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July 17, 2005

Holtz era produced more good than bad: a rebuttal

Ron Aiken's recent opinion piece listing the pros and cons of the Lou Holtz era missed the mark.

Here's the key question: Did the USC football program make progress under Holtz?

The answer is yes. Substantial progress, I might add.

Aiken misses the point entirely when it comes to the purpose served by Holtz. Mike McGee, the USC athletic director, did not hire Holtz simply to win football games. Holtz' first job was to change the mindset of the players, the fans, and the administrators and to convince them USC could win.

In that job, he succeeded.

Let's examine what Holtz was handed when he took over the USC program in December, 1998.

USC went 1-10 in 1998, Brad Scott's final season at the Gamecocks helm. While the cupboard wasn't totally bare, it contained barely more than a couple of cans of Spam.

In the eight seasons from 1991 through 1998, USC had just two winning campaigns (1994 and 1996) and played in exactly one bowl game. USC finished the regular season 6-5 in both 1994 and 1996, hardly a reason for Gamecock Nation to throw a parade.

I can recall sitting shell-shocked in Williams-Brice Stadium in 1998 as USC inexplicably lost to Marshall, 24-21, on a last-second field goal and to Mississippi State, 38-0, on consecutive Saturdays. The latter defeat may have been to worst performance by a USC team in the last 20 years.

But it only got worse four weeks later when USC somehow lost to a poor Vanderbilt team, 17-14, in Nashville.

Simply put, the Gamecocks had quit on Brad Scott. That's why he was fired.

Enter Holtz.

Aiken gives Holtz a black mark for going 0-11 in 1999. Did Aiken even attend any of the games in that season?

Largely due to injuries and a lack of talent, the offense in 1999 was a disaster. In particular, the offensive line was, to be kind, a skipwreck. I heard Skip Holtz tell the story several times about how two defensive lineman were literally pulled aside on the flight to Little Rock and given an offensive playbook. Both started on the offensive line against Arkansas. Not surprisingly, USC was demolished, 48-14.

Phil Petty, then a sophomore, was running for his life most of the time until, inevitably, injuries curtailed his season. That began a seemingly never-ending parade of overmatched quarterbacks. Even Mikal Goodman started one game as a true freshman at quarterback.

Because of the lack of talent and the debilitating injuries, it is simply not fair to blame Holtz, as Aiken does, for the winless 1999 season. In fact, as Ryan Brewer told me, the 1999 team played hard every game and never quit. In Aiken's book, does Lou get credit for that?

While Aiken is correct in citing the fact that Holtz finished 33-37 overall at USC, he misses the story inside the story. I believe it is justified by the circumstances to point out that Holtz was 33-26 in his last five seasons. Based on USC's record in the decade prior to Holtz's arrival, that's pretty remarkable.

Aiken also gives Holtz a black mark for failing to win a SEC conference title or an Eastern Division crown. Are you kidding me?

Yeah, like Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee were simply going to lay down for Lou.

So, Holtz should be blamed for his apparent failure to completely turn around a program that had one bowl win in more than 100 years before he arrived on the scene? In other words, using Aiken's skewed logic, Holtz was a failure because in six short years he failed to convert USC from a 1-10 team to champions of the top college football conference in the country? I think not.

Aiken demanded a miracle from Holtz. For two years, he got it.

Aiken forgets that USC went to Florida in 2000 and engaged the Gators in a winner-take-all contest with the SEC Eastern Division title on the line. Yes, USC lost but not before grabbing a 21-3 first quarter lead The Gators had more talent and it showed over the final 45 minutes.

Aiken also criticizes Holtz for his poor record (1-5) against Clemson, including the 63-17 debacle in 2003. Okay, I'll give him that. But if you're going to start examining USC's record against individual teams, let's take a deeper look.

USC went 2-4 against Georgia, with heartbreaking losses in 2002 (13-7) and 2004 (20-16). If Andrew Pinnock hadn't dropped the ball on the final play in 2002, Holtz would have finished at least .500 against the Bulldogs. You can blame Holtz and his old-school philosophy for turning ultra-conservative in 2004 after USC went ahead 16-0, but USC was certainly ready to play that day.

