TAMPA (AP) - Large, catchy billboards around town hawk season tickets and trumpet the beginning of "A Holtz New Era" for South Florida football.
Jim Leavitt's scowl is gone, replaced by Skip Holtz's smiling mug and expectations that an already promising future will be even brighter.
"We can win conference championships here," the son of former Notre Dame and South Carolina coach Lou Holtz said. "We can win national championships here."
That also was the goal under Leavitt, who started USF's program from scratch in the 1990s and presided over a meteoric rise from a cluster of trailers to BCS conference status. The Leavitt era came to an end after a messy scandal cost him his job following the Bulls' fifth consecutive bowl appearance last winter.
USF is the only BCS school in the country to begin each of the past three seasons with at least five straight victories. But the Bulls also have been viewed underachievers because each of those strong starts was followed by a midseason slide dropping them out of the Top 25 and contention for a Big East title.
Holtz led East Carolina, which had lost 22 of its 25 previous games prior to his arrival in 2005, to the past two Conference USA championships.
The Bulls lured Holtz away from the Pirates with a $9.1 million, five-year contract after Leavitt was fired for mistreating a player who had accused the former coach of grabbing him by the throat and slapping him in the face twice during halftime of a game.
The 46-year-old welcomes the challenge of stepping into the Big East and trying to transform the Bulls, ranked as high as No. 2 in the country in 2007, into an elite program.
"We're about to move into a much bigger glasshouse. Everything we do positively is going to be magnified. ... But that's the arena you want to be in," Holtz said. "That's why I'm here. That's the environment you want to play in, coach in. Those are the games you want to be in."
With 15 starters returning from a team that had five players selected in this year's NFL draft, Holtz inherits a much more talented team than he was able to turn into a winner at East Carolina.
Nine regulars are back on offense, including quarterback B.J. Daniels, who beat Florida State on the road in his first college start last season.
Daniels completed nearly 54 percent of his passes for 1,983 yards, 14 touchdowns and nine interceptions while leading the Bulls to an 8-5 finish, including a win in the International Bowl. The sophomore also led the team in rushing with 772 yards and nine TDs, which will not happen again if Holtz is able to get running back Moise Plancher (581 yards, five TDs) more involved.
"He is a young quarterback. A very talented young quarterback, but still a young quarterback," said Holtz, adding Daniels has the talent to excell in the Bulls' new offensive system.
"When you look at the teams that are competing for conference championships, most of them are being driven by junior and senior quarterbacks that have been in the programs for four and five years and had a chance to really develop, not just physically but mentally. ... B.J. is not there. But what I feel comfortable about is he's going to get there because of his desire, attitude and working as hard as he can."
One of the biggest questions Holtz has yet to resolve is who Daniels will be throwing to. The Bulls lost leading receiver Carlton Mitchell to the NFL draft, and injuries to A.J. Love and Sterling Griffin have left the team with a shortage of experienced receivers heading into the Sept. 4 season opener against Stony Brook.
Another unknown is how good the Bulls can be on defense, especially early, after replacing ends Jason Pierre-Paul (first round) and George Selvie (seventh round), safety Nate Allen (second round) and cornerback Jerome Murphy (third round).
Holtz, who's 72-50 in 10 seasons as a head coach, isn't making any predictions.
The conference schedule includes home games against conference preseason favorite Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Rutgers and Connecticut, as well as road dates against West Virginia, Cincinnati and Louisville.
A long-range goal is elevating USF to the level of Florida, Florida State and Miami. Road opportunities against the Gators in September and Hurricanes in November could provide a barometer of where the Bulls stand on that front.
Ready or not, Holtz is excited about the new beginning.
"It has been an absolute whirlwind. A lot of new faces, a lot of things have changed," Holtz said before the start of fall practice. "We have a no nonsense type of mentality. They realize and understand everything we've got to get accomplished."