Originally created 05/12/00

Gamecocks focus on new season



AIKEN -- Their egos are bruised by their football team's miserable 0-for-21 losing skid, their spirits wounded by last season's 0-11 death march.

But few ever will question the loyalty of South Carolina football fans, whose eternal optimism came forth once again Thursday night to hear coach Lou Holtz speak at the USC Aiken activities center.

Last year? Who cares about last year? When the Gamecocks are the subject and Holtz the speaker, all anyone wants to talk about is next year.

"I think it's the promise of what's to come, I really do," said Tommy Gibbs, a 61-year-old Aiken native who said he has supported South Carolina football for 33 years, home and away. "There's no better fans in the United States than South Carolina fans, I can tell you that."

Richard Freeman doesn't mince words when asked what keeps him coming to functions such as these.

"Faith," said the 51-year-old Aiken native. "I've been a Gamecock fan all my life, and I know coach Holtz is going to turn the program around. I'm going to keep following him until he does."

Thursday's gathering fell a bit short of duplicating the carnival atmosphere of a year ago, when Holtz traversed the Palmetto State in his first summer as the Gamecocks' head man and was embraced by record crowds.

About 300 people attended this time, far fewer than the estimates of more than 1,000 fans that greeted Holtz last year in Aiken.

"This kind of shocks me that there aren't more people here than this," Freeman said.

The meager turnout didn't bother the 63-year-old Holtz, who was in Rock Hill on Wednesday and Spartanburg on Tuesday as part of his 12-stop tour to drum up support for the Gamecock Club.

"Whether it's three people or 300, you come to share a message, that's all," he said.

The message this season undoubtedly will be progress. Amid hopes that Holtz would summon the team from its 1-10 slumber in 1998, the Gamecocks instead crumbled to their worst season ever in 1999.

"I think it was a disappointment in a way," Gibbs said. "But we had a lot of injuries, a new system, a new coach. That had a lot to do with it."

The Gamecocks will return 14 starters this season, including eight on offense, but just 12 seniors will dot the roster.

Holtz scrapped his power-rushing philosophy in the off-season for more wide-open looks in hopes of breathing life into a stagnant offense, and he adopted a different setup on defense that features more blitzing.

The schedule won't grant Holtz or his fans many favors; South Carolina swapped Ole Miss for a trip to Alabama, a team that many will pick to contend for the national title.

The Gamecocks open Sept. 2 by playing host to New Mexico State, the first of a four-game home stand.

"We've made some progress," Holtz said, "but we have a ways to go."

But if you ask most South Carolina fans, the glass most assuredly is half full.

"I think we're going to turn it around this year, I really do," Gibbs said. "I don't think we'll win nine or 10 games, but I do think we might go 6-5."

Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645.