COLUMBIA -- It was a brief moment back in April, but a telling one nonetheless. Lou Holtz was speaking with a handful of reporters the week of South Carolina's spring game, the typical subject being the resurrection of Gamecocks football.
A question caught him off guard.
"Coach, is this the toughest job of your career?"
A pause. The man who gets paid $20,000 per motivational speech, the 62-year-old who discusses most everything with bouquets of exclamation points attached, struggled to produce a response.
"This ..." he said, his voice quiet rather than booming, his expression reflective rather than animated. Another pause. "... is a little bit different than most situations. It may be the most difficult, because of the difficulty of the schedule, because of the expectations."
No laughs or quips. No fire or brimstone. It was a seldom-seen instance in Holtz's world of scripted sermons and diatribes, a moment when he assessed his latest undertaking for its essence:
The man who is charged with summoning South Carolina's moribund program from a rut the size of the Grand Canyon is also assuming the ultimate undertaking of his 27-year college coaching career.
"Every place I've been, you've had something to build on," he said.
The Chicken Curse
South Carolina is famous for its grand expectations, and Holtz laid the groundwork for more when, minutes after he was named the Gamecocks coach last December, he boldly proclaimed, "Our goal is to win the national championship."
That's music to the ears of a program that is still sifting through the debris of last season's 1-10 disaster, the worst mark in its 107 years.
But this isn't South Bend, Ind., where Touchdown Jesus looks down upon one end zone of Notre Dame Stadium and the ghost of Knute Rockne presides.
Touchdown Jesus? The only supernatural presence in Gamecocks football is the "Chicken Curse," and its ghost is said to look upon Williams-Brice Stadium with a furrowy brow.
Strange bedfellows: a proven winner and the perennially troubled South Carolina program.
"I don't think there is a problem in this world that there's not an answer or solution," said Holtz, who won 100 games in 11 years at Notre Dame. "There's an answer to every problem we have on our football team. The question is, are we going to find the answers?"
Holtz has a knack for finding them and whittling down long odds.
He guided the Irish back to national prominence and won the national title in 1988; he took Minnesota to a bowl two years after the Golden Gophers were mired in a 17-game conference losing streak.
He ended a four-year bowl drought his first year at Arkansas by going 11-1 in 1977 and finished with a 60-21-2 record in seven seasons there. He amassed the best won-lost record (33-12-3) in N.C. State history during his four years as the Wolfpack coach in the early 1970s, and he guided William & Mary to its first bowl appearance with his first head coaching job in 1970.
Success stories all, but something says these are altogether different circumstances. Notre Dame had tradition, Arkansas and Minnesota had won before, and N.C. State and William & Mary weren't members of the SEC, the nation's premier football league.
The Gamecocks? They haven't sniffed an eight-win season in 11 years or beaten an SEC team that finished with a winning record since 1992, their first year in the league.
"It's unbelievable the people that we play," Holtz said. "We might be a pretty good football team, we might be vastly improved, but you won't be able to tell."
A history of mediocrity
One is a number typically associated with greatness. In the Gamecocks' case, it represents a common thread that menacingly and tellingly weaves itself through their troubled past.
One win last year. One bowl victory in their history. One season since 1892 has South Carolina won more than eight games. The numbers suggest Holtz's quest is futile.
Rex Enright is likely the most fabled coach in Gamecocks history, but his tenure of 15 seasons (1938-42, 46-55) produced just six winning marks.
Paul Dietzel came to South Carolina in 1966 armed with a sterling coaching reputation and a national championship ring from LSU, but the magic soon fizzled, and he eventually left Columbia after nine unspectacular years and three winning seasons.
Jim Carlen took over for Dietzel but was cursed by five losses to Clemson in seven seasons. Joe Morrison guided the Gamecocks to their best record ever in 1984 but died of a heart attack following 8-4 seasons in 1987 and 1988.
Sparky Woods grabbed the reins in 1989 but was fired five years later after three straight losing seasons. The hope that Brad Scott would lead the Gamecocks to the promised land after a first-ever bowl victory in 1994 remained stillborn for three years, then perished in 1998.
Now, Holtz. Every coach before him was tethered to mediocrity in some fashion. What makes him different?
Ask Jackie Sherrill, who in 1991 took over a Mississippi State program that had suffered eight losing seasons in nine years.
"Lou Holtz is going to be good for South Carolina, and he's going to be very good for the SEC," said Sherrill, who has guided the Bulldogs to four bowl games in eight seasons. "We haven't seen too many guys like him around here."
Last year's debacle didn't stem solely from a lack of talent, Holtz's charges say.
Though many players are reserved when discussing the disaster of 1998, several accounts, including Freeman's, paint a picture of a fractured, dysfunctional squad that played without a sense of purpose or direction.
"We should have won six games last year without a coach," free safety Arturo Freeman said.
The injured senior watched his teammates lose to Vanderbilt and go winless in the SEC for the first time since joining the conference.
"I could have coached that team, and we would have won six games," Freeman said.
Holtz's job is to make his team exude a sense of entitlement, the kind of energy that comes from deep within. If the ashes of defeat indeed contain the seeds of future triumph, it starts with the seniors.
"They've got to play well," he said. "They're short-timers. They've got to buy in to what we're trying to do ... If you convince your seniors to want to win, then they will influence the younger classes."
There has been nothing supple about Holtz's reign. In changing the mind-set of the program, he sifted through the rubble with a fine-toothed comb.
Shortly after being hired, 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 he forbade players from wearing apparel that represents other schools. Only seniors are allowed to live off campus.
"We know who Coach Holtz is," senior running back Boo Williams said. "When he says something, he wants everybody quiet, everybody to listen, and he wants it done right. There's no, `That's close enough,' or `That's OK.' He wants it done right, his way."
Troy Hambrick clashed with the terms of Holtz's way. The senior who led the Gamecocks in rushing the past two seasons was suspended for poor academics in the spring, reinstated, then booted permanently in July for a violation of team rules.
"Anytime you go into a situation, certain changes have to be made," said Holtz, who also temporarily dismissed fullback Jacob Bush for poor academics. "If an individual is not willing to make certain changes, then that cannot be tolerated.
"It's a privilege to be able to play football at South Carolina -- it's not a right."
`I'm not a young man.'
It's doubtful that any program so recently removed from such a miserable season ever has commanded attention in such large quantities.
No matter the setting, Holtz is the main attraction. When he talks football, he provides more entertainment than South Carolina has provided lately playing it. He's a man of many trades -- coach, teacher, humorist, speaker -- and a man of great reputation.
Judging from the anticipation of the upcoming season, the faithful are sold on Holtz. Donations for the Gamecock Club reached $8 million this year and 53,000 season tickets were sold, both all-time records.
But ultimately, victories will be the only thing that matters in Columbia.
This quest, if successful, will certify Holtz's greatness and secure his mantle as college football's miracle worker. A failure, however, might be akin to throwing a bucket of paint on his masterpiece.
"I don't think I have anything to prove," he said. "If I haven't done it in 28 years as a head coach, I'm not going to prove it now. I'm not here to do anything except try to make South Carolina a winner and try to build a sound program."
And be certain of this: He believes.
"I'm totally convinced we can win in the long range," he said. "But you'll notice this: I'm not a young man. I don't have an eight-year rebuilding program. We want to win a soon as possible."