Holtz tune the same at South Carolina

Monday, September 25th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

How do you know when a Lou Holtz team is playing well?

When Holtz says it isn't.

Here's Holtz after his South Carolina team beat ranked Mississippi State on Saturday to improve to 4-0: "We just aren't a good football team right now. ...We've just got to get better fundamentally. We couldn't block people in the running game; we couldn't stop anyone from running. We're just struggling right now."

Translation: "Watch out, Alabama."

The Crimson Tide is South Carolina's next opponent. What would Vegas have given you in August on a bet that South Carolina would be 4-0 and Alabama would be 1-3?

Holtz, king of the coaching sandbaggers, has turned around yet another program. In every stop he's made, whether it's William and Mary, North Carolina State or Arkansas, he has taken a team to a bowl in his second year. This is Holtz's second season at South Carolina, and the Gamecocks are two wins from qualifying for a bowl.

After a winless 1999 under Holtz, South Carolina broke a 21-game losing streak this season. The Gamecocks are 4-0 for the first time since 1988 and have won four in a row for the first time since 1994.

They have beaten two ranked opponents: Georgia and Mississippi State. Now, South Carolina finds itself ranked at No. 23 for the first time since 1993.

"If we're 23, there's a lot of bad football teams, because I don't think we're the 23rd best team in the country by any stretch of the imagination," Holtz said.

Fellow SEC member Arkansas, off to a 3-0 start, still isn't ranked.

"What?" a shocked Holtz said. "I'll tell you right now, they should make people vote before they have a drink."

Someone returning from a year-long trip would probably make the same accusation when told that South Carolina is 4-0. Not after last year.

In 1999, not only were the Gamecocks winless but Holtz's personal life was in turmoil. His mother died. His wife, Beth, was discovered to have throat cancer for the second time. His son, Skip, the offensive coordinator, drew harsh criticism and suffered through a severe gastric infection.

And then a plane that was to take Holtz on a recruiting trip crashed before it could pick him up, killing the pilot.

Through it all, Holtz believed in his system. At 63, he knows his system works, it just needed some tinkering for South Carolina. The offense and defense were reworked to better suit the personnel, and the players' attitudes were given an overhaul as well.

Before the start of two-a-days, Holtz asked several players to speak to the team about the hardships they've faced in life. The speeches were so moving, many were brought to tears.

Freshmen were each given a media guide and instructed to get the signature of every teammate on his bio.

The players' car keys were taken away during two-a-days to force them to bond. The players were also asked to move back onto campus dorms. It was Gamecocks 24/7.

The players got to know each other, and now they fight for each other. Knowing what each player has gone through, they are more willing to make sacrifices for each other.

"You try to change their life," Holtz said. "And if you change their value system, you change it on the field as well."

The South Carolina fans have responded with raucous sellouts of Williams-Brice Stadium. They can see that South Carolina isn't over-talented, but the team plays with heart and fervor.

"Last year when my wife was going to have her second cancer surgery, we talked about what are the reasons you want to live," Holtz said. "She talked about wanting to see grandkids born and seeing grandkids married, but the other reason she gave was she wanted to see South Carolina fans rewarded for their loyalty."

The Gamecocks have a rough stretch ahead in SEC play, but this is already a success story even Holtz can't make look bad.