When South Carolina Athletic Director Mike McGee went looking for a coach to perform CPR on his football program last fall, he came up with one name: Lou Holtz. And when most pundits found out, they came up with one response: Ha!
Holtz, 62, had quit college coaching's most prestigious job, at Notre Dame, two years earlier, and there seemed no earthly reason why he would want to take over a program that had just gone 1-10.
At the time of McGee's offer, Holtz himself was a pundit for CBS, and his response was not much different from everybody else's. He refused the job three times before finally relenting.
"If you look at it logically, I should have not gone back into coaching," Holtz said during a recent telephone interview. "This would be a difficult task. I was at CBS and I was playing a lot of golf. There was no real great pressure. Why all of a sudden at age 62 do you go back into the long hours and tremendous pressure?"
Probably for the same reasons you choose a profession with little job security, absurd hours and few job openings in the first place. Holtz has his detractors, but nobody ever doubted that he loves coaching and loves building a winner. He did it at Arkansas and Minnesota before he did it at Notre Dame, whipping the masses into a frenzy with his own brand of loony inspiration, or inspired lunacy, depending on your view of Holtz.
South Carolina may be his toughest project to date. Former coach Brad Scott left the cupboard nearly bare; the offensive line may be the worst Holtz has coached. He has responded, he said, by working this team as hard as any he has ever had.
"But we're only practicing half a day Sunday--8 a.m. to 8 p.m.," Holtz said.
The practices haven't exactly been conducted in cool breezes, either. "The average temperature down here has been 103," Holtz said. "We must be located directly next to hell."
No, hell is going 1-10, a fate so bad the Gamecocks are more than willing to endure Holtz's practices.
"His type of work is different," tailback Boo Williams said. "If you do it right, you don't get that much work. If you do it wrong, you do it until you get it right. If you get in the habit of doing it right, it's second nature."
Holtz has only preached that for about three decades. That's not to say he hasn't changed. Instead of throwing his Notre Dame cap to the ground when he's angry, Holtz now throws his South Carolina cap. And unlike at Notre Dame, where he seemed intent on convincing the world the Fighting Irish were destined to lose every game, Holtz is spewing optimism. Holtz won the 1988 national championship with a quarterback from the Palmetto State, Tony Rice, and he thinks he can win another title by keeping enough similarly talented players at home.
"Right now, it's a far ways off, but I don't think it's unrealistic," he said. "We'll be in the top 10 in the country in attendance [because Williams-Brice Stadium seats 80,250]. Certainly the state has the athletes if we can get them to stay here, and there's no reason we can't."
He has believers among Gamecocks fans. An athletic department spokesman said that South Carolina has sold a school-record 53,000 season tickets and that the department raised a school single-year record $8.3 million during fiscal 1999, which ended June 30.
Now, if Holtz can turn a 1-10 team into a national champion in the brutal Southeastern Conference, he will indeed have the last laugh. He will have silenced those who said his ways (and his offense) are outdated, and he will have quieted those who said he took the South Carolina job so his son Skip, the offensive coordinator, could succeed him. (Holtz and McGee both said there has been no talk of replacing one Holtz with another.)
"This is not going to be a place for the timid and the weak," Holtz said. "Today, life is so much more convenient than when I was young. We didn't have TV. We seldom saw an airplane. A lot has changed, but there is one thing in 62 years that I have not seen. I have not seen anybody find a convenient or easy way to succeed at something or to win."