When South Florida visits Louisville on Saturday, it will be the first time Skip Holtz and Charlie Strong have met on the field as head coaches. But the two are very familiar with one another.
Strong considers Holtz's father, Lou, one of his top mentors. He was the defensive line coach at Notre Dame from 1995-98 before following the elder Holtz to South Carolina in 1999. While he served as defensive coordinator for the Gamecocks, Skip Holtz was the offensive coordinator.
"We're good friends," Strong said. "I have a special relationship with coach [Lou] Holtz, and Skip and I have a bond there."
"He and [his wife] Vickie are great people, and our kids played together," Holtz said. "I think the world of Charlie. I think he's a great football coach and a great person."
Strong and Holtz entered the Big East together this year, and both inherited difficult circumstances for different reasons. Both have done an excellent job so far.
Louisville won only four games last season and was seen by most people as having the least amount of talent in the league. Strong has the Cardinals playing at a high level on both sides of the ball, and at 5-4 and 2-2 in the Big East, they're in position to reach a bowl game for the first time in four seasons.
Perhaps most impressively, Strong took an undersized and inexperienced defense and put his stamp on it. Louisville ranks 19th nationally in both scoring defense and total defense.
"Is this a typical Charlie Strong defense? Yeah, they're playing hard and playing a million things," Holtz said. "I don't think there's a front they haven't played in their first eight games. They do an awful lot, they're aggressive and come at you fast. They don't sit back and let you dictate."
Holtz's work might be less obvious at a program that had grown accustomed to winning seasons and bowl games. But remember that he took over a divided team in January after the firing of the Bulls' first, and to that point, only head coach, Jim Leavitt. South Florida also lost five defensive starters to the NFL, yet has remained as one of the Big East's best on that side of the ball. Holtz also had very little depth at the receiver position and tried to mold B.J. Daniels into more of a pocket passer than a pure athlete.
Though the team started off 4-3 and lost its first two Big East games, it has won two straight as the changes Holtz and his staff made are starting to take hold. The Bulls are still alive in the league race and seem well-positioned moving forward.
"Skip is doing an outstanding job," Strong said. "He understands the game and knows exactly how to get his players to go and play well."
Saturday's meeting between the Bulls and Cardinals could show which coach has done a better job in Year One. The winner will clinch bowl eligibility. And it's quite likely that these two friends will meet with much bigger things on the line in the years to come.