Let The Games Begin

South Carolina and Vanderbilt will square off this Saturday in a regionally televised game (Jefferson-Pilot 12:30 ET). By game's end a tale will have been told not so much of either program's past, but of their future. And both coaches know it, but they express it in different ways ...

As I sat in my living room Monday afternoon listening to the WVOC broadcast of the first Lou Holtz Press Luncheon of the season, I began to recognize more clearly the importance of this first game, seeing it in a different light than I had all summer. To tell you the truth I have had my doubts. Vanderbilt is afterall, returning 22 starters from last season's 2-9 football team. Oh sure, this one is big for both programs. Vanderbilt especially. A win for the Commodores would set them on a track bound for six wins and a bowl game, a rarity for the hometown team in Nashville. But the Gamecocks on the other hand, find themselves in what most think but few admit, is a no win situation.

South Carolina, in their sixth season under Lou Holtz's tutelage, is supposed to have the weapons to put a team like Vandy away without really breaking a sweat. Tennessee, Georgia and Florida fans, the perpetual Eastern Division powers, scoff at the thought of giving the Dores the slightest possibility of an upset against their squads. For Gamecock fans to actually show Vandy any degree of respect only illustrates how far below USC is compared to those perceived as above them.

But this is not your every year Vanderbilt team. More importantly, this is not your every year South Carolina team either.

Three weeks ago I had asked Russ Perry, the Editor/Publisher of this web site, for ideas - musing my next column. "I have no idea Jeremy," he told me. "Let's be patient. Let's wait until we see the white of their eyes," he recommened.

Good idea because until today, until just now, we've been given nothing new about this year's group of Gamecocks.

And then, this afternoon, while sitting there transferring the audio from the press conference... I saw the white of their eyes. The games have begun and to those reading this I believe it is safe to say we are in for a very interesting college football season in Columbia, South Carolina.

Vanderbilt Coach Bobby Johnson spoke second but he blinked first. More on that later.

Lou Holtz was baited. How important is this game? Is this a 'must win' game? If you lose this game what will it mean to this football team?

The old man stayed cool. How does one get around simply saying, "WE ARE NOT GOING TO LOSE THIS GAME!" How does one answer a press corp hell bent on slanting the next day's news to read in a negative light?

Holtz played their game.

"The biggest thing is how well will we react when things go against us on the road," Holtz answered rhetorically. "It's all according to how we adjust to the ebb and flow of the game."

But is this a 'must win game' coach?

"I think we're ready to play. I think we could practice for three more weeks and not be anymore ready than what we are at the present time. We just have to go play and see where we are."

But if you lose this game .... ?

Coach Holtz, you could tell by the sound of his voice, knew he wasn't going to be able to skirt the negativity. What about a simple question of 'if they were to win the game?' No one asked the question from that particular perspective. In his sixth season and after so many talented classes signed - losing is not an option. Yes, the games have begun.

So, is this a 'must win' game?

"I hate to open up with a conference game, particularly one on the road, but that's the way the schedule is so that's what we'll do," Holtz replied.

There you go. That's classic Lou. He's getting there, back to the old things that brought him in the first place. Build-up the opponent to the media and then knock them down on the field. Never let them know what you are thinking.

The question kept coming and Lou kept getting better. His old swagger is back.And then finally an answer. How big is THIS opening game?

"I think every opener is big. I don't really look at it as bigger than this or bigger than that. I think you have got to look at it as what it is and go on from there. It's not a case of ... whatever happens it is going to ruin us. We're going to get ready for Georgia and come back as hard as we can. We're going to do that for eleven straight weeks regardless of what happens. It's not a case of 'well, did it go well,' ... and it might not go well. We're playing a good solid Vanderbilt team up there and it may not go well. But this is not going to be a case of, 'well it didn't go well. It's over.' NO, it's not over."

Say what? You had to laugh. He had them right where he wanted them. Then Coach Holtz went on.

"I think every game is important particularly if you have aspirations to win a conference championship. Now, that sounds crazy, but every game is important particularly conference games. But as I said before, you put your whole life into this game. But then you do the same thing for Georgia. We always study our first four opponents very very hard. Because by the fifth game teams may have changed etcetera. So it's not going to be a case of, 'well if you don't win it it's over.' NO. I made a commitment to prepare and work as hard as I can for eleven games and then when the season is over sit back and see what the won/loss is. Everybody wants to make it a death or life situation, it's not. I just want to go do the best I can and I expect our team to do the best they can and when it's over see where we are and see what we need to correct and what we need to do the following week."

