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Can Gamecocks 'Just Lou It?'

An apathetic campus has found its rallying point in Holtz

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Posted: Wednesday April 07, 1999 08:43 PM

  Lou Holtz knows there's a huge gap in talent between his former Fighting Irish teams and his current Gamecocks squad, but he may want to fill in the South Carolina faithful. Jonathan Daniel/Allsport

By Stewart Mandel, CNN/SI

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- On an unusually warm April afternoon, five months before their season begins, the members of the South Carolina football team line up for a field goal try to begin a three-hour practice.

The ball is snapped. Linemen collide. The kick is up and good.

No sooner has the pigskin cleared the crossbar than the unmistakable frail frame of coach Lou Holtz comes bounding off a nearby golf cart and straight at unsuspecting tight end Jim Levandasky.

"No, no, no, no, no, no! That's bull----!" he screams, then proceeds to crouch down and demonstrate proper blocking technique in front of Levandasky and a host of stunned yet attentive teammates.

When South Carolina fired coach Brad Scott and his 23-32-1 record last year, the school had its choice of any number of replacements besides a potentially washed up, 61-year-old now two years removed from the most prestigious job in coaching. Holtz's hiring -- a rather expensive one at that -- was viewed by many as a publicity stunt for one of the SEC's lowest-profile programs.

But in this vintage industrial city where a cargo train still runs through the center of town and the football stadium shares land with the state fairground, the admittedly old-fashioned Holtz could turn out to be a good fit. Intensely loyal but conservative Columbians would love nothing more than to see the Gamecocks rise to prominence, but only if it's done the right way.

"You've heard of the Bible Belt? This is the buckle," said bartender Gregory Amma. "Lou is the best thing that could have happened to South Carolina."

The feeling is similarly positive on a normally apathetic campus of 26,000, where even those who never saw their new coach pace among a sea of gold helmets on Notre Dame's sideline have caught on to the opportunity before them.

"Our school bicentennial is in 2001, and we're aiming for that to be our national championship year," said sophomore Angie Alpert. Quite the lofty goal for a school coming off a 1-10 season, but one that's finding its share of believers. Just check out the "2001: A Lou Odyssey" T-shirts on sale around town. Or "Just Lou It."

When asked of the last time students were this excited about the Gamecocks, Alpert, who helped plan a school-wide welcoming rally for Holtz, struggled for an answer before replying, "Probably when that one guy won the Heisman."

That was George Rogers. In 1980.

Senior receiver Kerry Hood is too young to remember such a time, but he is old enough to have had strong feelings upon Holtz' hiring last December.

"I thought about when I was a little kid, watching Notre Dame play and dreaming of playing for a guy like that some day," said Hood. "The way he hopped up and down the sidelines, that collar turned up. And how he'd give the referee the blues when he had to. I think any kid who grew up thinking about playing football would have wanted to play for him. It's like a blessing [that he was hired]."

For South Carolina to have any success this coming season, they'll need breakthrough performances from heretofore second-tier players like Hood, but more than likely points will be hard to come by. Holtz has spent the spring searching for a consistent quarterback and rushers to execute his trademark option but so far come up unimpressed. Said Holtz: "We could not possibly get on Noah's Ark because we don't have two of anything."

Defensively, however, the Gamecocks may be on the brink of greatness. Holtz has moved likely NFL candidate John Abraham from defensive end to outside linebacker, complementing equally promising Corey Atkins, while 1998 preseason All-American Arturo Freeman returns at free safety.

The Gamecocks have been practicing for nearly three weeks, and Lou has been every bit the caricature fans remember from 11 seasons with the Irish. He rides from drill to drill in his cart, occasionally lighting up a pipe, barking orders ("No messing around," he shouts to a manager keeping the clock, "I want it to the second!"), grabbing helmets when necessary and talking in a mixture of clichés, one-liners and motivational coachspeak.

"Based on what we have here now," he assessed, "we can't be competitive this year. But then again I don't believe in four-to-five year rebuilding efforts."

Good news then, coach. They're expecting the national title in three.

Related information
Lou Holtz chat transcript
Holtz shows familiar vigor during first S.C. practice
CNN/SI Team Page: South Carolina
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