Nov. 22, 2004
That Monday was an awful day.
South Carolina’s players rested in their rooms or apartments, knowing the program they had fought so hard to build was back on shaky ground. Not only had they failed to win their rivalry game, but they had failed to give their outgoing coach one last gift, and then compounded it by taking part in a despicable brawl with their orange-clad Upstate neighbors.
Beaten, bruised, black-eyed and bewildered at what the future held, the Gamecocks pondered what they were going to do. Coach Lou Holtz had confronted the rumors that had been flying since the Tennessee game, telling the team that he was going to retire at season’s end. They didn’t know if the other rumors – about another legendary coach agreeing to take the job – were true and there was no relief from the constant questions.
Get something to eat around town, fans and students would ask what happened at Clemson and what was going to happen. Sit at home and wonder the same. Try to watch TV and ESPN’s SportsCenter was replaying the Detroit-Indiana NBA and the USC-Clemson fights on a continuous loop.
Until the networks broke in and final-stamped what everyone already knew. In a packed room at Williams-Brice Stadium, Holtz said goodbye.
“We just wanted to try to have him go out on top,” offensive lineman Jonathan Alston said. “As you know, it didn’t happen that way.”
Wearing a black suit and gray tie, Holtz retired, saying that he had done what he had hoped to do at USC and positive that he was leaving the program in a much better place than when he took over.
Holtz never replicated the magical 2000 and 2001 seasons, late-year swoons keeping the Gamecocks one win from bowl eligibility in 2002 and 2003. USC lost five straight to end the 2002 season and finished 5-7; it repeated 5-7 the next year while losing its last four.
The Gamecocks, even with the loss to Clemson in 2004, were 6-5 and bowl eligible. It was fitting that the magician, one who performed a trick of producing a new and complete newspaper after seemingly tearing it up during many of his speeches, would have a grand finale.
Instead, the melee at Clemson formed another link with Holtz’s coaching idol, Ohio State legend Woody Hayes. Each went into retirement following a game that featured a punch and a Clemson Tiger.
“What a way to end a career,” Holtz referenced in his farewell address.
Holtz stepped down with 249 career wins and a reputation as a miracle worker. He had taken six programs to bowl games within two years of taking the job, and the last, at USC, was perhaps his greatest accomplishment.
His first year was the worst mark in South Carolina history. The Gamecocks didn’t win a game. The 1999 team had a bone-crushing defense and three losses by 10 points or less, but massive injuries to the offensive line and quarterbacks left USC unable to light the scoreboard.
Unexpected to do much in 2000, the Gamecocks broke their 21-game losing streak in the season-opener and upset Georgia the next week. The magician’s touch was evident as USC stormed to an 8-4 season, then followed up with a 9-3 record in 2001.
“Amazing what coach Holtz did,” tight end Andy Boyd said. “Many of my teammates when I got there had been there for 0-21. They knew what it took to win two bowl games after that.”
Attention was trained on USC when Holtz arrived, disappeared during the winless year and then returned. Always quotable, always quipping, Holtz kept the Gamecocks where they had desired to be for so long – on the national stage.
“It brought our program to a level it had not seen before,” said former USC sports information director Kerry Tharp. “National rankings, back-to-back Outback Bowl wins, we had become a program that was getting national attention. Much of that was due to coach Holtz and the job he did during his tenure.”
Holtz became the only coach to lead four schools to Top-20 finishes and posted the best two-year stretch in USC football history at that time (17-7). While he never solved the “Orange Crush” (Holtz was a combined 1-17 against Tennessee, Florida and Clemson), he shucked the Gamecocks’ willingness to accept mediocrity.
“That’s all he ever talked about, changing the mindset and thinking like a champion,” Alston said. “The big thing that he brought to the University of South Carolina football team, he brought a sense of brotherhood, a sense of togetherness, a sense of true team. What it meant to be selfless.”
It stung the players to see their coach go out on such a note. Many didn’t like it when he told them during the season that he was leaving, but many also never thought they could embarrass themselves so thoroughly when it was time to play their strongest.
“It was just kind of a dismal time,” Boyd said. “It was a bad time. Bad time as in bad timing, because everything fell into place.”
The press conference was at 11 a.m. Questions were swirling about what repercussions were coming from the brawl against Clemson, and about who would be the new coach. Tharp tried to keep the focus on Holtz.
“Coach Holtz took a football program that was pretty much at the bottom of the ladder and had the nation’s longest losing streak, and in his second and third years, we went to back-to-back Outback Bowls, posted some outstanding wins over some SEC teams and the two over Ohio State,” Tharp said. “I had developed a good relationship, personal and working, with coach Holtz and I was very appreciative not only for what he had done for the football program, but for the university and the state of South Carolina. He was a great ambassador for the state and continues to be one.”
“Coach Holtz had done an excellent job,” then-athletics director Mike McGee said. “We had gone to bowl games. It was obvious coach Holtz made the decision to retire, and it was right. It had reached the point where change was called for.”
With his son Skip and wife, Beth, standing nearby, Holtz only broke down once, when asked what his family meant to him. Asked how he would want his legacy remembered, he said, “Just a good person, tried to do a good job.”
An extraordinary man was ending his career but there were still issues to be addressed. “Do I like leaving without coaching the bowl? Absolutely not,” he said. “I’d love to coach in a bowl, love to coach one more time.”
With that, Holtz ended a 33-year tenure with some hope. He wished to have a last request granted, one small favor after he had done USC so many.
The pardon never came.