AIKEN - On Lou Holtz's past two trips across the Gamecock Club circuit, fans wanted to know whether he'd win a game. Now they're wondering when the 64-year-old football coach will deliver a Southeastern Conference championship.
An 8-4 season and a bowl victory have a way of changing hopes and dreams, particularly at South Carolina. Gamecocks fans are known for their optimism under even the most daunting circumstances, so last season's water-to-wine miracle gave them some long-awaited bang for their clucks.
And Holtz, entering his third season at South Carolina, has said little to dispel the notion that he can guide the Gamecocks to even greater heights.
"I expect to be better," Holtz said before addressing a crowd of more than 600 at the USC Aiken gym. "If we aren't going to be better, let's close up shop and give up the game of football."
Some suggested doing precisely that when Holtz took over for the fired Brad Scott after a 1-10 season in 1998. But the curse got worse in 1999, as the Gamecocks went 0-11 and plunged to a 21-game losing streak.
Heading into 2000, talk of anything beyond four wins elicited chuckles from anyone not wearing garnet and black. But Holtz pulled yet another rabbit out of his hat, leading the Gamecocks to the biggest turnaround in SEC history and a 24-7 thumping of Ohio State in the Outback Bowl.
Holtz's delivery on the field makes his delivery from the podium sound that much better to Gamecocks fans, many of whom are predicting nine or 10 wins in 2001.
The coach said it could have happened last year.
"We're not satisfied," said Holtz, whose team returns 18 starters and opens the season Sept. 1 at home against Boise State. "We could have very easily been 11-1. We lost to two top-20 teams on the last play of the game."
The carnival atmosphere that follows Holtz wasn't lost on one relative newcomer to these meetings. New Gamecocks men's basketball coach Dave Odom said he'd like to get to know Holtz, but the two have been too busy signing autographs the past three weeks to have a meaningful chat.
"We're always like this, and I never get enough time to suit me," Odom said.
Odom, who took over for Eddie Fogler on April 10, said the response from his new fans has been "overwhelming."
"When you're at gatherings like this and with people like this, I don't know how you could feel like anything else," said Odom, who coached at Wake Forest for 12 years before leaving for South Carolina. "It seems like every day I feel like I've got to have a rest, because I've been going about 100 miles an hour. But every time I get in a group like this, they regenerate me, and I can go a night and another day."
As for Holtz, his daily routine has been a bit slowed by an injury he suffered last week while checking his mail at home.
Holtz didn't put his car in park after stopping at his mailbox, and the car drifted backward and pinned his right leg against the door. Holtz asked a teen-ager who was nearby for help, but the boy accelerated the car while in reverse and the door caused further damage to his leg.
An MRI revealed a protruding disc in Holtz's back, and he said he still suffers discomfort.
"I'll get injected with steriods, and the next time you see me I'll be about 240 pounds," he said.
Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645 or email@example.com.
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