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The last time Skip Holtz was able to spend a considerable amount of time in Birmingham was 2006, when he was head coach at East Carolina and his team was in town for a week to play South Florida in the Birmingham Bowl.

“Downtown was – is barren the right word?” Holtz said. “The SEC (Southeastern Conference) office was here. The Sheraton (hotel), the convention center.

“We didn’t even stay down here for the bowl game that week. We stayed out at the mall (the Galleria). There was nothing to do down here.

“What they’ve done downtown is unbelievable.”

As head coach of the Birmingham Stallions of the United States Football League, Holtz has made Birmingham home during the season – along with the roughly 500 or so other players, coaches, and support personal associated with the first-year league.

Saturday, June 11 at Noon
New Jersey Generals vs Michigan Panthers

Saturday, June 11 at 5 PM
Houston Gamblers vs Birmingham Stallions

Sunday, June 12 at 3 PM
Tampa Bay Bandits vs New Orleans Breakers

Sunday, June 12 at 6:20 PM
Philadelphia Stars vs Pittsburgh Maulers

(All games at Protective Stadium)

Most of the players and coaches are staying at the Sheraton in Uptown, within walking distance of Protective Stadium, home to all eight teams in the league, plus administrative personnel. Some have rented apartments or houses.

But, like Holtz and USFL Executive Vice President for Football Operations Daryl Johnston, they all seem to have developed an appreciation for downtown Birmingham.

Especially the food.

“I’ve had a fantastic time,’’ said Johnston. “I’ve stayed here the whole time, other than going back for my son’s graduation and a fathers’ day weekend at his college.

“It’s a great food town. … When you talk about a midsize city in this country, I’ve never really been anywhere that has what Birmingham provides. I’m a fan of the little neighborhoods outside of downtown – they are like what we have in Dallas.”

Birmingham has begun to be included on any list of the “Best Foodie Towns” in the U.S. The Daily Meal (thedailymeal.com) said, “Birmingham has the nickname The Magic City, and we’re pretty sure we know why: the food.”

Holtz and his wife have rented an apartment near Pepper Place, and he splits his time between staying at the Sheraton to be near his coaches and players and getting away.

“My wife and I try to hit a different restaurant every week,’’ Holtz said. “I’ve got a list, and it seems to keep growing. I’m going to run out of time, but I keep checking restaurants off that list every week.”

Holtz rattles off a list of the places he’s been – “El Barrio, East West, Helen, Blueprint (on 3rd), Hot ‘n Hot, Automatic Oyster,” he said. “Bottega, of course. And of course, I’ve had the porkchop at Perry’s.

“And Southern Kitchen (in Uptown) has been a favorite since it’s right here.”

Johnston, who resides in Dallas, said he had heard from people that Birmingham had a reputation as a “foodie” town, but didn’t necessarily believe it until he got here.

“The people here should be proud,” he said. “We took our quarterbacks to Saws (BBQ) - over in Avondale, I think - when they were in town for the draft, and that was my first time there. I loved it.

“I’m kind of a simple, good food person. I don’t need fancy. John’s City Diner - that’s a regular for me. I love Helen. I’m going to East West for dinner tonight. I’ve not hit some of the bigger name ones, like Hot ‘n Hot, but it’s hard not to go to John’s and Helen’s and not stop by Saws.”

“I don’t know about John’s,” Holtz said. “I need to add that to my list.”

The other surprise for Johnston was the brewpubs.

“I’m very impressed with the breweries,’’ he said. “We had some friends meet over by the Barons’ stadium and met at Good People (brewing company) before the game. Brock’s Gap in Hoover – the number of breweries here is something I was not aware of. Cahaba Brewing, Avondale - we have local breweries in Dallas, but these are great. It’s really getting to be known as a good brewpub town.”

It is not unusual to be downtown and see players and coaches out walking in the Uptown area. They’re not hard to pick out: unusually large men gathered around large tables usually covered in large amounts of food.

“We walk everywhere,’’ Holtz said. “Kevin Sumlin (coach of the Houston Gamblers) and I were over by UAB and just decided to walk back here (to the Sheraton). To see how these buildings have been redone and all the apartments that have gone in, the museums, Pepper Place when they have that Saturday market. We walked that greenway, the (Rotary) trail – that’s a great addition to downtown.”

Holz started to walk away but stopped.

“And Eugene’s (Hot Chicken),’’ he said. “Can’t forget that place. The players love it. That’s one of the top ones for everybody down here.”

To connect with the author of this story, or to comment, email Ray.Melick@1819News.com.

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