Oh boy. Lou was sharp. "Death or life" mind you, and how true that is. Were they asking about a positive outcome? Of course not. Death. Death is first in the minds of the local media and accordingly death is first in Lou's response. They failed to hear his patronizingly curt reply. And the translation of his other words? Respect Vanderbilt. Stroke their belief that they are going to win this game. Recognize the possibility. But elude to the Georgia game, or the game after the Vandy game, no less than five times. Because The Dores are going down and then Georgia has got to deal with the Gamecocks in Columbia the following week. That is what you want. That is how the Big Three in the East think the week before playing Vanderbilt. You have better talent than Vanderbilt. You have better depth than Vanderbilt. Yes, you are on the road but you are taking a minimum of 6,000 fans and expecting conservatively 8,000 by the time the local Tennessee Gamecocks buy their share of tickets. That is probably more fans than Vandy will have in the stadium. Vanderbilt will not be a pushover, but Vanderbilt is going to lose to South Carolina this Saturday. Oh and by the way. Did you catch the part about, "particularly if you have aspirations to win a conference championship."?

Holtz went on.

"I do expect this team to play awfully well Saturday. I don't want there to be any misunderstanding about that. I don't think I am asking this team to do anything that they haven't shown me that they can do."

Then the question was asked more directly. With such a fragile team, wouldn't a loss to Vanderbilt be a major set back?

"There's no doubt," Holtz began, his hand now forced but only slightly more than before. "This team IS fragile right now. But by the same token, and we won't know where we are until we see how they handle adversity and how we handle difficulty ... but you would like to see during the course of a game the guys reach down and come back and win a close game. That would help you. But to lose and bounce back and get a big win somewhere along the line ... but there's no doubt - the way we look and the way we think and the way we act in practice, that's all about the culture change and the way we do things. What's important is the way we think, the way we act, the way we believe and the way we just approach challenges. It's about life in general. This isn't just about football, it's about the whole way you approach life. And you can say 'well you try to create a winning attitude ...'"

Then is the biggest over-exaggeration to say that this is a 'must win' game Coach?

"I don't think it is a must win game because you're still going to have to play the next week. This is not just about one game and it's not about ... listen, I don't ever watch 'World Poker Tour,' but golly it's on every channel. And all they say is, 'I put everything in! Win or lose it's over!' It's can't be that way. You don't ever put all your chips in ... you put all your effort, all your intensity, but you still have something left. Now maybe you lost all that other but you still have to draw on the things you have inside of you. You can never say, that's it. That's all I've got, it's over. NO. I can't be that way because this is not about one game and it's not about one year. It's about changing the way we think and the way we act. You know. I've had a lot of former players that were here tell me that they agree. They've said, 'We were here and we had talent but there were a lot of things that distracted us etcetera.' I don't know. Hopefully ... I've seen a great change. I've seen a great change in our leadership. I've seen a lot of changes that are very very positive but we still have to go get some things done. And I don't know ... this is going to be a tough challenge, I don't know what's going to happen up there, but I do expect us to play well."

And right until the end he kept saying it.

"I'm not going to die and this team is not going to die no matter what happens on Saturday. Win, lose or draw no matter what happens. That's the only thing I am going to say. This isn't 'well you win this and everything is OK or you don't win it and it's not OK.' This team is not going to quit. That's all I'm going to tell you. This team is going to compete and they're going to play hard and they're going to play hard for sixty minutes and their going to play hard for eleven games. And they're going to play together."

It basically ended there. In 32 plus minutes of speaking, 25 of those minutes were spent answering the same negative question from the local media. Is this the end all be all of opening football games for The University of South Carolina Football Program? And Lou answered NO. But he did not answer it the way they wanted him to, not by a longshot.

How he handled it was vintage Lou. When you listen to his tone, when you hear the inflections in his voice and once you decipher the meaning in his words you know - this football team is ready. This football team has potential. This is not a football team that you have to motivate. This is not a leaderless football team. He says it best in his answers to the same question over and over again. This team will give it their all every time they step on the field this season. This team will not quit. They don't ask why or how, they just do.

Coach Holtz's answer to the question was more positive than the question deserved. How might his team react to a loss that is not going to happen? Understand? "NOT" going to happen. By bouncing back and competing over and over and over again as Lou believes this team will do - and to understand that fact of the matter, all you have to do is open your mind and listen to the Lou Schpeak. If this truly is the type of team that will react to a loss as Lou described, then this is the type of team that will NOT lose on the road to Vanderbilt in the SEC season opener.

The negative local media will not see it that way, but you do right? The 'culture change' is happening before our very eyes if you do.

And then Coach Johnson blinked. More on that in my Tuesday column.

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