UFL 2024: Skip Holtz, Zach Potter and the relentless focus behind a football dynasty

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by RJ Young | FOXSports.com

UFL 2024: Skip Holtz, Zach Potter and the relentless focus behind a football dynasty

Following the 2023 USFL season, Skip Holtz should've taken a break. He planned to, and he let his wife Jennifer make plans to that effect. Europe was on the schedule, along with the chance to sit down for a while, wear shorts, sip on retirement.


But 11 days after Holtz led the Birmingham Stallions to their second USFL championship in as many years, Holtz, a man who earned his first head coaching job 30 years ago at UConn, found himself in conversation with a man who quite unexpectedly was about to step into his first.


At Northwestern, a hazing scandal led to the ousting of longtime Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald. David Braun, who'd been hired to coach the defense just seven months before, was informed he'd begin the 2023 season as Northwestern's interim head coach. And he needed help. One of the first men Braun was put into contact with was Holtz.


After an hour on the phone with Braun and two others in a Zoom meeting, Holtz back in his favorite space. They talked about coaching philosophies, scheduling practices, recruiting; the business of coaching college football.


"I told him if you want to be the head coach, then go be the head coach," Holtz said. "But if you want to be the defensive coordinator and head coach, then I can come help you as an assistant head coach. There were no rules. Well, that's not true. We wrote the rules as we went. I told him if you need help with something, give it to me. I told him, 'I'm here. Use me. There's not a problem that you're gonna get that I haven't sat in. There's not a situation that's gonna rise that I probably haven't already had. So utilize me.'"


There was only one goal that Holtz was unequivocal about: He wanted to do everything he could to leave Northwestern athletic director Dr. Derrick Gragg with the notion that the interim tag needed to be removed from Braun's title by season's end. So they got to work.


Holtz moved to Evanston, Illinois. Never mind that he had been looking toward truly having his first fall away from football in nearly 40 years. He told Jennifer that their trip to Europe would have to wait. He was a football coach. And he was needed at Wildcat practices, in meetings, in recruiting, at a program fighting not just for their season, but for their reputation.


"I felt like there was a group of players and a group of coaches that needed some help," Holtz told me. "And so I ran into the burning barn."


At the start of the season, given the state of the Wildcats' roster and the upheaval around the program, there was little reason to believe Northwestern would win more games than it lost. In 2022, the program finished 1-11. But the 2023 squad matched that 2022 win total in Week 2, traded wins and losses until the last four weeks of the season before reeling off four-straight wins to finish 8-5 with a win in the Las Vegas Bowl against Utah. The bowl win validated the decision Dr. Gragg made just over a month prior in making Braun Northwestern's permanent head coach.


For that, Holtz is proud. He knew the uncertainty and change that has come to the sport over the last 10 years could feel overwhelming, even unfair to a new head coach — let alone one who didn't believe he'd be Head Ball Coach in Charge that year. Holtz, who last coached college ball at Louisiana Tech, knew that Braun might not get another chance to be head coach. He knew that college administrators can be fickle. After six-straight seasons without a losing record, six trips to bowl games and five bowl wins, Holtz was fired after going 3-9 in 2021 — his first losing season since 2013.


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While coaching at Northwestern — "consulting" as the lawyers call it — Holtz continued his day job as head coach of the Birmingham Stallions.


Sometimes he'd make multiple phone calls to his general manager, Zach Potter, about players they were evaluating and looking to sign for their 2024 team. While helping Braun right a ship that was about to run aground, he and Potter were trying to find a few more rough, tough, hungry and relentless players who could help them win a third-straight pro spring league title. The Stallions could become the first team to win three consecutive league championships across the Canadian Football League, NFL Europe, UFL, USFL and XFL since the Edmonton Eskimos won five-straight from 1978 to 1982. The CFL has existed for 115 years, and the Stallions compete with it for players.


"I bet him and I talked three times a day while he was at Northwestern and all offseason," Potter said. "We talked every single morning, early morning, at lunch and late evening. He was constantly kind of obsessed with what we were doing in terms of how we were gonna get better. He understood that as long as we are working, hopefully somebody else takes one day off, and it will continue to give us an advantage."


