Flash back to the Winter of 1998. Lou Holtz takes over a down and out desperate South Carolina football program decimated by the lack of leadership by Brad Scott and his staff. Things would look hopeless for most. But for Lou Holtz, the master rebuilder, and for Gamecock fans in the middle of earning their nickname "The Iron Fans Of College Football," it was only the beginning.
"I remember it like it was yesterday," Russ Perry, the Editor/Publisher of GamecockNation.com told us shortly after Coach Holtz's Monday press luncheon. "We were still on the old Deuce (message board) back then and you could cut the enthusiasm after Coach Holtz was hired with a knife. Within days of his hiring the posts turned to how long it would take to bring the Gamecock overall record back to .500. I remember this one really long thread - and the bottom line was five years."
The fifth year is here. And while no one could have predicted, nor did they, the winless first campaign for Holtz, this Saturday's LSU game affords a chance to break even - in another way.
Flash back once again if you will, to August of 1998. South Carolina, despite playing one of the most difficult schedules in the history of the NCAA while operating as an Independent through much of the Seventies, all of the Eighties, and the first two seasons of the Nineties ... the Gamecocks were a .500 team. Medicore at best with flashes of potential from time to time, but the program and the fans were survivors. Determined to grow. A sleeping giant to many with a blossoming instate talent base and the fans and financial backing to one day accomplish big things.
Everyone knew it, few were willing to recognize the possibilities beyond the borders of the state of South Carolina.
So the Gamecocks, under the direction of their failing head coach Brad Scott, entered the 1998 season full bore and full of hope with an overall record of 466-460-44 after almost 100 seasons of football.
USC was at least in the upper half of all Division I programs, better than .500, and the new millenium was just around the corner. Hope was in the air and having become a member of the super elite Southeastern Conference six years earlier had placed the Gamecocks in a position to rise in the minds of the fans and administration.
Then disaster struck. Brad Scott lost control and the rest is history. Beginning the 1998 season at 466-460-44 ... Scott led the Gamecocks to a one win season finishing the '98 campaign with ten straight losses.
USC fell to 467-470-44 overall and in doing so dropped below mediocrity. They dropped into the unthinkable losing lower half of all Division I programs. Even the always loyal, always glass-half-full Gamecock fans felt the sting of being labeled with supporting a team playing less than .500 football during the course of its overall history.
Enter Lou Holtz. The Kent State Kid. The Master Rebuilder able to work miracles and yank any program from the depths of despair and into the elite ranks for which Gamecock fans so pined.
No one could have guessed that in Lou's first season he would battle to an 0-11 record. And battle he did - teaching his players how to think like winners. The first task - teaching them not to lose. Few realized how lacking the Gamecocks were in the trenches in terms of talent. None had admitted the damage done to a program's psyche in Scott's final season. Damage to the extent that at times it appeared that the program had died. And then came the injuries. Not once during Holtz's first year, not once did the same starting offensive line take the field for two consecutive weeks - often times walkons, and even defensive linemen, had to be moved to the offensive line just to have enough bodies to field a team.
No program in the history of the NCAA had fallen farther, faster or harder than the South Carolina Gamecocks by the end of the 1999 season ... or so it appeared.
467-481-44 ... .500 ball seemed decades away.
"I remember posting myself," recalls Perry. "I thought Lou would come in and average seven, maybe even eight wins a season after a 4-7 first year or something like that. But it didn't happen."
Five years later it is closer to happening that many would have thought after the 1999 struggles. And in fact, this Saturday's LSU games marks another chance to break even ... Lou's record at South Carolina. These days he is past teaching them how not to lose. These days he is past teaching them how even to win. These days he is in the midst of teaching them to win the 'Big Ones.' How to intimidate.
Coach Holtz is currently 26-27-0 as the Head Coach of the Fighting Gamecocks. 'Fighting' was a moniker lost under Brad Scott - but Lou has put the word back into the Gamecock fans' vocabulary and this weekend verses the Bayou Bengals is a chance to prove it to everyone.
In turn USC enters Saturday's tilt with an overall record of 493-497-44. A victory over LSU would elevate the record to 494-497-44 and put the Gamecocks within three games of getting back to .500 ball. The chance is there for the Gamecocks to finish the season above .500 ... and the message board predictions of the Winter of '98 would come true.
With LSU, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, Arkansas, Florida and Clemson remaining on the schedule - along with a possible bowl game - there remains seven opportunities to meet the goals of the fans. "Five years back to .500," was the chant of the message boards in the Winter of 1998. A win over LSU would set the table and place everything within reach.
Victory over LSU = 494-497-44, victory over Vandy = 495-497-44. A victory over Ole Miss = 496-497-44. A loss to Arkansas in Fayetteville (let's accept the odds) = 495-498-44. A victory over the Gators in Columbia = 496-498-44. A must have victory over Clemson in Columbia = 497-498-44. And a victory in any bowl = 498-498-44 and the Gamecocks are once again at .500 ball, they break even. With the 2004 season sure to send South Carolina back into the upper half of Division I programs' overall records race once again, never to fall below mediocrity ... not ever.
A win over both LSU and Arkansas would be better of course. It all begins this weekend - getting Lou's SC record back to .500 at 27-27 is the beginning. This LSU game affords the Gamecocks a chance to break even in more ways than one.
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