Nov. 22, 2004
Lou Holtz left the podium with his last request ringing. He knew that South Carolina’s fracas with Clemson two days earlier had been a shameful stain on the program, but he didn’t think the entire team should suffer. Suspend who needed to be suspended, he thought, but let the rest of the Gamecocks participate in what they had earned – a bowl game.
Each player received a message to meet at Williams-Brice Stadium at 5 p.m., six hours after Holtz had officially announced his retirement. Word had already begun to leak. A bowl ban was possible.
“It was on the radio, the media, before it was even told to us,” tight end Andy Boyd said. “Before that decision came out, media people were outside the stadium, there were people trying to stop us in the parking lot and ask us what we thought.”
Everyone had wondered how bad it was going to get, and each was about to find out.
Once the bus returned from Clemson on Saturday, USC’s administration began the exhausting process of figuring out what had happened, and what needed to happen to rectify it.
The staff, led by then-athletics director Mike McGee, convened on Sunday and began talking with the SEC office, the ACC office and their counterparts at Clemson. Videotapes were reviewed and players who were swinging a helmet or punching another player were identified. The school presidents also were notified.
“By midday, we were meeting and already reviewing what our course of action was going to be,” then-sports information director Kerry Tharp said. “We were in contact with Clemson and the SEC office, so I had a pretty good feeling by Sunday evening that the decision was going to be to accept the bowl ban.”
McGee knew that a message had to be delivered. That kind of behavior couldn’t be tolerated. While several players weren’t involved with the fight, reality was that it’s a team sport. Win as a team, lose as a team.
Accept consequences as a team.
The Gamecocks would not be allowed to play in a bowl game.
“It was the first decision,” McGee said. “That was my point.”
The ACC and SEC offices were against it at first, then acquiesced. Holtz wanted the bowl game, even if his successor had to coach it. Of course the seniors wanted it – they hadn’t gone to a bowl the previous two seasons and they had earned this one. Shreveport, La., anywhere – just not home for Christmas.
Clemson decided on the same punishment and also scheduled a press conference for 5 p.m. As USC’s players drove to Williams-Brice, everyone felt like they were about to face a firing squad.
“I remember going into that meeting and you kind of expected the worst, but I didn’t think the worst was not going to a bowl game,” offensive lineman Jonathan Alston said.
McGee bluntly told the Gamecocks of the decision on Monday. Naturally, it didn’t go over well.
“It was certainly one of the most difficult meetings I’ve ever had to participate in,” Tharp said. “Their coach was retiring, they weren’t going to a bowl. The players were hurt, disappointed, they were very frustrated. I’d say, for the most part, it was some angry feelings that this was going to happen.”
Some players asked if there could be any other solution than denying the bowl game. McGee said no.
Some looked at it pragmatically. Even if the Gamecocks had gone to a bowl – the Independence seemed probable – six to 10 players would have been suspended because of the fight.
Others looked at it as maybe being necessary, but for the world to know before the players was an extra slap in the face.
“It was released to the media before our questions could be answered,” Boyd said. “Some of us asked, ‘Can’t this be pushed off?’ It was said the decision had been made and was final. I think some teammates took it as disrespectful, like they were not being concerned with us. The fight wasn’t right, by any means, but the way it was addressed was wrong.”
Most were a mix of angry, sad and disappointed. They fought all year, through winter conditioning, spring practice and work in the inferno of a Columbia summer for a chance to play in the postseason. The seniors wouldn’t get another chance.
“I was (upset),” center John Strickland said. “The seniors, we had no idea it was our last football game. Some of us were lucky enough to go play in a senior bowl, and that was fun and all, but only a few of us got to do that. Those other guys never played another down.”
“We earned that bowl game, and we lost it,” Alston said. “The majority of the guys fighting were younger, and had another chance. My scenario was, ‘You took away a paycheck I already earned.’ ”
“You’re a 21-year-old man, a 22-year-old man, you think you’ve got one more game to play, three weeks left with your teammates,” Boyd said. “Some of these guys, that was the last game they ever played. A lot of kids play football for a lot of years, trying to get that opportunity to play. And right then, it was gone.”
Many players had already lashed out because Holtz was leaving. With him no longer in charge, others followed.
The report, requested by a USC staffer and filed by USC police, read “grand larceny of video equipment.” An officer was dispatched to Williams-Brice Stadium the next day – a Tuesday afternoon – and told that an estimated $18,000 worth of materials had been stolen from the area around USC’s locker room.
“I had left the stadium and the next day, I started getting word that there had been some things taken out of the stadium and that it looked like a few players were involved,” Tharp said. “My heart sunk. I knew that there was a lot of frustration. It was disappointing that those things had taken place.”
The police report read that laptop computers and video projectors had been stolen by unknown persons, along with 12 framed photographs from the locker room walls. The State reported in 2004 that one of its staffers observed several players leaving with helmets after the bowl-ban announcement, and one athletics department official described the scene as “a prison break.”
“Maybe some of them felt, ‘Well, (Holtz is) giving up on us, so we can do what we want,’ ” Strickland said. “I think that’s part of why the season ended the way it did.”
“I didn’t see it, because I had already graduated and I lived off campus,” Alston said. “I did hear about it. For me, it was like, ‘Wow. Just digging a hole deeper and deeper.’ ”
With the report filed and the investigation beginning, McGee and the athletics department later let the entire team know that things had been taken, there was video evidence and that there was a don’t ask, don’t tell policy in place. Return it, and everything would be fine.
“There had been some things that had been taken that had to be returned,” McGee said. “I think we had a subsequent meeting after some players had walked off with some things and I told them to get it back, pronto. I think most of them were returned. But there were several that we had to continue to pursue.”
Another USC police incident report, dated Dec. 2, 2004, said that all property was returned and no larceny had taken place. Yet in January 2005, six USC players – Syvelle Newton, Dondrial Pinkins, Freddy Saint-Preux, Woodly Telfort, Rod Wilson and Brian Brownlee –were facing criminal charges for the thefts.
Then-USC president Andrew Sorensen had reopened the investigation and the six players were charged. Strickland clarified that while the players who took computers and/or video equipment should have been punished, ones that took photographs shouldn’t have been.
“All of us had pictures around that coaches let us take,” Strickland said. “If you were in a picture and you were a senior, they would let you take it. That was the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen, charging guys for taking pictures.”
The day had begun well, with the new coach being introduced at 1 p.m. By 3:31 p.m., the sordid mess of a mass theft was being examined. The Gamecocks’ seniors weren’t as excited as their underclass teammates – they weren’t going to get to play for the new guy.
No, that day was about regretting the past, not celebrating the future.
“That was the low point of my whole career at South Carolina,” Strickland said. “That fight, not being able to participate in something we earned. That’s what you work all year-round for, just to make it to the postseason, whether that be an SEC Championship Game or a bowl game. Just to have it taken from you that’s pretty bad.
“I totally disagreed with it. I felt like the guys that did the most should be punished, and they shouldn’t punish the rest of us. Now that I look back on it as an older guy, the right thing happened. We should have been suspended for a bowl game.”