COLUMBIA, S.C. -- More than a thousand South Carolina flocked to Columbia Metropolitan Airport on a cold Tuesday morning to cheer their Gamecocks, fresh off Monday's 24-7 defeat of Ohio State in the Outback Bowl.
After a decade and a half of mediocre or worse teams, including 21 straight losses, the Gamecocks went 8-4 this year, and many fans are confident that with Lou Holtz at the helm, they'll return next year for an even bigger party.
"He'll win a national championship before he leaves. I just know it," said 67-year-old Geneva Geiger, who described herself as a Gamecock fan since birth.
This season marks just the eighth time since 1892, when South Carolina began playing football, that the Gamecocks have won eight games. The only one better was the 1984 "Black Magic" team that went 10-2, but lost 21-14 to Oklahoma State in the Gator Bowl.
Fans, most of them sporting some kind of Gamecock hat, sweater or coat, started to cheer when the team's plane was only a dot in the sky. They were still screaming when the charter flight taxied to a stop 10 minutes later.
"We've always said, 'Wait until next year,' and it seemed like next year would never come. Well, next year is here now, and it's here to stay," Russ Belk said.
Holtz stayed behind in Florida for a few days of vacation, leaving son and offensive coordinator Skip Holtz to speak on his behalf.
"We have to have the greatest fans ever," Skip Holtz said to a couple of players before being ushered onto a makeshift stage to parade the Outback bowl trophy in front of the fans, long known for their loyalty amid suffering. The team has a two-game bowl winning streak, but only after losing its first eight postseason appearances
Ashley Cagle, 13, wore a garnet pom-pom as a wig and clutched her stuffed Cocky mascot close as she expressed her undying love for the Gamecocks and Lou Holtz.
"At the beginning, I didn't think they would do this good. But after the first couple of games, I knew they were good," Cagle said.
Holtz took over at the end of the 1998 season, and their faith waned when the team went 0-11 in his first year. But now South Carolina is the sixth team that Holtz has taken to a bowl in his first two years at a school and the second that has won.
Belk said he was at Williams-Brice Stadium when Holtz introduced himself two years ago. He said the magic he felt on that day has returned.
"You knew, just by him showing up, that something big was going to happen," Belk said.
Holtz' success in turning around the team isn't as much magic as it is hard work and planning, defensive tackle Cleveland Pinkney said.
"The difference this year is we believed in ourselves and we believed in coach Holtz's plan. ... Probably anyone could play as well as we did if they play together, as a team, and trust their coaches and themselves," Pinkney said.