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Messy Situations Before, After Event Tarnished Holtz-spurrier Transition

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

By Dave Glenn and Staff
ACCSports.com

December 13, 2004 COLUMBIA — From a distance, South Carolina's Lou Holtz-to-Steve Spurrier handoff looked like a smooth exchange, a seamless transition from one college football coaching legend to another. But behind the scenes, there were a lot of interesting subplots and twists, some involving family issues, and others surrounding a public relations mess the school was dealt following the Gamecocks' involvement in the ugly brawl at Clemson.

The 67-year-old Holtz was denied the proper send-off he sought when South Carolina officials did the right thing and opted out of a bowl game. And if Holtz's legacy was not tarnished by his final three seasons in Columbia, in which his teams underachieved, it most certainly was tainted by the disgraceful way his players behaved at Clemson in what would be Holtz's final game on the sidelines.

However, the beginning of the end could be traced back several years for Holtz, who made a fateful decision following the 2001 season that was the biggest contributor to his bruised legacy.

Holtz's turnaround with Brad Scott's leftovers has been well-documented. Following an 0-11 campaign in 1999 during his first season at South Carolina, Holtz orchestrated the most successful two-year stretch in the checkered history of the school's football program.

The Gamecocks won a total of 17 games in 2000 and '01 and finished in the top 20 both years, after beating Ohio State in back-to-back Outback Bowl appearances. Everything was set up perfectly for Holtz to step down and turn the program over to his son, Skip, who had left a head coaching job at Connecticut to join his dad's staff as offensive coordinator and assistant head coach.

Skip Holtz signed an incredibly lucrative deal for an assistant at South Carolina, getting a five-year rollover contract with a unique buyout clause. The school agreed to pay the younger Holtz $480,000 if it fired him, but he could leave for another job without paying the school a cent. The understanding — according to everyone from board members to assistant coaches — was that the school would never have to pay the money because Skip Holtz would succeed his father and get a new contract at that time.

The only problem was that South Carolina athletic director Mike McGee was not ready for Lou to leave following the 2001 season — a fact Holtz alluded to at his retirement press conference on Nov. 22. Holtz said he considered leaving in 2001 but "some people asked me to stay and I felt that was the right thing."

In the meantime, Skip Holtz was getting head coaching job offers, including one from SMU just before the second Outback Bowl. But McGee and South Carolina's administration assured him that he was still in line to take over for his father, so Skip Holtz stayed.

But something happened on the way to a Holtz-to-Holtz baton pass: The Gamecocks quit winning. Oh sure, they still beat Vanderbilt, Kentucky and the non-conference patsies. But South Carolina was brutal down the stretch when the schedule got tougher, going 3-15. Holtz took more of a CEO approach, removing himself a bit during back-to-back 5-7 seasons. After the 2003 campaign, Holtz fired four of his assistants and stripped his son of his offensive coordinator title — a move Skip Holtz heard about second-hand.

The demotion killed any shot the younger Holtz had at succeeding his father and helped drive a wedge in the family. The two men rarely spent any time together outside of work, and an emotional Holtz said at his retirement press conference he regretted not spending more time with Skip's children.

Besides the staff changes after the 2003 season, Holtz tried to re-connect with his team, all but doing away with his policy on short hair and making an effort to drop by the locker room more often to chat with players. He also "taught" a once-a-week "course" in the spring on character-building and leadership.

None of it seemed to make much difference on the field in 2004, when the Gamecocks followed an all-too-familiar pattern — beat the weak sisters and lose to Georgia, Tennessee, Florida and Clemson. Only a break in the schedule helped the Gamecocks get bowl-eligible. Instead of facing LSU, South Carolina drew an Alabama team before the Crimson Tide figured out that backup quarterback Marc Guillon was not an SEC quarterback.

