COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Two years ago, people thought Lou Holtz had lost his mind. A year ago, they thought he lost his touch. Now, South Carolina's coach is through talking about losing.
"That's where we are now. Can we handle winning, handle pressure and handle success?" Holtz said after the Gamecocks most successful season - at 8-4 with win in the Outback Bowl - in 17 years.
Handle success? The Gamecocks? Only the most zealous fans could have imagined the turnaround led by Holtz the past two years. Many said he was nuts to take the Gamecocks job in December 1998 then shook their head slowly like you would at your once-great mentor as the 64-year-old Hall-of-Famer suffered through his worst season ever at 0-11 in 1999.
But the Gamecocks went from a 21-game losing streak to a 21-3 lead on Florida for the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division title this past November in what may be the most magical feat by college football's master builder.
"He believed in us every week, game after game," defensive back Sheldon Brown said. "He never told us that we didn't have a chance to win."
Now, he's telling the team not to pay attention to the national rankings and accolades that come with success.
"We haven't done anything," Holtz says. "Those are the same people who picked us 114th last year. What do they know this year that they didn't know last year?"
They know about Brown, an all-SEC cornerback who led the Gamecocks with four interceptions and 15 pass breakups. They know about linebacker Kalimba Edwards, a pass-rushing monster who made 11 tackles for loss a year ago. They know about Derek Watson, a troubled, gifted runner who, if he stays out of trouble, could be the first Gamecocks with consecutive 1,000-yard seasons since George Rogers walked off with the Heisman Trophy for South Carolina 21 years ago.
"We are not where we were," Edwards said. "But we are certainly not where we want to be yet."
The key on offense is certainly Watson. The junior broke off long, dazzling runs and finished with 1,106 yards and 12 touchdowns. But he was suspended for South Carolina's 24-7 Outback Bowl victory over Ohio State and has was banned again from the team after several incidents from pushing a student referee to his arrest on charges he punched a woman.
There are runners such as Andrew Pinnock and Ryan Brewer, the Outback hero who scored three touchdowns as Watson's replacement, for South Carolina. But Watson's spark gives the attack a dimension that Ricky Watters brought to Notre Dame during Holtz's years there.
Holtz reinstated Watson a few days before practice began. "Derek really has come a long way, and he has done a lot of things very well," Holtz says.
South Carolina offensive coordinator Skip Holtz, Lou's son, says Watson will have to prove to his teammates that he deserves to return.
"No matter how talented you are, if you don't fulfill that chemistry role, you can't help us," Skip Holtz said. "That's a big part of it for Derek, very big."
Two years ago, the Gamecocks played 16 offensive lineman because of injuries and lack of talent. This season should show his deepest and most able group in some time. Senior quarterback Phil Petty, knocked by Gamecock fans during the 0-11 year, has shown steady, mistake-free leadership as South Carolina started the year 7-1 and led the Gators at The Swamp by 18 points before losing 41-21.
The defense has been the backbone of Lou Holtz's South Carolina tenure and should be again. The group led the SEC in giving up less than 16 points a game. While they were fourth in the league in total defense, the Gamecocks were 16th in the country.
Brown and his roommate Rashad Faison led a secondary that picked off five passes from Georgia's Quincy Carter a year ago. Edwards, listed as a linebacker, could set up anywhere and crush the ball carrier.
"We were close last year, but we're not settling on what we did last year," Faison said. "We want more than we got last year."
Holtz likes what he has seen so far this year.
"We have a chance," Holtz said. "And going into the season, you like to have a chance to maybe bring things together."
And maybe forget the losing talking once and for all.