Holtz and Potter are perfect for each other despite being separated by generations. It's uncommon to find a 60-year-old, 37-year-coaching veteran develop not just a kinship but a trust in a 23-year-old who will graduate college this December. Holtz was the first to give Potter a chance to do the job he's wanted to perform since he was a small child. And over the last three years, they've developed into the most successful head coach and general manager duos in the modern era of spring football. There are more differences between the two, many more, but no one doubts either's desire to do the work. When the dispersal drafts came around, Holtz had already taken a list of players for the offense and defense from Potter, invited each side of his staff to join him at his home in Florida and evaluate their film for a full week — while Potter continued to add names.


Stallions defensive coordinator Corey Chamblin was signed as an undrafted free agent in 1999 by legendary Ozzie Newsome. He's coached Canadian League Football teams, Grey Cup teams and was 2013 CFL Coach of the Year. And he's sure about Potter.


"Zach eats player personnel management, player personnel evaluation. He breathes personnel, loves personnel, and that's the biggest thing," Chamblin told me. "His desire to find the best players is all encompassing, and he's not doing anything else. You can have a conversation with Zach with something other than personnel, but it probably won't go far. It's gonna come back to personnel."


Potter, who is in Year 3 as general manager in Birmingham, works in a space that is perhaps the most difficult for any scout or general manager: the fringes of the NFL. That means he must track players who just didn't quite make an NFL 53-man roster, just missed making an NFL practice squad, didn't quite make it out of NFL training camp, just got waived by a CFL team. And he is relentless.


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Stallions QB Adrian Martinez, the former Nebraska and Kansas State star, was a player Potter had attempted to sign for two years. Martinez led the league in rushing, finished among the league's top three passers and will likely win UFL MVP. He was very much aware that the last starting QB Holtz coached had won USFL MVP, and also that former third-round selection and Ole Miss QB Matt Corral would compete with him for the starting job to open the season.


"Part of the reason why I wanted to be a Stallion is because Skip's done it before," Martinez said. "And something he prides himself on as well as Zach Potter, our GM, is getting guys to the NFL, which is where we all want to be. And so playing with guys with that similar type mindset, everyone's hungry in here. Everyone's had success, but ultimately, not where they want to be. And I think the way we've been able to build chemistry through that is part of why we're so successful."


While having a hot list always prepared and ready in case of injury, Potter spends as much time courting players for next year's team and reinforcing to those on it why they were and are wanted. His film evaluation, in-person and phone interviews, have led him to some of the best players that modern professional spring football has yet seen including: former USFL MVP Alex McGough, Martinez, former Michigan defensive end Taco Charlton, former Clemson wide out Deon Cain and former Texas A&M All-American Jace Sternberger.

When Stallions fans look down on the field and see a 6-foot-6, 265-pound tight end who has speed and power like Antonio Gates catching passes, it's because Potter found him, and Holtz and his staff developed him. In Potter, Holtz has helped develop one of the pro football off-the-field stars and a man who is as interested in the details of the players he's evaluating as any NFL general manager. Like those GMs, he's not interested in labeling players, and he's deft about who he elevates to Holtz and the Stallions coaching staff about who he thinks can help them. Knowing those players are motivated to overcome being cut, being marginalized, often figures into his evaluations.


"They're not essentially at their lowest point, I don't believe in that," Potter said. "I just think it's another roadblock; adversity that these guys are gonna have to overcome and conquer. But the way that we do it is we're trying to do it is we're trying to acquire talent that we believe will be difficult for other teams to acquire."


If a player is difficult to recruit — and make no mistake, he has to recruit against offers from the CFL (or last year, the XFL) as well as a lack of awareness about the UFL — that might mean he's the kind of talent Potter is looking for not just because of his athleticism, but because of his character.


"We're trying to find players with some sort of trait that may be extremely tough and limited in this league. And you know, there's a really good saying, you know, for guys, the best athlete or the most athletic or the most ready NFL guy will probably have more red flags, because the NFL doesn't let go too many legitimately talented players. So there's really a thin balance, but really what you're trying to find — and Coach Holtz did a really good job teaching me this my first couple years — you're really trying to find somebody with all of the intangibles, and then the basic minimum of athleticism that can help us. We try to acquire players who care about the game. They're very passionate people. Essentially, we're trying to find a really good employee."


And good employees want to work for good bosses. That's one reason Holtz has two coordinators who are former head coaches. While Chamblin had been a part of the coaching staff in 2022, joining the Brahmas in 2023 and returned to the Stallions in 2024, offensive coordinator Philip Montgomery came directly from holding the same position at Auburn and had spent the previous eight years at Tulsa, where he developed two first-round draft picks. Holtz and Montgomery are close enough that they share an apartment in Arlington during the season and Montgomery is the sounding board for Holtz that Holtz was for Braun.