The game that sapped Holtz's spirits was a
43-29 loss to Tennessee on Oct. 30. The Gamecocks had two weeks to prepare for Tennessee, and privately Holtz was telling friends he was confident this would be the year he knocked off Phillip Fulmer. But the Gamecocks failed to take advantage of numerous first-half scoring chances, and a dejected Holtz never looked as tired as he did in the days following the loss. It was the week after the Tennessee game that Holtz told McGee he wanted to retire or McGee suggested it to Holtz, depending on whom you believe.

When South Carolina beat Arkansas the following week to become bowl-eligible for the first time in three years, there was a sense of relief around the program. Holtz and USC officials could at least spin it that Holtz was exiting on an upswing and leaving the program in good shape.

Then things got weird. Days after the Arkansas win, news broke out of Columbia that South Carolina had been in contact with Spurrier about replacing Holtz. Far from distancing himself from such talk, Holtz talked openly at several media briefings about his respect for his friend and golfing partner.

In fact, there were times when Holtz seemed to be courting Spurrier and at the same time re-affirming the work Holtz had done for the school. Holtz said he could understand why South Carolina would want Spurrier, but also how Spurrier would want South Carolina, based on how full Holtz was leaving the cupboards.

With Spurrier's name all over the airwaves and internet boards, fans who had grown tired of Holtz's conservative ways were giddy about the prospects of landing Spurrier and his Fun 'n' Gun offense. And while influential boosters such as Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson were involved in wooing Spurrier, others in position of power at the school wanted to make sure that Holtz did not feel like he was getting pushed out.

Despite the best efforts of school officials to keep it under wraps, the Nashville Tennesseean, citing an unnamed source, broke the story two days before the Gamecocks' game at Clemson that Spurrier had agreed to replace Holtz. There was speculation that the leak might have come from someone who wanted the story out, in the event that Holtz got cold feet.

Not surprisingly, the Gamecocks did not handle the distractions well, losing to Florida and Clemson by a combined 56 points. Worse, Holtz totally lost control of his team after telling players on the Thursday before the Clemson game that he was retiring.

It was as though the Gamecocks took a devil-may-care attitude into Clemson, gathering in the end zone and taunting the Tigers before they made their traditional run down the hill at Death Valley. That led to a small pre-game scrum and set an aggressive tone for a day that would end with a full-scale melee that cost both schools a bowl bid and drew one-game suspensions for a dozen players.

The lasting image many fans will have of Holtz is of him getting bounced around between players twice his size as he admirably tried to restrain them. Holtz, who won 249 career games and captured a national championship at Notre Dame, understood immediately the damage the brawl had done.

"Isn't it a heck of a note," Holtz said at his retirement press conference, "Lou Holtz is going to be remembered along with Woody Hayes as having a fight at the Clemson game. What a way to end a career."

But Holtz would be darned if he didn't get the last say at South Carolina. Ignoring officials' wishes to avoid talk about the bowl forfeiture (which still was being mulled at the time), Holtz used his final words at the podium to urge the school to let the players go to a bowl with Spurrier at the helm.

However, McGee and school president Andrew Sorensen decided to forego the bowl, which in some respects eased the transition for Spurrier. Rather than going through a juggling act while figuring out which coaches would stay on through the bowl, Spurrier was able to get to work immediately on recruiting and building his staff.

Anyone aware of McGee's hiring history could have predicted that he would go after Spurrier, who spent a year golfing, attending his son's high school games, and waiting to see what jobs would open after leaving the Redskins. After all, McGee was the same man who lured Holtz out of retirement and made Tubby Smith of Kentucky turn him down before hiring Dave Odom.

Sure enough, McGee had only one coach on his radar, and he told Spurrier that the first time they talked. McGee's interest was flattering to Spurrier, who felt jilted by his alma mater when Florida president Bernie Machen and AD Jeremy Foley told Spurrier he would have to wait until after the season and go through a formal interview process for his old job.

