Originally created 09/30/00

Gamecocks sitting pretty



Less than a month ago, they battened down the hatches for what figured to be another rough fall.

Their perennially troubled team was coming off an 0-11 season and chest-deep in the muck of a 21-game losing streak.

Make no mistake, South Carolina fans were optimistic -- when aren't they? But not even the most resilient followers could have forecast what unfolded.

"Most of us were just looking for four, five, possibly six wins this year," said Chris Fulmer, a Gamecocks fan from Aiken. "But that was assuming a lot of things went our way. And gosh, lo and behold, we've already got four. Who would have believed this?"

Mr. Fulmer will be in Tuscaloosa, Ala., today, when No. 23 South Carolina will take on Alabama (3 p.m., pay-per-view) with hopes of improving its record to 5-0. More than 5,000 fans are expected to make the trip to Bryant-Denny Stadium to witness the latest chapter of what quickly has become one of the biggest stories in college football.

LOU HOLTZ IS working magic in Columbia, and, given his track record, that shouldn't be much of a surprise. The Gamecocks' second-year coach has taken teams to bowls by the second year of his five previous rebuilding projects at college programs.

Last week's stirring 23-19 triumph over Mississippi State underscored one undeniable fact about this team: After more than a century of finding ways to lose, the Gamecocks finally are finding ways to win.

They surmounted a 19-10 fourth-quarter deficit and scored the go-ahead points when, on fourth-and-10, walk-on quarterback Erik Kimrey hit Jermale Kelly for a 25-yard touchdown pass down the left sideline.

For fans whose dreams have traditionally been dashed by fumbles, interceptions and last-second passes, this was pure and unexpected ecstacy.

"If we ever build a good football program here, they'll have to get out the fire hoses to keep people out of the stadium," Mr. Holtz said. "It will just be jammed."

THESE ARE GOOD TIMES for Randy Layman, president of the Augusta Gamecock Club. For the past three years, the 42-year-old watched Georgia ascend to the Southeastern Conference's elite while his team plunged from mediocrity to despair.

But the events of Sept. 9 changed things. The underdog Gamecocks jumped off the stoop and orchestrated a 21-10 upset of the Bulldogs, ranked No. 9 at the time.

"A lot of my good friends are Georgia fans, and the most satisfying thing about being a Carolina fan is to really see them agonizing over it," Mr. Layman said. "All they're talking about is the loss to Carolina -- they're still taking it like a loss of kin."

Particularly remarkable to Mr. Layman and most others who have witnessed the Gamecocks' roller-coaster ride from ruin is how Mr. Holtz has galvanized a team that had little reason to believe entering the season.

"It was obvious on that day that we were hungrier than them," Mr. Layman said of the win over Georgia. "That makes me feel good, because it's the old Lou Holtz philosophy. You can take a bunch of mediocre guys and make them play as a team, and they'll always beat a bunch of prima donnas that don't play together."

STEVE SPURRIER'S stellar record puts him in position to dispense advice, not receive it. But the 11th-year Florida coach expressed wonder and admiration this week when speaking of Mr. Holtz's ability to spin motivation into victories.

"They're a hungry bunch -- man, they play hard," Mr. Spurrier said. "I watched them on tape against Mississippi State, and I said, `Man, if we could get our players playing this hard, we'd have a chance to be pretty good this year."'

If the Gamecocks manage a victory today, a bowl appearance might represent the least of the possibilities. Their next three games -- at Kentucky, Arkansas at home and at Vanderbilt -- appear winnable.

"A month ago, we were saying, `Hey, if worse comes to worst, at least we'll beat Eastern Michigan,"' Mr. Layman said of the Gamecocks' Sept. 16 win. "Now, we have to eat lemons just to get the smiles off our faces every day."

Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645.