South Carolina linebacker Kalimba Edwards considers himself a student of his game and his team's history.
The 6-foot-6, 268-pounder knows that, for all of the Gamecocks' mediocrity in almost 110 years of playing football, the program has put some good teams on the field. But Edwards also knows that success at South Carolina has seldom been sustained.
And that's why the senior All-Southeastern Conference pick is abiding by one mantra entering his last season wearing garnet and black:
"We want the nation to know that there is football at the University of South Carolina," said Edwards, who is forecast as a high first-round draft pick in next year's NFL Draft.
South Carolina begins the 2001 season tonight in Columbia against Boise State (7 p.m., no TV).
Last year's remarkable renaissance under coach Lou Holtz served notice that the Gamecocks are a force. After entering the season with a 21-game losing streak, South Carolina went 8-4 - the biggest turnaround in SEC history - and dominated Ohio State in the Outback Bowl.
But the real trick in Columbia is prolonging the prominence. Sure, the Gamecocks have had a few noteworthy seasons in the past, but they've seldom been able to match the success a year later.
In 1984, South Carolina posted its greatest season ever by going 10-2 under the late Joe Morrison. The next two years, the Gamecocks went a combined 8-12-2.
In 1987, they rode one of the best defenses in the nation to an 8-4 record and a Gator Bowl appearance. South Carolina posted an identical record the next year, but a steroid scandal and losses to Georgia Tech, Florida State and Clemson by a combined score of 122-10 didn't leave fans much to crow about.
In 1994, the future looked bright after first-year coach Brad Scott led the Gamecocks to a 7-5 record that included the program's first bowl victory. But amid the promise of rising to the next level, Scott's group dropped down a rung and finished 4-6-1.
In the past 50 years, South Carolina has put together back-to-back winning seasons just six times. Edwards and his teammates know the history, and they'll set about changing it starting tonight.
"We pay attention to it, and it's brought to our attention by Coach Holtz," said Edwards, who helped the Gamecocks finish first in the SEC and sixth nationally in scoring defense last season. "We haven't won two bowl games back to back, and we haven't had a consensus All-American in a long time."
Edwards knows his stuff. The last Gamecocks to earn first-team All-American honors were offensive lineman Del Wilkes and linebacker James Seawright in 1984. Edwards, who was named to several preseason All-American squads this year, appears to have a good chance of ending the drought.
"There's something about it that brings respect to your school, and that's what we're trying to do," he said. "We have to accomplish things like that for people to respect us."
Edwards and the rest of the Gamecocks make no secret of their desire to improve on last season and become a player in the national championship race. But the 64-year-old Holtz said saying it and doing it are different issues.
"You just don't go from seven or eight wins in one year and say, 'Well, we're a championship team,' " he said. "Taking it to another level means that there has to be some outstanding leadership off the field an on the field by our players. Our players have to reach a point where they are not satisfied to win seven or eight football games."
Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645 or firstname.lastname@example.org