Spurrier had won six SEC crowns and a national championship during his 12 mostly fun years at Florida. But with Spurrier turning 60 in April, it became increasingly clear that Machen and Foley wanted the much younger Urban Meyer of Utah to lead the program in the post-Ron Zook era.

So thrilled was Spurrier at South Carolina's interest and the opportunity to get back into the SEC East that he turned down McGee's first offer because he thought it was too much money. Instead, Spurrier settled for a guaranteed base of $1.25 million, agreed to heavy incentives and told McGee to put the difference in the pool for hiring assistants.

"A lot of coaches make a lot more than me. But I made up for it the last couple of years," said Spurrier, who will be in the middle of the pack as far as SEC coaches' salaries, after making $5 million a year with the Redskins.

The Spurrier announcement, one day after Holtz stepped down, helped clear the stench of the Clemson brawl and subsequent bowl loss. But there was more turmoil on the horizon for McGee and his department.

First, the Black Coaches Association took McGee to task for not interviewing any minority candidates before he hired Spurrier. Floyd Keith, in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, called for recruits and assistant coaches to shun the Gamecocks because of the school's failure to follow the BCA's guidelines for including minorities in coaching searches.

Next, the Columbia (S.C.) State in South Carolina reported in early December that the night McGee told the team it would not accept a bowl invitation — just hours after Holtz retired — some still-unnamed players reacted to the news by stealing $18,000 worth of video equipment and framed action photographs from Williams-Brice Stadium.

Worse, the athletic department was caught trying to cover up the incident. Players allegedly were told that as long as the missing property — three laptops, two projectors and a dozen photographs — made its way back to the stadium, officials would look the other way and no charges would be filed.

Ten days after the incident, an athletic department official told campus police that all the property had been recovered and no larceny had taken place. Except that was not true; a week later, McGee acknowledged that one laptop and an undetermined number of photographs still were missing.

As of Dec. 10, Sorensen had begun a review of the incident, campus police were investigating, local prosecutors were vowing to press charges if merited and Spurrier was promising to dismiss involved players.

Holtz's retirement and the Spurrier hire should have been a celebration for a football program that has had little to cheer about in its 112-year history. It was anything but.

 

ECU: Holtz Started As Underdog

GREENVILLE — East Carolina athletic director Terry Holland wanted to try something different. So when he brought former South Carolina assistant Skip Holtz on campus to interview for the Pirates' head football coaching vacancy, he put the candidate in a real-life, on-the-job scenario.

But this was not just some dress rehearsal fit for reality TV. Holland truly wanted to see how the son of legendary coach Lou Holtz would respond in the setting for which he was being considered. Once Holland saw how the younger Holtz handled himself with players and key figures within the university, he was sold.

"We told him as he approached Greenville in his car that he was going to not meet with a search committee, he was going to meet with some of our rising seniors," Holland said. "And then he was going to meet with the quarterbacks, and we were going to observe him in essentially a locker room type of situation, which I thought was a unique opportunity for all of us, and he responded extremely well to that.

"I think once he arrived on campus, and seeing his interaction with players, as well as other people on campus — faculty members and Chancellor (Steven) Ballard — it became obvious to me that this was a fit. But again, there were things that we needed to do in terms of looking at the other candidates to make sure that we were willing to pass up the opportunity to even have anyone else on campus."

Holtz was the only candidate to visit the East Carolina campus in a search process that took a completely different approach than the one that produced recently fired John Thompson in December 2002.

Thompson's hiring was the result of a hunt headed by then-chancellor Bill Muse. There was a search committee that included former AD Mike Hamrick, senior associate AD Nick Floyd, several Board of Trustees members, and George Koonce, a former Pirates player. In the end, Muse selected Thompson despite Hamrick's strong recommendation to hire N.C. State associate head coach Doc Holliday. Another segment of the committee backed Kirk Doll, a former ECU player who at the time was on staff at LSU.

But this time, there would be no committee and no division on the hire. This was Holland's call, with Ballard remaining primarily in the background.

