When you talk to East Carolina football coach Skip Holtz, you can’t help but think to yourself, “Yup, this is Lou’s son.”
Not because he rattles off one-liners or tells quirky stories or morphs into that thing Lou becomes when he does one of those zany “pep talks” previewing the big game on ESPN.
It’s not that. Skip isn’t a football coach and a character.
He’s a football coach with character.
Holtz is impossible not to like after meeting him, which I did for the second time in three years when he came to Sanford on Thursday to speak at the local Pirate Club banquet. He’s immensely personable and looks you square in the eyes as he answers your questions. (He can also rip off 6-minute answers to a single question, which is a sportswriter’s dream.)
Standing around the Elks Lodge waiting for Holtz to arrive on Thursday, the general feeling of excitement was palpable. Holtz has taken a team that won three games combined in the two years before he got there and won 20 times in three years, leading the Pirates to back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1999-2000 and to their first bowl win in seven years, a 41-38 victory over No. 22 Boise State in the Hawaii Bowl.
East Carolina is on the rise, and you can make the argument that the Pirates are farther along in their building process than either North Carolina or N.C. State. They have a brutal opening to their 2008 schedule — in Charlotte against Virginia Tech on Aug. 30 before the home opener the following week with West Virginia.
But the stadium will be full and the fans will be jacked, no matter what.
Thanks to Skip Holtz.
Here is my story on Holtz’s appearance that was published in The Herald on Friday:
SANFORD — East Carolina fan Wallie Tyler is exactly the kind of guy Skip Holtz likes to talk about.
Tyler is a dedicated ECU alum, fervent about his alma mater’s athletics and its reputation. He follows the university’s programs and makes it to every Pirate Club function that he can.
Tyler has been around awhile. He remembers many banquets like the one the Lee/Chatham/Moore Counties Chapter of the Pirate Club hosted in Sanford on Thursday night. He remembers the East Carolina football coaches of the past, like John Thompson.
But Tyler’s voice lowers when he talks about the Thompson years, when the Pirates won three games and lost 20 in two seasons.
“Those were some bad years,” Tyler said. “Coach Thompson was a good man, a nice fellow, but he just couldn’t get the job done.”
But the job now is being done by Skip Holtz, who made his second visit to Lee County at a Pirate Club function in three years to speak to about 150 dedicated alumni like Tyler.
And Tyler couldn’t be happier about it.
“He’s enthusiastic. He’s a go-getter,” Tyler said about the Pirates’ coach. “He’s a very dynamic speaker and a motivator. He not only gets the players motivated, but he gets all the Pirates’ fans motivated, too.”
Three years ago, before leading the Pirates onto the field for the first time in 2006, Holtz was known more for his famous father, legendary coach Lou Holtz, than for his attributes as a football coach.
But following the first back-to-back winning seasons at ECU since 1999-2000, and five months after the Pirates beat 22nd-ranked Boise State in the Hawaii Bowl for the program’s first bowl win in seven years, Holtz can feel the well of excitement brewing again over East Carolina football.
“It’s an exciting time for East Carolina athletics right now,” Holtz said. “The fan base we have has been awesome. There is so much excitement and enthusiasm right now. You go around to these (banquets) and everybody’s upbeat and positive. They’re excited about the future and where we’re going.”
It’s showing on the bottom line. ECU football has set three straight attendance records and recently sold out the season ticket base for the upcoming season for the first time in school history.
“There’s going to be a rear end in every seat,” Holtz said. “It’s going to be awesome.”
So is the competition. The Pirates have won 15 games in the last two seasons combined, picking up wins over North Carolina, N.C. State, Virginia and Southern Miss along the way. But 2008’s schedule may be the toughest yet, with the Pirates opening the season on Aug. 30 in Charlotte against Virginia Tech before returning for their home opener the next week against West Virginia.
“You open the chutes with two top-10 teams,” Holtz said. “We’re going from a program that had a hard time competing with anybody to having to line up against some heavyweights and having to compete. It’ll be a great standard for us.”
But that’s fine with Holtz, who has a plan.
“There are two ways to build a program. You can build a program from the outside-in or from the inside-out. And by building it outside-in, you schedule light teams and you win a lot of games, and the public perception is that you’re a really good team.
“Or you can turn and schedule as many tough teams as you can, and the wins and losses may not fall out — I mean, we lose five games last year and three of them are to West Virginia, Virginia Tech and N.C. State. But I think by scheduling it inside-out, what you’re giving yourself a chance to do is build your program, so that when you finally get to that level, you’re ready to compete on the field.”
In the meantime, though, Pirates fans, excited as they are, should remain patient as well.
“You’re going to take three steps forward and one step back when you do this,” Holtz said. “We’re ready to compete at that level, but I don’t know if we’re ready to win at that level on a consistent basis. But I think we can line up and we can play and we can compete and we can be competitive.
“But you are also talking about a couple of the elite programs in the country.”
Still, the fervor is there, and it’s catching on at all levels, including the NFL. Star running back Chris Johnson was selected 24th overall in the first round of NFL draft last week — the second ECU player to go in the first round in the program’s history — while several other former Pirates players will be attending minicamps this week hoping to catch on with other teams as free agents.
“For the NFL teams to recognize the job that we’re doing and some of the talent that’s in place is big,” Holtz said.
“We’ve come a long way,” Holtz added. “A long way since that first year.”
“We’re doing it the right way,” he said. “Coach Holtz preaches academics as much as sports, and I like to see that stressed. And if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. A lot of coaches are great with Xs and Os, but Coach Holtz has an enthusiastic personality that bubbles over.”