When I left Notre Dame after the 1996 season, I never envisioned that I would coach again. I had spent 11 years coaching at a truly special place. We had won a national championship and played in nine consecutive New Year's bowl games, and yet I had become weary of trying to maintain a great program, instead of working toward reaching the top of the mountain. Besides, once I left Notre Dame, where could I find a more blessed position, unless I went and sat beside the Pope himself? � I thought I would be content living with my wife, Beth, in Orlando, playing as much golf as possible and doing studio work for CBS on its college football coverage. Then, in 1998, the University of South Carolina came calling with an offer to be its coach.
I had roots at the school. I'd been an assistant for the Gamecocks for almost two seasons (1966 and '67). Marvin Bass, the head coach at that time, had hired me from Connecticut. Shortly after I'd taken the job, I picked up the newspaper one morning, and the headline read MARVIN BASS RESIGNS. I remember asking my wife, "I wonder if he's related to my coach?"
The university hired Paul Dietzel to replace Marvin. Coach Dietzel didn't know me from Adam's house cat, so I was out of a job for a few months, until they hired me to coach the junior varsity. It was during that time that I wrote a list of 107 things I wanted to accomplish during my lifetime. I remember when Beth, who had gone to work as an X-ray technician, saw the list and read entries like "Run with the bulls at Pamplona" and "Go on an African safari," she suggested I add, "Get a job." Nevertheless, we enjoyed our time in Columbia. It never crossed my mind that I would return 32 years later as head coach.
I said no three times before accepting the school's offer in December 1998. I was concerned about being away from Beth, who was recovering from throat cancer at the time, but she encouraged me to get back into coaching. "You're a teacher," she said. "That's what you do best."
I'm glad I listened to her. I've enjoyed helping a new team climb toward that mountaintop and have come to fully appreciate the Palmetto State's beauty, friendliness and family atmosphere. I've been able to have my son, Skip, on my staff as assistant head coach-offensive coordinator and watch three of my grandchildren grow up. When you're 66, those things matter more than you can imagine. I've lived in nearly one quarter of these United States—from West Virginia, where I was born; to Ohio, where I grew up; to Iowa, Virginia, Connecticut, North Carolina, New York, Arkansas, Minnesota and Indiana, where I've coached; to Florida—and I can tell you, South Carolina is uniquely wonderful, especially if you love football. To start with, no state's fans are more loyal. Even before I arrived, the Gamecocks were filling 80,000-seat Williams-Brice Stadium despite having won only one bowl game in 107 years. The day I was introduced in a press conference at the stadium, 4,000 cheering fans showed up. Since then, we've sold out every game before each season started, and ranked in the nation's top 10 in attendance.
South Carolinians are unsurpassed in the attention they pay to their football coaches. For example, I once made a little joke about this otherwise lovely state having unsightly roadsides: "We must have the cleanest cars in America, because all the trash is out along the highways." The state immediately launched an anti-litter campaign!
Game-day traditions here stand out, too. Gamecocks fans tailgate in a string of 22 cabooses (known as the Cockaboose Railroad) that sit on old tracks outside the stadium. Country music rules the state, but the music that gives everyone (including me) goose bumps is the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is played for our player introductions.
I'm now up to 95 on that list of 107 life goals that I wrote during my first stint in Columbia three decades ago. I still haven't gone on a safari or run with the bulls, but I've done something better. I've lived in South Carolina twice—which would have been the 108th goal if I'd only known how good it would be.