"I asked (Holland) to run the show," Ballard said. "He was communicating with me almost on a daily basis, sometimes every two days, but I let him have his approach to this and I'm awfully glad I did. I have total confidence in Terry Holland, and I wanted to make sure that he was keeping me informed, which he certainly did. But this hire is about Terry and Nick (Floyd) and the hard work they put into it."

Holland's strategy was to develop a pool of candidates from several professional categories: current Division I-A head coaches with successful track records; coordinators from successful Division I-A programs; and proven head coaches at other divisional levels. Additionally, the AD was open to exploring the professional ranks, but he knew that route would prolong the process considerably.

His first choice was a current Division I-A head coach, though he knew that luring one would be a major coup.

"As I've studied searches for the last five or six years, I don't see many people who hire successful Division I-A coaches, because I've been in that situation myself — somebody trying to steal my coach," Holland said. "What you're going to do is you're going to protect your coach because it's going to cost you more to replace that coach than it is to keep him. I can only think, in recent memory, of only a couple of schools. Texas hired a sitting head coach. Alabama did it from TCU, and then lost their coach that they hired back to A&M."

To help set the desired criteria the next coach should meet, Holland assembled an inner circle of advisers. That group included Floyd, along with Koonce and former ECU running back Carlester Crumpler. Former ACC commissioner Gene Corrigan also was consulted.

The consensus was that the next coach must have the connections and demonstrated ability to assemble a proven staff. Knowledge of East Carolina's geographical terrain was a desired quality as well. And, all things being equal, coaches with offensive backgrounds apparently had a leg up.

"We think this league is a high-scoring league," Holland said. "But now Nick (Floyd) and I don't know football that well. We didn't limit it to that, but we did say let's look at offensive guys first. I think it seems to be important, particularly in this conference, to be able to score points to win games."

Holland reportedly had as much as $800,000 to spend, providing the market produced a head coach who commanded that type of salary. Much of the early speculation centered on former Georgia coach Jim Donnan, who likely would have demanded big money. Virginia offensive coordinator Ron Prince and Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster didn't fit into that category but were volleyed by the media as potential candidates.

Among those who publicly expressed interest in the ECU vacancy was former Clemson offensive coordinator Mike O'Cain, who served one season in Greenville as an assistant under Art Baker, and Rick Minter, the defensive coordinator at South Carolina and former Cincinnati head coach.

Donnan received a strong push from donors who felt he boasted the name recognition and regional ties the program desperately needed. Holland, however, had reservations based on Donnan's extended absence from the game and never considered him an option.

According to a source close to Holland, the only names that received serious consideration were Holtz, William and Mary coach Jimmye Laycock and outgoing Florida coach Ron Zook. Laycock was interviewed off campus, while all the communication with Zook took place over the phone.

Very little materialized in the discussions with Zook. Holland told a Board of Trustees member that he wasn't convinced Zook could handle the heavy lifting of a program in East Carolina's unique situation. Zook's interest in the ECU job also cooled somewhat when he became a serious candidate at Illinois after it fired Ron Turner.

Perhaps the most interesting storyline throughout the search was the reported courtship of Danny Ford.

The Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier published a report on Dec. 1 that Holland offered the job to the former Clemson and Arkansas coach. That story was confirmed one day later by a former Ford assistant at Clemson.

However, several sources close to Holland's inner circle denied that the AD offered the job to Ford. A school trustee also stated that, even if an offer had been made, a contract with Ford never would have been approved by the Board.

What sources from Holland's camp will admit is that the AD and Ford did discuss the job over the phone. Former East Carolina coach Ed Emory, now a high school coach at Rockingham (N.C.) Richmond, played a pivotal role in linking the two sides together. Former Maryland basketball coach Lefty Driesell, who is close to both Holland and Ford, reportedly served as an intermediary as well.

