Originally created 04/17/99

Holtz works magic at USC



COLUMBIA -- One moment, Lou Holtz is sitting alone in his golf cart on the practice fields, transfixed, as if in some sort of daze.

The next instant he is a ball of fire, his face screwed into the epitome of rage and anger, dashing into a pile of players twice his size to wield his power.

Approach at your own peril.

This is Holtz distilled to his essence: a unique, if not contradictory, mix of focus, concentration and aggression continually looking for a way to push his players' buttons, to make them perform better, to mold them into winners.

For most of his career, the system has worked masterfully for Holtz, whose lot in professional life has been resurrecting tattered programs at William & Mary, North Carolina State, Arkansas, Minnesota and Notre Dame.

But by his own admission, the 62-year-old Holtz is embarking upon his most daunting task as head coach of the University of South Carolina, a school whose football tradition can be stuffed into a phone booth with room to spare.

"This is a little bit more difficult than most situations," said Holtz, whose team concludes spring drills with today's spring game at 1 p.m. "It may be the most difficult, because of the difficulty of the schedule, because of the expectations."

With out question Holtz is the smallest man on the field. His chest blends into his hips without definition. His arms are skinny. He speaks with a lisp, and his glasses cover most of his weather-beaten face.

Despite his frail physical presence, Holtz is a coaching giant who brings sparkling credentials to his newest, and presumably last, coaching job. Since he passed through Columbia as an assistant in the mid-1960s, Holtz has left each of his five college programs with better records than they produced before his arrival.

While his success at Notre Dame from 1986-96 -- a national championship, 100 victories -- is the most documented of his feats, his stints at N.C. State and Minnesota speak perfectly to his ability to summon programs from the ashes.

As head man of the Wolfpack in 1972, Holtz went 8-3-1 with a squad whose best record the previous three seasons was 3-6-1. From 1972-75, he produced the best won-lost record (33-12-3) in the school's history.

Ten years later, he took hold of a slumbering Minnesota program that had lost 17 straight Big Ten games and delivered a national ranking and a 6-5 record by his second, and last, year.

Adding the Gamecocks to his list would provide the perfect finishing stroke to what has been a masterpiece of a coaching career for Holtz, who spent two years as a television analyst after he left Notre Dame in 1996.

Which must sound like a slice of heaven to long-suffering Gamecock fans who desperately hope Holtz is the man who will lead them to the promised land. But Holtz isn't blind to the magnitude of his newest undertaking at South Carolina, a program that has struggled consistently for most its existence.

He is quick to squelch any grandiose expectations that might have been hatched his first day on the job, when he boldly asserted, "Our goal is to win the national championship."

"I'm not a miracle worker," he says now. "If they expect I'm a miracle worker, then they're going to have a problem."

If nothing else, Gamecock faithful can look forward to improvement from a squad that crumbled to a 1-10 season in 1998, the worst mark in the program's 106-year history.

The Gamecocks will face a typically daunting Southeastern Conference slate this year. The SEC, generally regarded as the nation's toughest football conference, sent eight representatives to bowls in 1998. The Gamecocks face seven of those teams in 1999, the most in the conference.

"I look at it and say `Gee, we've got a difficult challenge, we've got a difficult schedule,' " said Holtz, fourth among Division I coaches with 216 career victories. "It isn't going to be an overnight turnaround. This is going to be, hopefully, a constant improvement. But what concerns me most right now is that we haven't reached the point where you have to learn to overcome adversity and difficulty."

Holtz instilled his philosophy quickly and forcefully, sifting through the problems with a fine-toothed comb.

Shortly after his hire, Holtz denied entrance to several players who were late to the team's first meeting. He made it mandatory for every player with a grade point average of 2.5 or lower to attend two nightly study halls.

He requires his team to don Gamecocks' attire at all times in public and forbade them from wearing apparel that represents other schools. Only seniors are allowed to live off-campus.

"I think it has been a better fit for me than it has for the players," Holtz said, "because I haven't had to change."

On the field, Holtz has reduced the game to its barest elements. Fundamentals such as foot spacing, stance and huddle formation are drilled into the players with the same frequency as deep slants, stunts and triple options.

"Day One, we were going out there just trying to teach them to huddle," said Holtz's son, Skip, who built a Division I-AA power at Connecticut before joining his father's staff in Columbia as offensive coordinator. "But, before long, there were some plays where we actually looked like an offense."

Lou Holtz required every player, barring kickers, to wear knee braces during practice to prevent injuries. He said the measure saved three players from major injuries.

But for every encouraging development, there seems to be an expensive toll. Holtz kicked Troy Hambrick, the Gamecocks' leading rusher in 1998, off the team because of poor academics when drills began. Fullback Jacob Bush suffered the same fate shortly thereafter.

Holtz also dismissed several other players, including offensive lineman Donald Marshall, for unspecified reasons.

"All coaches, at this stage of the year, should be dentists, because they're just going to be pulling teeth," Holtz said.

Most of South Carolina's players are reserved when discussing the nightmare of 1998, when mediocrity morphed into certified squalor under coach Brad Scott.

To some, the devotion to the daily routines required a belief in tomorrow and was useless since, as the losses mounted, tomorrow no longer realistically existed.

"Last year, it got to the point where there was really no use and nobody really knew what was going on," said senior running back Steve Mixon, a former North Augusta star. "Sometimes, it seemed like even the coaches didn't know what was happening out there."

All that has changed now, according to senior outside linebacker John Abraham.

"It's a complete turnaround," said Abraham, who during spring drills was moved from defensive end, his position the past three years, to his new spot. "Everybody can tell the difference. We'd probably win six of those 10 games we lost last year right now based on the fundamental things we've gotten done already."

In Holtz's eyes, he can't right a foundering ship sitting in some tower high above the action.

He makes no apologies for his aggressive sideline behavior that includes grabbing players' face masks, a practice for which he was criticized during his tenure at Notre Dame. It's a sharp departure from the style of Scott, who was said to espouse a more conservative, sit-back-and-watch approach.

"I'm sure they are very, very fine coaches and had their own way of doing things," Holtz said of the previous regime. "But I'm not real flexible. I believe in what we do and how we do it."

The players say they believe, too.

"He doesn't just sit around and watch," said senior running back Boo Williams. "He's not an offensive man or a defensive man. He goes from station to station and, hands down, when he comes around, everybody tenses up because we know it's got to be done right."

Said Abraham: "He's a great teacher. He teaches football the way it is supposed to be played."