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Palmetto and Pigskin The once-retired coach explains why he returned to the state and the Gamecocks

Sept. 08, 2003
Sept. 08, 2003

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Sept. 8, 2003

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Sports Illustrated Bonus Section: Si Adventure

Palmetto and Pigskin The once-retired coach explains why he returned to the state and the Gamecocks

When I left Notre Dame after the 1996 season, I never envisioned
that I would coach again. I had spent 11 years coaching at a
truly special place. We had won a national championship and
played in nine consecutive New Year's bowl games, and yet I had
become weary of trying to maintain a great program, instead of
working toward reaching the top of the mountain. Besides, once I
left Notre Dame, where could I find a more blessed position,
unless I went and sat beside the Pope himself? ¶ I thought I
would be content living with my wife, Beth, in Orlando, playing
as much golf as possible and doing studio work for CBS on its
college football coverage. Then, in 1998, the University of

This is an article from the Sept. 8, 2003 issue Original Layout

South Carolina came calling with an offer to be its coach.

I had roots at the school. I'd been an assistant for the
Gamecocks for almost two seasons (1966 and '67). Marvin Bass, the
head coach at that time, had hired me from Connecticut. Shortly
after I'd taken the job, I picked up the newspaper one morning,
and the headline read MARVIN BASS RESIGNS. I remember asking my
wife, "I wonder if he's related to my coach?"

The university hired Paul Dietzel to replace Marvin. Coach
Dietzel didn't know me from Adam's house cat, so I was out of a
job for a few months, until they hired me to coach the junior
varsity. It was during that time that I wrote a list of 107
things I wanted to accomplish during my lifetime. I remember when
Beth, who had gone to work as an X-ray technician, saw the list
and read entries like "Run with the bulls at Pamplona" and "Go on
an African safari," she suggested I add, "Get a job."
Nevertheless, we enjoyed our time in Columbia. It never crossed
my mind that I would return 32 years later as head coach.

I said no three times before accepting the school's offer in
December 1998. I was concerned about being away from Beth, who
was recovering from throat cancer at the time, but she encouraged
me to get back into coaching. "You're a teacher," she said.
"That's what you do best."

I'm glad I listened to her. I've enjoyed helping a new team climb
toward that mountaintop and have come to fully appreciate the
Palmetto State's beauty, friendliness and family atmosphere. I've
been able to have my son, Skip, on my staff as assistant head
coach-offensive coordinator and watch three of my grandchildren
grow up. When you're 66, those things matter more than you can
imagine.

I've lived in nearly one quarter of these United States--from
West Virginia, where I was born; to Ohio, where I grew up; to
Iowa, Virginia, Connecticut, North Carolina, New York, Arkansas,
Minnesota and Indiana, where I've coached; to Florida--and I can
tell you, South Carolina is uniquely wonderful, especially if you
love football. To start with, no state's fans are more loyal.
Even before I arrived, the Gamecocks were filling 80,000-seat
Williams-Brice Stadium despite having won only one bowl game in
107 years. The day I was introduced in a press conference at the
stadium, 4,000 cheering fans showed up. Since then, we've sold
out every game before each season started, and ranked in the
nation's top 10 in attendance.

South Carolinians are unsurpassed in the attention they pay to
their football coaches. For example, I once made a little joke
about this otherwise lovely state having unsightly roadsides: "We
must have the cleanest cars in America, because all the trash is
out along the highways." The state immediately launched an
anti-litter campaign!

Game-day traditions here stand out, too. Gamecocks fans tailgate
in a string of 22 cabooses (known as the Cockaboose Railroad)
that sit on old tracks outside the stadium. Country music rules
the state, but the music that gives everyone (including me) goose
bumps is the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is played
for our player introductions.

I'm now up to 95 on that list of 107 life goals that I wrote
during my first stint in Columbia three decades ago. I still
haven't gone on a safari or run with the bulls, but I've done
something better. I've lived in South Carolina twice--which would
have been the 108th goal if I'd only known how good it would be.

Lou Holtz has 239 career victories, eighth most in Division I
history, and has led six schools to bowl games.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY JOE CIARDIELLO