The final conversation between Holland and Ford occurred on Dec. 1, the night before an agreement in principle was reached with Holtz. Holland made the call to inform Ford that ECU had decided to go in a different direction.

Based on comments Holland made Nov. 30 at a press conference he held to discuss the search, he at least left open the possibility of hiring a coach who met Ford's description.

"Let's face it, this is a tough business," Holland said. "You're not likely to find somebody who is a perfect football coach who never has a blemish on his record. Playing football means you get your nose broken some, and being a good coach means you go through some adversity. Ideally, we would like to have a coach who has been coaching at a very high level, preferably even as a head coach for 20 years who has been 0-4 at the start of a season but knows how to turn that season around."

Holtz also fit that profile.

As the head coach at Connecticut from
1994-98, Holtz struggled in his first year before guiding the Huskies into the Division I-AA Top 25 in each of his last four seasons. As a part of the staff at South Carolina, he suffered through a
0-11 campaign and rebounded with consecutive eight-win seasons. Holtz even endured the demotion from offensive coordinator to quarterbacks coach before his final year in Columbia.

Given East Carolina's situation — three wins combined over the past two seasons — this intrigued Holland. So, after talking to Holtz on the phone, Holland and Floyd decided to meet with him in a Rock Hill, S.C., restaurant on the Friday before ECU's game against N.C. State in Charlotte.

"We went to Charlotte for that game, and it just provided a good opportunity for someone from Columbia to come up and visit," Holland said. "He sounded great on the phone. The more we looked into his background and his record, the more he seemed to fit a lot of different categories for us. After meeting him, we said this is someone we should invite to campus. After that first interview, we became very focused on him."

Before that session in Rock Hill, Holland considered Holtz an underdog for the job. The original intention for the first meeting was to provide Holland and Floyd an opportunity to do a test run through an interview, but Holtz made a big enough impression for the dialogue to continue.

The next move was to meet with Laycock, on the day after the game between the Pirates and the Pack. That meeting took place off campus. Laycock initially was lukewarm about his interest in the job, primarily because of his wife's position as a sports psychologist at William and Mary. Nonetheless, he was attractive to Holland because of his proven record and familiarity with the region.

After the interview with Laycock, Holtz remained the leader, and he later would strengthen his grip with his on-campus visit. Holland did continue to work the phones, exchanging voice mails with fired Notre Dame coach Tyrone Willingham, a North Carolina native who indicated no interest in the job. Recently fired Ole Miss coach David Cutcliffe inquired about the opening, but Holland already was convinced that Holtz was the guy.

Of the candidates considered — 18 were contacted — Holtz most fit what Holland was seeking. He had the head coaching experience and the demonstrated ability to assemble a staff. His penchant for overcoming adversity was proven, and rebuilding projects were not foreign to him. Holtz's commitment to recruiting Eastern North Carolina was a major selling point as well.

"East Carolina has made a living in Eastern North Carolina," Holtz said. "When you go back and look at the great teams that have played at East Carolina, most of it has been comprised of Eastern North Carolina, and this has been a home base for a lot of years.

"I think that's where the recruiting process needs to start is in Eastern North Carolina. We need to start at home. We need to start here, and we need to draw a circle around the state of North Carolina and say this is where it needs to start. We need to find out if there are 25 young men who we can feel can go out there on that field and help us win a championship, that have a desire to be at East Carolina."

While Holland didn't pinpoint one specific quality that separated Holtz from the competition, it's a good bet that his recruiting philosophy weighed heavily in the decision. In-state recruiting eroded under Thompson's stewardship, with only six offers going to North Carolina players so far this year, a trend Holland was adamant about changing.

Holtz made it clear that would change under his leadership. After a six-year absence from leading a program, he will have a chance to prove it with a five-year contract worth at least $390,000 in total compensation annually.

In the end, Holland's quest was not to find the best available coach on the market. He was in pursuit of the right one for East Carolina.

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