When Skip Holtz was approached about taking over at Louisiana Tech last offseason, he got his first look at the schedule for this fall. He couldn’t help but roll his eyes.
N.C. State? Not N.C. State. Holtz just couldn’t get away, not from the school, not from the state.
“Partly,” Holtz acknowledged this week. “And then I was excited, at the same time.”
This is a homecoming for the 49-year-old in so many ways. Holtz spent four years of his childhood on the N.C. State campus while his father Lou coached the Wolfpack from 1972-75, then spent five years on another state campus as a head coach himself at East Carolina from 2005-09.
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Few know the confines of Carter-Finley Stadium as well as the younger Holtz, both as a fan and as an opponent, so while there may have been easier places for Holtz to make his Bulldogs debut, there probably weren’t any more fitting.
“Having the opportunity to go back there and play a couple times at ECU, I have great respect for that program,” Holtz said. “I have great memories from growing up there. I used to talk about the hill I would run up and down. That hill is under a bunch of bleachers now. I have great memories from Raleigh, when I was 8 to 12 years old and my dad’s time there. It’s a neat opportunity for me to go back to a place that has so many memories.”
It won’t be Holtz’s first return to Carter-Finley – he won there with East Carolina in 2006, contributing to Chuck Amato’s departure after that season – and despite often being the underdog, he’s 7-10 against ACC schools as a head coach.
Holtz’s first head-coaching job was at Connecticut, but he really made his mark with East Carolina, turning around a program that had been left for dead in the wake of John Thompson’s disastrous tenure, rebuilding it to meet ambitious standards and contending for Conference USA titles. The Pirates became a nuisance for any ACC team willing to play them, at home or on the road.
In 2009, after winning a second straight Conference USA championship, he left for South Florida and the Big East, frustrated by East Carolina’s inability to get into a more appropriate conference and motivated by a strong desire to be closer to his father and wife’s family in Florida. That didn’t work out as well, which left him looking for work this offseason.
When Sonny Dykes left Louisiana Tech for California – and left the cupboard bare as 32 lettermen departed – Holtz took over. The program is in far better shape than East Carolina was when Holtz arrived, but it’s still very much a blank slate. Just as Holtz is watching film of N.C. State, Wisconsin and Northern Illinois trying to get a handle on the Wolfpack, N.C. State coach Dave Doeren has watched film of Louisiana Tech, South Florida and Marshall – where offensive coordinator Tony Petersen was last season – trying to figure Holtz out.
One thing is certain: Holtz not only knows what it’s like to play at Carter-Finley, he knows how to prepare an underdog for an upset under these circumstances.
“Just the experience of having been there before,” Holtz said. “Not necessarily the team but the environment, going into the atmosphere they have, the game-day environment they have built there. Facility-wise, it’s going to be a neat trip for our players, one they’re going to enjoy.”
Just as it’s a new day for N.C. State, with Doeren making his debut and a new quarterback taking over after five years of Russell Wilson and Mike Glennon, it’s a new day for Holtz. His career flourished here once, and his attempt to climb back up the ladder begins here, again.