Gorman: Coaching carousel's 'collateral damage'
When J.P. Holtz made his college choice in July, the Shaler star pronounced himself a Pennsylvania kid and called it a dream come true to play at Penn State.
What followed has been nothing short of a nightmare, one that forced Holtz to not only reopen the recruiting process but redefine the word commitment . This time, instead of chastising prospects for wavering, we have watched the state's two biggest football programs leave this top WPIAL recruit wondering where he fits in.
Holtz thought he was selecting the most stable program in the region, if not the country, when he picked Penn State. Then, the worst scandal in college sports history erupted, with charges of child-sex abuse cover-up that prompted Penn State to fire legendary coach Joe Paterno on Nov. 6. Seven weeks later, the school still hasn't hired his successor.
"It's been crazy," said Holtz, who is no longer considering Penn State. "I never expected it to happen. ... It totally changed everything. It's just a sad situation with what happened to the young kids that were abused. It's sad to see that happen. I feel horrible for them.
"It's a bad time right now. I just don't want to be in that situation. Not hiring a coach is killing them with recruits. It sucks for their coaches. They don't know what's going on, if they'll be there, so they really can't recruit us."
Shaler coach Neil Gordon produced Penn State players in Barry Tielsch and Ron Graham at Penn Hills and current Lions cornerback Jesse Della Valle at Shaler but couldn't, in good conscience, advise Holtz to go there.
"I've sent a million kids to Penn State, but there's too much uncertainty," Gordon said. "You can't leave them hanging."
Pitt soon pounced, convincing Holtz to take an official visit earlier this month. He was leaning toward picking the Panthers when, three days later, first-year coach Todd Graham slipped out of town to take the Arizona State job.
"I had those thoughts, but this whole coaching change just blew me away. I had no idea that was coming. I didn't expect it, but stuff happens. I guess he didn't mean what he said all this time. He's not meant to be at Pitt," said Holtz, who might fit better into the tight end-friendly offense new Panthers coach Paul Chryst ran at Wisconsin. "They've got a better coach now, so it kind of helped the program."
What Holtz has learned throughout this ordeal is to look out for himself, a change in thought that could become more commonplace in the cutthroat recruiting world. Where giving one's word once was a bond, a verbal commitment now should be considered nothing more than insurance policy. And schools have no one to blame but themselves.
Luckily for Holtz, he didn't completely cut off other colleges when he made his commitment to Penn State. He has visited Pitt and Purdue and plans to take a trip to Michigan State next month before the Feb. 1 signing day.
"J.P. was smart in that he committed to Penn State but kept lines of communication open with other schools," Scout.com recruiting analyst Bob Lichtenfels said. "Most coaches will not continue to recruit you after you commit, unless you leave the door open. The kids are starting to be more careful now. Everybody talks about the coaches leaving and what it does to the schools, but 'collateral damage' would be a good term to use for the kids with these coaching changes."
Regarded as one of the state's top 10 players by Scout.com, the 6-foot-4, 243-pound Holtz has played every offensive skill position but projects as either a tight end or pass-rushing outside linebacker. Scout.com ranks Holtz the nation's No. 10 tight end, and his combination of soft hands, speed and football sense made him, perhaps, the best all-around football player in the WPIAL, despite pedestrian statistics (337 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns, 19 catches for 332 yards and two touchdowns).
Recruiting hasn't even been Holtz's greatest worry. His mother, Gina -- who played volleyball at Robert Morris -- had a blood clot that caused a heart attack in early October and missed his homecoming game against McDowell. Holtz ran for two touchdowns, had a crucial sack and scored on a 30-yard interception return in the 41-28 victory.
"That was maybe the best game he ever played," said Gordon, who gave Holtz and his family the game ball. "That McDowell game was an incredible performance by him, and he's had a lot of them."
Perhaps Holtz's ability to perform under pressure is a good omen. Soon enough, he's going to have to make an important decision that will affect his future.
The good news is, he's already made a lot of them.