A tip of the helmet to Holtz

Published 1:41 pm Wednesday, December 3, 2008

By By STEVE FRANKLIN, Sports Writer
East Carolina coach Skip Holtz should be a lock to win Conference USA’s Coach of the Year when the award is announced in the coming days.
In fact, after guiding the injury-riddled Pirates to the East Division title and becoming the first Conference USA coach to lead his team to back-to-back wins over Top 25 programs — ECU actually won three straight, beating No. 22 Boise State in the 2007 Sheraton Hawai’i Bowl, then opening the 2008 season with wins over No. 17 Virginia Tech and No. 8 West Virginia — I believe Holtz deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Texas Tech’s Mike Leach, Alabama’s Nick Saban, Utah’s Kyle Whitingham and Cincinnati’s Brian Kelly as one of the nation’s top college football coaches in 2008.
After all, what coach has done more with less than the Pirates’ fourth-year coach?
East Carolina got off to a hot start and was the talk of the nation after upsetting the Hokies and Mountaineers. You couldn’t turn on any of the ESPN networks without hearing about ECU. Will the Pirates go unbeaten? Are they this year’s Cinderella? Can they crack the BCS?
But a heart-wrenching overtime loss to N.C. State sent the television cameras packing in search of another Cinderella.
However, with the national spotlight turned elsewhere, Holtz began his finest coaching job of the season.
East Carolina began losing starter-after-starter to injury and dropped three straight games to fall to 3-3 on the year.
Immediately the snarling began.
Can they even compete in Conference USA? Was there hot start a fluke? Will they even make it to a bowl game?
Over the course of the season, the Pirates lost more than 20 members of their two-deep depth chart to injury. Eleven of those guys are out for the season.
But some how, Holtz kept them together.
This season, the Pirates lost their projected starting running back (Dominique Lindsay) in the preseason, another top tailback (Jonathan Williams) to suspension, their top two receivers (Jamar Bryant to suspension and Dwayne Harris to injury), their best offensive lineman (Stanley Bryant), their star middle linebacker (Quentin Cotton), their starting cornerback (Jerek Hewett), and kick returner (T.J. Lee) for the year.
Several other starters also missed several games.
Most teams would’ve folded. Called it bad luck and turned their attention to next season.
But Holtz refused to give up. He wouldn’t accept injuries as an excuse. The Pirates set the goal of winning a conference championship, and darn it, that’s what they were going to do, regardless.
Holtz didn’t take his players out of their element. He simply adjusted his scheme to give them the best chance of winning.
Though East Carolina’s offense became about as fun to watch as the birth of a baby orca on the animal planet, the Pirates were effective down the stretch.
Holtz knew his offense was short on playmakers, so he put the pressure on his defense to win games, and asked his offense to control the ball and not make mistakes.
It was ugly at times, but the Pirates won five of their last six games. Three of those coming by four points or less.
Now, after leading ECU (8-4, 6-2 in C-USA East) from bottom-feeder to the Conference USA Championship Game in just four years, Holtz is one of the hottest coaching candidates in the country. His name has been linked to the vacancy at Syracuse, and just last year he was considered a candidate at Georgia Tech and Arkansas.
It’s a testament to the job that Holtz has done at East Carolina.
And this season’s coaching job may be the finest work to-date for one of the nation’s top college football coaches.