"I think what he's doing to help me right now is being the voice of reason for me," Holtz said. "The thoughts, the ideas, the game day prep, he helps me with all of that. It's been great to have somebody with Philip's experience, Philip's knowledge, Philip's personality and lowkey mindset. That is a guy that I could bounce a lot of things off to, and give a lot of responsibility to, to take things off of my plate, which has been incredibly helpful for what we've been doing right now."


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UFL vice president of football operations Daryl Johnston was one of the men who offered Holtz the opportunity to become a pro football head coach. He's one of the most important members of what has become the standard for professional spring football in the U.S. His standing as a player on Super Bowl-winning teams with the Dallas Cowboys and as a national NFL broadcaster for FOX Sports has granted him experience, access and knowledge others could only dream about. He doesn't stop there, though. Johnston attends most games in person, sits through town halls in UFL cities and has generally acted as the conduit to those that coach and play the sport and those who run the business of the UFL. To him, what's most impressive about the Stallions has been the culture Holtz has created in a league where change is constant and can be consuming. Others agree.


"The culture has always started with the head coach," Chamblin, a former head coach said. "Coach Skip has done a great job of not just setting the culture but hiring assistants who can sort out in their rooms. Each one of us is like a head coach, not just the coordinator. He gives us the latitude to be the head coach of our room."


Holtz has to trust his assistants to know their rooms, too. Expect 35% of your roster will need to be replaced next season because of the transient nature of the UFL. Now account for the USFL-XFL merger that birthed the UFL. Now, put together a culture of consistency. That was the challenge before Holtz and other head coaches across the league.


Johnston recounted a conversation with former USFL Director of Player Performance and Wellness, Zac Woodfin, about which team he thought was going to be the best in the inaugural season of the USFL. Woodfin, a strength coach who has since become the Director of Sports Performance for the Tennessee Titans, didn't hesitate when he said it was Birmingham. Woodfin said there might be more talented teams in the league, but he was blown away by how quickly the Stallions gelled as a team right from the beginning.


"Birmingham has been able to keep that culture through all this roster transition through three years," Johnston said.

And that's Holtz's doing. He's adamant that he's been given a gift, not just coaching pro football but specifically the Stallions over the last three seasons. He has players who want to play, who are excited to show up to work, who have a hunger to get to the NFL. And he can help them just as he did in college, though he doesn't plan to return to college football.


"Never say never, but I've had a number of opportunities to go back to college football, I have turned them down," he said.


"Never say never" means he "consulted" at Northwestern just last year. And yesterday's price is not today's price.


His brand of coaching with an emphasis on assuming the best of his players has led to outstanding coaching moments on the field. He doesn't yell. He doesn't stamp his feet or throw a headset when a mistake is made. He's as gracious after a loss as he is with a win. He cultivates players who don't need to be scolded or put down.


"A lot of people can look at a bad play made and say, ‘Golly why would anybody make that mistake? That was stupid,'" Holz said. "Well, it's a passionate game. It's an emotional game. And the last thing you ever want a player to feel is like you are attacking him. I'll attack that performance, but I'll never attack a player. I don't think you need to yell, scream and holler. When you have players that aren't committed or don't care, then you get upset. But I think when you have a group of committed players that want to do well, it makes it a whole lot easier. I have willing students. It's a lot easier to teach them than it is to yell at them and say two plus two is freaking four. I have an expression I've used all the time: when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. I think in this league we have a bunch of students that are ready. Players are here for a reason. They want to get better. I think it's the purest brand of football going on right now."


For his efforts, he developed a kicker who had never kicked a field goal before signing with the Stallions in Brandon Aubrey. After two seasons, Aubrey was invited to NFL training camp with the Cowboys, made the 53-man roster as a rookie, set the NFL record for consecutive field goals made and was named a First Team All-Pro in 2023. He's one of several Holtz has seen and will see get a chance — perhaps a second chance — in the NFL. He keeps up with his former players, too. He texts Aubrey regularly, and Holtz's wife texts Aubrey most weekends.


"Those are the rewards," Holtz said. "I tell these players if you want to pay me back just let me watch you play on Sunday and put a big smile on my face in the fall. That's what we want. We want these guys to make it."


The UFL might make that their unofficial slogan: We want guys to make it. And they do.

RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast "The Number One College Football Show." Follow him at @RJ_Young and subscribe to "The RJ Young Show" on YouTube.


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