TAMPA, Fla. - Shortly before his team's 10 p.m. bed check on New Year's Eve, Lou Holtz spoke to his players about goals set and goals achieved in 2001.
Holtz figured - or hoped, at least - his team would be fast asleep by midnight, so he toasted South Carolina's success a little early with a Year in Review, Gamecock style.
"In the middle of last January, we set a lot of goals," South Carolina's third-year football coach said Tuesday. "We didn't achieve all of them. But I tell you what, we achieved many more than we failed to achieve. Some of them are still alive."
The most important remaining goal can be achieved today. If the No. 14 Gamecocks beat No. 22 Ohio State (7-4) in the Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium they will record 17 wins over a two-year period for the first time in school history.
Several other bowls have more implications and generate considerably more interest than a rematch of last year's Outback Bowl, which South Carolina won 24-7.
But to Holtz and the Gamecocks (8-3), who have won more than eight games just once in their history, who cares about the Bowl Championship Series when you've gone from the outhouse to the Outback?
"This is the most important bowl game," Holtz said. "I don't care about the Sugar, the Orange or the Rose. This is our game. This means a heck of a lot more to us. I couldn't care less about the other games, and our players feel the same way."
Particularly players who were around in 1998 and 1999, when the Gamecocks went 1-21 and seemed years away from simply being mediocre. Seventeen wins would eclipse by one the victory total of the five seasons combined before 2000, when South Carolina went 8-4 for the biggest turnaround in Southeastern Conference history.
"Basically, we still have a lot of things to prove to America right now," said Gamecocks center Larrell Johnson, a Tampa native.
After beating Clemson in the regular-season finale, the Gamecocks thought their proving ground would be the Citrus Bowl against Michigan. But Louisiana State wrecked those hopes by beating Tennessee in the SEC title game.
"Obviously we've got mixed emotions going in," said junior receiver Ryan Brewer, a native of Troy, Ohio. "We wanted Tennessee to beat LSU so we could go to the Citrus Bowl, just because it's something different."
Holtz was against an Outback rematch, and he lobbied hard for a spot against Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl - easier to find motivation against the defending national champions than against a team his squad thumped last year.
The 64-year-old was in his element against the Buckeyes in 2001, using a perceived lack of respect from the Buckeyes to whip his team into a frenzy.
This year, posterity moves to the top of the motivational list. The Gamecocks could move into the Top 10 with a victory, and Holtz is milking that opportunity for all it's worth.
"If we're able to win the football game and finish in the Top 10, you would see a party like you ain't seen," he said.
But ultimately, Holtz said, how all the numbers fall into place is beyond his or his team's control. The most important piece of advice he offered the Gamecocks is to live the first day of 2002 as if it were the last.
"When my life is over, when my career is over, I don't want to have any regrets," he said. "That's the same thing with this team. Let's just have no regrets. Whatever you start, finish it. And when you finish it, have no regrets."
NOTE: Holtz is relieved that Notre Dame is on the verge of hiring a coach. It is expected to be Stanford's Tyrone Willingham.
"I'm very happy and proud to be at South Carolina, and I'm glad that we won't have to answer those questions anymore," he said.
Holtz coached the Fighting Irish from 1986-96 and was rumored to be a candidate to replace George O'Leary, who resigned after five days amid revelations that he lied on his resume.
Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645.
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