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Thursday, November 3, 2005

By Al Myatt

Holtz rejects sacrificing present for future


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How leaders handle adversity is often a better indication of their abilities than their reactions to circumstances when things are going well.

It was reassuring that East Carolina football coach Skip Holtz responded honestly and presented explanations rather than excuses after the Pirates committed six turnovers in a 30-20 homecoming loss to Central Florida last Saturday.

"We put so much effort and energy into every week, "Holtz said. "I'm not mad at these players. My heart breaks for them. They deserve better. These fans deserve better. We just keep making the mistakes that get us beat."

Holtz didn't look to place blame after his team dropped to 3-5 overall and 2-3 in Conference USA with a week off before traveling to new league member Tulsa, but he was as disappointed as anyone who saw the Pirates erase a 2-touchdown deficit and take a fourth-quarter lead only to let the Golden Knights mount a comeback of their own.

"As I told them, when the fire in our belly hurts bad enough after one of these losses, then we'll hold on to the football, stay in the deep third (in pass coverage), then we'll hold our gap," Holtz said. "I tell them all the time the three most important things in winning the football game is turnovers, red zone and big plays.

"I don't think we won the turnover battle. I know we didn't win the red zone battle and we gave up more big plays than you can shake a stick at for six points. When you do those things, you're cutting yourself into too deep of a hole."

Holtz said the situation is frustrating but he's not blaming ECU's close losses on personnel deficiencies arising from poor recruiting in the past. That might be an easy thing to do, especially since his predecessor at ECU, John Thompson, had his responsibilities as defensive coordinator reduced this past week at South Carolina by coach Steve Spurrier. The Gamecocks defensive calls are now being made by Tyrone Nix.

"This football team has a chance to be pretty good," Holtz said. "I heard a lot about a lack of talent when I first came here. 'This team wasn't very good. We weren't very talented. We've got to hit the recruiting trail.' I think these guys are playing so hard their talent is being maximized. Watching that game (Central Florida), I don't think we were out-athleted.

"I think they played better than we did. I thought they did a better job of following the plan of protecting the football and doing the things you've got to do in order to win a football game and that's why they were victorious.

"You can look at statistics and it's great to beat your chest and say, 'We had our best day running the ball (272 yards). We had our best day total offense (542 yards). We had our best day doing this and we had our best day doing that,' but the bottom line is you've got to score more points than they do and you turn the ball over six times — you don't give yourself a chance."

Holtz and staff are doing a lot of things right and eventually the scoreboard will indicate their capabilities. It generally doesn't happen overnight. Ask George O'Leary at UCF, who went 0-11 in his first year with the program in 2004.

But Holtz isn't looking to buy time to build a winner.

Most of the players at East Carolina have been in the program significantly longer than the coaches have. Holtz respects that fact and has emphasized senior leadership since taking over 11 months ago.

"There's two things that can happen when you go into a program," Holtz said. "One attitude that people choose to take is, 'These aren't my players and evaluate me when I recruit all my guys.' "

Holtz knows the advantages of such an approach even if that's not his style.

"I think that's a building block," he said. "You're not going to win right away. You're going to lose a lot of players and a lot of guys are going to transfer. You're going to get to bring in your own guys and all of a sudden four years from now, you've got a chance."

But Holtz isn't pursuing that path.

"The approach that we've taken is that this is the seniors' football team. It's not Skip Holtz's football team, this is the senior class's football team and they've been here for four and five years. They came here four and five years ago because they believed in this place and they wanted to win. I want to give them an opportunity to achieve those goals.

"Since we've come in we've embraced the seniors, we've embraced this team. This is not Skip Holtz's team or John Thompson's team or Steve Logan's team. This is East Carolina's team. We're all part of this family and we're all in this thing together. That's how we're trying to build it and I think that has created a lot of excitement among these players and among these fans to give this team a chance to win right away.

"I've been really excited about the way these seniors have taken it. As I told them at the beginning, I will give it to you if you will take it but if you don't take it, I'm giving it to the underclassmen. And they (the seniors) have jumped up front and said, 'Coach, we want to be good. We want to be good now. We want to win. We want to be leaders. Tell us what we've got to do. We're in. They've been awesome."

Even though Holtz doesn't want to sell his current players short, the talent level will improve through recruiting.

The new staff has been smoothing relations with high school coaches in-state who were disillusioned by the previous staff's commitment to bringing in Florida players. Assistants such as Steve Shankweiler, Donnie Thompson and Junior Smith are locally connected and respected and that will be reflected on signing date in February. The Pirates are also working to re-establish Tidewater Virginia as a recruiting base.

ECU will get there under Holtz, but he's working to make it happen right now.

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02/23/2007 12:33:44 AM

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