The fifth-year East Carolina head coach saw the Razorback helmet on the table at a Liberty Bowl press conference in Memphis and knew this wasn't just any opponent. The son of former Arkansas coach Lou Holtz, Skip is no stranger to his next foe.
"Looking across the table at the Arkansas helmet brings back a lot of memories," Holtz said. "I can remember sitting in these press conferences and admiring my father when as he sat in that chair and talked behind that helmet. We're excited to be here not only to be representing the Conference-USA, but also playing a great program like Arkansas."
Skip Holtz spent seven years in Fayetteville while his dad compiled a 60-21-2 record as Razorback head coach. After graduating from Fayetteville High School, Holtz spent two years at Holy Cross Junior College in Notre Dame, Ind., before transferring to play two more years for his dad at Notre DameUniversity.
Despite being away from the Razorback program for more than a quarter-century, Holtz still has an admiration for his boyhood team.
"I feel like I should be sitting on the other side because growing up from seventh grade and through high school I was in Fayetteville," Holtz said. "I've talked to pretty much about everybody that I know in Fayetteville over the last week since we found out we were going to have the opportunity to play Arkansas. Don't get me wrong, they'll be wearing red and white.
"I can remember growing up going back to the Orange Bowl when they had the big win over Oklahoma, 31-6, and playing Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. There are some great childhood memories from growing up in Fayetteville and growing up around that program, and being a huge fan of it."
|Lou Holtz won 72 percent of his games coaching Arkansas from 1977-83.|
This time around the Pirates will be looking to snap a dubious Liberty Bowl streak. The postseason destination for the C-USA champion, Memphis has been unkind the league, which has fallen to the Southeastern Conference in each of the last four years, including East Carolina's 25-19 loss to Kentucky there last year.
Familiarity isn't just confined to the Pirates, though. Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino twice beat East Carolina while at Louisville. In 2004 Petrino's Cardinals were the last C-USA champion to win the Liberty Bowl with a thrilling win over Boise State.
Petrino said the difference between East Carolina then and now is a better caliber of athlete.
"I think what you've seen since Coach Holtz got there is the continuity in what they do offensively, defensively and special teams and the progress they've made in recruiting," Petrino said. "The first thing when you sit down and watch them and see some of those athletes is, ‘Why isn't that guy playing for us?' They've done an excellent job in recruiting and then they do a good job in coaching and being sound. They don't lose a lot of games coaching.
"They're very similar to a lot of teams in the Southeastern Conference in regards to how good their defensive front is. That's the biggest challenge we have in our conference is when you have to block defensive ends that can rush the passer and big defensive tackles that can stop the run…Their defensive line fits in with about every team we play in the SEC."
East Carolina is returning to the Liberty Bowl by virtue of a 38-32 win over Houston in last weekend's league title game. Holtz said he's not worried about any kind of emotional letdown.
"I think Arkansas brings plenty of emotion to the table and plenty of excitement from our players' standpoint," Holtz said. "I think after playing in this game a year ago and walking away with a loss against Kentucky, I think our players are really excited to have the opportunity to come back here.
"You don't have to sit down and watch much film to understand that if we don't play well against this football team we'll get run out of the stadium. We can't afford an emotional letdown."