Tuesday, March 29, 2005

"Smoke and Mirrors" | by Jay

Lou Holtz got some rough treatment over the weekend by Ron Morris and Joe Person in South Carolina's The State newspaper, which ran a couple of less-than-complimentary postmortems on the Holtz era at Gamecock U. In an article entitled "Blame Game", Person writes:

In the four months since Holtz retired, nine of his former players have been arrested, including five who face felony charges related to theft or burglary. A 10th player, 2004 leading rusher Demetris Summers, was dismissed from the team after a second failed drug test.

Spurrier has not blamed Holtz or his staff for the off-the-field problems, saying Holtz’s players became “my guys” when he took over. But in interviews with more than a dozen USC players and coaches from the Holtz Era, many of them said Holtz is accountable for the environment in which a spate of criminal activity has taken place since he left.

According to Person's article, the problems seemed to be twofold: one, that Holtz recruited some unsavory characters to the program -- lots of Jucos with lots of problems -- and two, that Holtz showed preferential treatment to his star players.

“Toward the end, especially the last two years I was there, it was very obvious because he just kind of let a lot of guys get away with a lot of different things that he never did before,” said former offensive guard Jonathan Alston, a captain on the 2004 team.

“A lot of times it wasn’t big things, it was small things. But small things lead to big things, which are coming out now.”

The police blotter's pretty ugly, as the article documents. Ron Morris follows up Person's imputation with a sanguine look to the future and the dawning of a more disciplined, more respectable Steve Spurrier era:
Lou Holtz talked about changing the culture of South Carolina football as if the problem was some sort of gnat that kept buzzing around his head. Holtz waved at it, swatted at it and generally hoped it would just go away.

Steve Spurrier is taking a different approach. In four months on the job, Spurrier has brandished the fly swatter and insect repellent in an effort to change the atmosphere around USC football. By all accounts, it is working.

...An old friend told me once of the time Holtz performed a magic trick during a dinner gathering in North Carolina. You might have seen the trick. Holtz would rip a newspaper apart then magically piece it back together. On this night, Holtz failed to realize he was performing in front of a mirror and the audience saw him produce a pieced-together newspaper from his back pocket.

That is the way it was with Holtz, a lot of smoke and mirrors.
Now, I was at ND during the Holtz years, and although Lou definitely recruited some high-risk, high-reward guys during his tenure (we've all heard stories), he seemed to be able to keep a firm grip on the wheel of discipline, meting out punishment whenever necessary (and to whomever necessary). As far as we know, he didn't play favorites. During the championship '88 season, he famously sent his leading runningback Tony Brooks and his leading receiver Ricky Watters home from Los Angeles the morning of the USC game for violating team rules the night before. He knowingly gambled with some of his recruits, taking chances on some questionable characters, and although the results sometimes frayed at the edges, Holtz was able to keep the fabric of the program more or less whole.

I'm not sure exactly why the wheels fell off at South Carolina for Lou. He certainly started off his USC career with an iron fist: before his first year in 1999, he dismissed leading runningback Troy Hambrick for a violation of team policy (and followed that up with a couple of other high-profile suspensions). Perhaps the looser strictures on recruiting and the heavy reliance on academically-questionable junior college transfers -- his 2003 class had seven JUCOs and two more guys who needed an extra year of prep school to qualify -- led to a influx of rascals. And it's clear that in trying to keep the team together, Lou relaxed the rules for some guys once they were in the door. Former USC fullback Brandon Schweitzer took a stab at analyzing the mess:

“But I think where he failed — and I hate to talk about Lou Holtz, legend, like this — is he tried to make too many exceptions for too many people. I think he realized there were people in his program that he needed on his team, but at the same time he knew that within his system of values they weren’t going to make it.

“In order to keep them there, he had to adjust what he believed in. He made exceptions for those guys, and I think that was the starting point for the downward spiral.”

The most likely explanation for Lou's slide is probably the simplest: he got tired. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to corral a bunch of college kids, keep them in line, and try and make them into a winning football team (especially in the SEC); at 67, he probably got sick of chasing the chickens around the yard.

Last November, as the college football season was winding down, South Carolina played Clemson, and an ugly brawl between the two teams erupted in the fourth quarter. (It was quite the weekend for fisticuffs; the night before, Ron Artest leapt into the crowd and touched off the insane melee in Detroit). Holtz was seen diving into the pile, grabbing facemasks, and trying to peel guys off of each other. He said it was the most embarrassed he's ever been as a football coach.

Two days later, he announced his retirement as the head coach at South Carolina, no doubt tired of the chicken run.