently Skip’s offensive coordinator) was on the sideline, Skip was on the headset. Fitch told me, ‘Skip wants to know, what do you like?’” Kimrey remembered. “The number for the fade was 18. I said, ‘Coach, I like 18.’”
“The Fade” was the highlight of an 8-4 season that ended in the Outback Bowl, where another coronation of Skip’s offensive mastery waited. Derek Watson was suspended for the game after wrecking a teammate’s car. Brewer showed Ohio State what it missed by not recruiting him. He finished with three touchdowns and 214 all-purpose yards.
USC followed with a 9-3 season in 2001, again defeating Ohio State in the Outback Bowl. Did Lou want out?
“You’d have to ask him that,” Skip said. “I think he was enjoying coaching.”
The Gamecocks went 5-7 in each of the next two seasons. The offense featured a mobile quarterback, which was where Skip’s tutelage also shone.
“He was the one that really gave me the skills to take back to Marlboro County to win the state championship,” quarterback Syvelle Newton said. “I had the throwing attributes, I had the speed, I could play, but I didn’t know anything about the position.”
Newton saw daily clashes over what the offensive identity should be. Lou realized he should have quit when he was ahead, according to center John Strickland.
“We knew that was the goal,” Strickland said. “Lou wanted to win one more bowl game and get out of the way, let Skip take the reins.”
That didn’t happen in 2002 or 2003. Nothing was running smoothly.
“I think if coach Holtz would have fully accepted that he was past his time and really let Skip take over, with the talent that we had, I honestly believe we would have really been a great team,” Newton said. “I think during that time coach Holtz was really trying to get back to more of an established running game, and Skip wanted to move forward with the shotgun and a spread offense, which he’s still executing.”
It’s my party
Lou never quite said it for the record, but the new titles of his staff made it clear. Skip was demoted from offensive coordinator, although he retained the title of assistant head coach.
“It was painful. It hurt, no doubt about that,” Kimrey said. “It was not something I would ever do to my son.”
“That was a hard time,” Skip said. “I think that was as much for his sanity and him feeling like him doing what he could to help the program more than it was kicking me out the door. I think it was a very difficult time for everybody.”
“Lou was trying to take over and being a father/son, head coach/assistant, there was something that wasn’t right there. It showed in the quarterback meetings,” Newton said. “I wish that coach Holtz would have allowed Skip to be Skip.”
It still came together in 2004, but Lou had already let McGee know that he was done. USC claimed its sixth win for bowl eligibility, but word was already out that Lou was leaving.
An ugly brawl on the field between USC and Clemson players left South Carolina and Lou’s tenure with a black eye. As punishment, USC pulled itself from bowl contention. Holtz retired and McGee hired Steve Spurrier.
Skip went on to be head coach at East Carolina, where he posted two nine-win seasons; USF, where he had one winning season among three; and Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs have won nine games in each of the past three seasons.
Skip holds no animosity toward USC, although Saturday will be the first time he’ll set foot in Williams-Brice since 2004, and his players still love him.
“Skip is a fun, energetic coach. He’s fun playing for,” Strickland said. “He’s one of those coaches I like to call a player’s coach.”
“Other than my father, I probably learned more about how I wanted to coach — not just the schematics, but what kind of man I wanted to be in terms of coaching football — from Skip Holtz,” Kimrey said. “Skip understands the game of football, of course, having grown up on a sideline, but I think he understands people really, really well. He treats people the right way.”