Aug. 26, 2004
Columbia, S.C. –
The class met every Monday night, for eight weeks, and even though attendance wasn’t mandatory, the South Carolina football team knew better than to ditch.
That’s because Lou Holtz was the teacher. And the class was the core of the 67-year-old’s rededication to turning around the South Carolina football program.
“He teaches a class, everybody shows up,” senior lineman John Strickland said. “Especially when there’s work to do.”
After back-to-back New Year’s Day bowl games in 2000 and 2001, Holtz’s Gamecocks have gone 10-14 since, capped off by last year’s season finale, a 63-17 pasting at the hands of rival Clemson. Holtz called it the most embarrassing game of his career.
“You lose a few close games and you think you’re right there,” Holtz said. “But that night showed me that we’re not. We’re light years away.”
Lou Holtz is changing the way he’s coached at South Carolina.
Rather than retire, Holtz has set out to change things. Talent-wise, he’s realized the Gamecocks will rarely compete with the Tennessees and Floridas of the world, so he’s decided to make them stronger. Mentally.
He calls it the biggest challenge he’s ever faced in coaching. Bigger than taking Notre Dame to the 1988 National Championship. Bigger than taking South Carolina from 0-11 in 1999 to a victory over Ohio State in the 2000 Outback Bowl.
“We aren’t going to win on talent alone,” Holtz said. “So I want to change the culture. The way you think, the way you act, the way you speak. I’ve got to take more responsibility. Maybe I haven’t been as much of a leader on the sideline as I’ve needed to be.”
So to become a better leader, he became a teacher. Every Monday night, for eight weeks, he gathered his team in a South Carolina lecture hall, with the sole goal of massaging the mindset of his players. Holtz, who has written books on motivation himself, gathered a collection of articles, like Michael Jordan talking about competition and David Robinson talking about perseverance and passed them out to his players. Each week, a new article. Each week, a new topic.
“It was a way for us to sit down, take a look at one another and change some things,” Strickland said. “We wanted to examine why are people successful. What makes them tick.”
At the end of the session, he asked his players to write a philosophy paper on what they learned and what they thought about the class, the team and the season. One player wrote that the last time anybody asked him what he thought, he was in kindergarten, idolizing Superman and Batman. “At this point, the team is coming together like nothing I’ve seen,” Holtz said. “But it won’t change a thing if we don’t block and tackle.”
Even Holtz has changed his approach, rededicating himself to his profession. When the 32-year coaching veteran first came to Columbia, he served as a Chairman of the Board type, overseeing his coaching staff and players from a more advisory role. This year he’s had his hands in everything, from teaching a class to shaking up his coaching staff.
This offseason, Holtz let four coaches go. A fifth one left. He hired his former defensive coordinator at Notre Dame, Rick Minter, to run the defense in Columbia. He also added highly-regarded recruiting coordinator Rick Stockstill, a longtime Clemson assistant. And for anybody who still didn’t get the message, Holtz stripped offensive coordinator duties from his own son, Skip, demoting him to quarterback’s coach while taking play-calling duties over himself.
He appointed a 15-player unity council that votes on disciplinary issues and other team-related matters. He loosened his rules, including one that that disallowed players from having long hair. He brought in 15 former players — including Deuce Staley and John Abraham — to talk about playing at South Carolina. And he spent more time in the locker room, pulling up a chair and talking to players.
“At first we didn’t know what to make of that,” Strickland said. “But now it’s comfortable. All around, he’s more available to us now.”
All in the name of changing the culture. All in the name of returning South Carolina to its previous success.
“You have to coach the way you believe in your heart. That’s the way I’m doing it now. What it did was what I thought South Carolina needed. I thought we were on the right track – this is what I think we need now.”
Wayne Drehs is a staff writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.