USC was 3-1 against Mississippi State, and didn't lose to Kentucky or Vanderbilt after 1999. USC was also 2-1 against Alabama, including a convincing victory in Tuscaloosa in 2004, where Alabama has an overwhelming winning percentage. USC had never beaten the Crimson Tide until Holtz arrived.

Yes, USC was winless against Tennessee but the contests were close and hard fought as evidenced by the final scores in most of the games. There is no shame in losing a close ball game to Tennessee when you know the team gave 100 percent effort. The only opponents you can say USC has "underachieved" are Florida and Clemson. Both teams have historically been better than USC.

Under Holtz, USC generally won the games they were supposed to win. How many times were the Gamecocks upset under Holtz? Not many. How many times did they pull an upset? A few. Overall, I would say USC finished just about where they should have under Holtz.

Aiken also criticizes Holtz for firing four assistant coaches and "displacing four families" after the 2003 season. What was he supposed to do? Keep employed a number of coaches that were clearly not getting the job done? Hey, that's life in the coaching profession. Coaches live a nomadic existence and the ones that were here are no different. Changes had to be made after the Clemson debacle and Holtz made them, mostly for the better I might add.

Aiken also gives Holtz a black mark for the Clemson brawl. Why? Interestingly, Aiken provides no explanation for why Holtz should be blamed for the acts of a few out-of-control, frustrated ballplayers. Like many politicians, Aiken simply throws mud and hope it sticks. Point the finger at Lou for the inept offensive showing that day, but not the brawl. The video clearly shows Lou actually trying to stop his players from going onto to the field, to no avail.

Was everything perfect under Holtz? Of course not. As Aiken correctly points out, USC's record in November (3-15) was poor in the six years under Holtz. But that was as much a creature of the scheduling as it was poor conditioning or physical and mental breakdowns. Few middle-tier teams in the country could survive an Orange Crush finish like USC has had to endure since joining the SEC. For the most part, Tennessee, Florida, and Clemson have simply been better teams.

Aiken also gives Holtz a black mark for the recently revealed 10 NCAA violations. While they came on Holtz's watch, as Aiken points out, it is important to note that the report barely mentions Holtz at all.

Most of the misconduct described in the report is attributable to Tom Perry, a former senior associate athletics director. Unless evidence is produced showing Holtz was knowingly involved in the violations, it is premature to place the blame squarely on his shoulders. Perry may have been acting alone. Maybe he didn't. Bottom line is we don't know.

Finally, Aiken says Holtz brought "unprecedented negative coverage" to USC. Oh, really? I didn't realize Holtz was solely to blame for that. I guess adult men, even one that are 18 and 19 years old, shouldn't be held personally accountable for their criminal actions. Aiken falls into the "it's not my fault" trap that plagues our society today.

Gee, there's been so much negative coverage of USC lately that the first three games of the 2005 season will be nationally televised. Beat Georgia and Alabama on national TV and all that negative publicity will be flushed away.

What about all of the positive media coverage Holtz brought to the Gamecocks? The first two games of the Holtz era in 1999 were nationally televised by ESPN. How many 1-10 teams can say that? Frankly, based on its history, USC has had more than it fair share of national TV appearances the last six seasons.

Aiken describes the two Outback Bowl bowl victories as "mid-level bowl wins." When did a New Years Day bowl game suddenly become a mid-level bowl? The Music City Bowl is a mid-level bowl, not the Outback Bowl.

Sure, Holtz had his flaws (such as his inability to recruit a SEC caliber quarterback) and I can understand why some fans and media scribes became disillusioned with Holtz. In the end, his ultra-conservative philosophy, especially on offense, simply didn't translate to sustained success in the powerful and unforgiving SEC. But he had his moments of glory.

As Holtz said in a TV interview after he was asked to respond to the NCAA violations, he took the USC program from the bottom of the SEC and made it respectable.

Hey Ron Aiken, give Holtz credit for that. If you can.

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