Were it up to the hometown folks, the choice would be simple for Michael Boulware. He'd stay home and go to his hometown school.
"Everybody is always telling me to go to South Carolina," said Boulware, a self-proclaimed Gamecocks fan.
But Boulware, considered by some the top high school prospect in South Carolina, won't consult a public-opinion poll for this decision. As the linebacker from Columbia's Spring Valley High rattles off the list of schools he's thinking of attending -- Florida State, Tennessee, Georgia Tech, Clemson -- his hometown Gamecocks are conspicuously absent.
Nothing against South Carolina, Boulware says. He just doesn't want to play for a loser.
"I want to play for a winning team," said Boulware, younger brother of former Florida State and current Baltimore Ravens star Peter Boulware. "I feel that if it's a winning team, that means I'm playing with the best athletes."
And therein lies the challenge for the coaching staff at South Carolina, a program mired in an 0-9 rut this season and loser of its past 19 games, the longest current drought in major college football. Reversing the fortunes of a tattered program means making a tough sale when the recruiting season begins in earnest at season's end.
"I THINK THERE
will be people who say, `Hey, you aren't winning, I'm going to go over here,"' said Gamecocks coach Lou Holtz, whose team plays host to Florida on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. "I think that happens, I definitely do."
And it isn't as though it would be anything new for South Carolina, which has traditionally seen the best players in the Palmetto State cherry-picked by stronger schools with more tradition.
But while the past has seen Gamecocks coaches preach hope after five-, six- or seven-win seasons, the wretched fortunes of the past two years should make the job more daunting for Holtz and his staff. South Carolina went 1-10 in 1998, its worst season ever, and is clearly capable of losing its remaining two games this season and finishing 0-11.
That's one win and 21 losses in two seasons. Not the kind of record a blue-chipper wants to see. But neither is it an excuse, Holtz said.
"To think you're going to have a bad year recruiting because you're not winning is wrong," he said. "The same as to think you're going to have a good year recruiting because you've won is wrong."
to downtrodden programs might be difficult, but it isn't impossible. Just ask one of Holtz's former pupils, Barry Alvarez.
Nine years ago, Alvarez was in the throes of a 1-10 season in his first year at Wisconsin, a school with little previous tradition in the Big Ten Conference.
He inherited a program that had lost more than 30 straight conference games and had a combined record of 6-27 the previous three seasons. Sound familiar? The Gamecocks are 6-25 the past three years.
"We tried to sell what we had," said Alvarez, who coached under Holtz at Notre Dame from 1987-89. "We tried to stay upbeat, and we had a plan for success that we would work very hard to recruit."
Alvarez gradually brought talent to Madison, Wis., and in his second year the Badgers posted a 5-6 record. After two more five-win season in 1992 and 1993, Wisconsin bulged to 10-1-1 in 1994, went to the Rose Bowl and has been a Top 25 regular since.
"We knew that it was going to take some time to build the program," said Alvarez, whose teams have gone 57-22-2 the past seven seasons. "We knew that we didn't inherit a lot of players who would be successful in the Big Ten. .. . That's the lifeblood of it, is being able to get some athletes on your campus so you can compete."
viable pitch to prospective recruits will undoubtedly be immediate playing time. Why sit the bench for two years at Tennessee, Georgia or Florida when you can play for us right away?
"If they go to South Carolina, the kids know that they can play early and still play in the SEC," said Jamie Newberg of Border Wars, a Web site devoted to recruiting.
And perhaps it isn't as tough a sell as it might appear.
North Augusta quarterback Anthony Young, one of the area's most coveted prep prospects, said he wants to play "by at least my sophomore year." All the more reason to choose South Carolina over more noteworthy schools.
"I just want to go where I can fit in right away," said Young, who has received offers from South Carolina and Michigan State, and has been contacted by N.C. State, Georgia and Louisville. "How bad a team is really doesn't mean anything to me. It really would give me a chance to go in there and help South Carolina rebuild their program."
Silver Bluff running back Marcus Jones isn't as touted as Young -- he's considering Appalachian State, Newberry or Georgia Military College -- but he said playing time will be the most crucial factor in his decision.
"As long as I could go somewhere and perform, I want to go," Jones said. "I definitely don't want to sit the bench. It doesn't matter to me if a team is losing or not."
and his reputation as a master recruiter, will invariably help the Gamecocks on the recruiting trail. Freshman running back Derek Watson spurned Tennessee at the last minute in February to sign with South Carolina, and fullback Andrew Pinnock chose the Gamecocks over Syracuse and Auburn.
But there will be some who won't be willing to overlook losing, no matter the coach. After hearing that Boulware was no longer considering the Gamecocks, Holtz invited the 18-year old to visit practice three weeks ago.
Boulware said he was impressed by what he saw, just not enough to add South Carolina back to his list.
Welcome to the club, Holtz said.
"We'll get an awful lot of people that say, `I don't want the challenge,' or, `I don't think you can win there,"' Holtz said. "If they don't think they can win here and aren't willing to work to help turn it around, then I don't want them to be here."
Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.