From winless to wonders
Holtz, Gamecocks look to prove they're no fluke
By Chris Low, Special to CNNSI.com
Give Lou Holtz a captive audience, and he's magic.
Give him a football team to rebuild, and history has shown that it doesn't take him very long to work his magic.
A year ago at this time, South Carolina was the laughingstock of the college football world. The Gamecocks owned the nation's longest losing streak at 21 games, and Holtz's reservoir of witty one-liners was beginning to run dry.
But as the 2001 season approaches, the laughter in Columbia, S.C., has turned to excitement and unbridled anticipation.
The 64-year-old Holtz has done it again.
He's taken a South Carolina program left for dead and placed it solidly among the Top 25 teams in the country. And listening to the players, last season's 8-4 finish was only the start.
"The standard has been set at our place, and it comes from coach Holtz," said senior linebacker Kalimba Edwards, who at 6-foot-6 and 260 pounds is one of the most coveted NFL prospects in the SEC. "It's not to win seven games, or eight games, or nine games. It's to win every one of our games.
"It was the same way when we were 0-11. They would have laughed at us then if I would have said that, but I don't think anybody's laughing now."
Anybody who thinks coaching is overrated at the college level might want to consider the depths from which the Gamecocks have come. The 0-11 record in Holtz's first season came with an offensive line that started eight different combinations.
If that wasn't enough, the Gamecocks were forced to play five different quarterbacks and ranked last among 114 Division 1-A teams in scoring (7.9 points).
But with defensive coordinator Charlie Strong, an up-and-coming star in his profession, Holtz was able to put a defense on the field in 1999 that was better than respectable. That same defense was dominant at times a year ago, and Holtz was able to spread the offense and tinker with it just enough to keep teams honest.
The Gamecocks' win against Georgia during the second week of the season was huge. So was their last-minute win against Mississippi State two weeks later.
After losing a late-season heartbreaker to Tennessee, South Carolina still went into Florida with a chance to win the SEC's Eastern Division. The Gamecocks led 21-3 at one point, but wound up losing. They lost the next week to bitter rival Clemson, too.
But in the Outback Bowl, even with star runner Derek Watson serving a suspension, South Carolina spanked Ohio State 24-7 to complete one of the most remarkable turnarounds in SEC history.
"It was a matter of rallying around each other, and that's what coach Holtz made us realize," said senior quarterback Phil Petty. "Going through [the 0-11 season] made us stronger. I don't think this will be a team that rattles easily."
The Gamecocks return eight starters on offense and nine on a defensive unit that led the SEC in scoring defense and was sixth nationally last season.
"Talent-wise, we'll be good," said Holtz, the only coach in NCAA history to have guided six different teams to bowl games. "We can be competitive in the SEC. We can win and will win, and it's not going to be an up-again, down-again thing. We were a Top 20 team, and I see no reason why we can't be there again."
What's gone is the surprise factor. Nobody will take the Gamecocks lightly this time around. And once again, the Georgia game (Sept. 8 in Athens) will set the tone for the season.
"It's not like they're the sleeping giant anymore," said Georgia linebacker Will Witherspoon. "They're not going to sneak up on anybody this season."
Perhaps not, but South Carolina cornerback Sheldon Brown said that's more of an excuse for everybody that lost to the Gamecocks a year ago. What's more, Brown thinks there are still plenty of doubters out there.
"To tell you the truth, people still think we're not going to win," Brown said. "People don't believe in us. They might believe in coach Holtz, but they don't think we've got the kind of talent it takes to win in this league. They don't now, and they didn't last year."
It shouldn't hurt any that Watson will be back this season, barring any more incidents. The SEC's total all-purpose leader a year ago (166.7 yards per game) was disciplined twice more this offseason, first for shoving an intramural basketball referee and later on allegations he punched a female student in the arm. Watson was required by Holtz to do certain things in order to return to the team. Holtz, while declining to be specific, said he's satisfied that Watson has done those things.
To a man, the Gamecocks insist they don't want a repeat of last season. They expect better.
The same goes for the fans, some of the most loyal in the country. Never mind that South Carolina -- a program steeped in mediocrity -- has won just two bowl games in its history and manufactured only one season of nine or more wins.
"We've got a lot to prove, because if we don't do it this year, everybody is going to say last year was a fluke," Edwards said. "I think that's in the back of everybody's minds.
"We understand we're not too far removed from 1-10 and 0-11, but we also know that 8-4 is not the standard. It's higher.
"We just didn't believe it before," he said. "We believe it now."
Chris Low covers the SEC for The Tennesseean. His "This Week in the SEC" column will appear weekly during the season.