Can Holtz work magic again with Gamecocks

Updated: August 5, 2003, 2:06 PM ET

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- South Carolina coach Lou Holtz better have something special up his sleeve this fall. Reviving the Gamecocks now could be a much harder trick than he's ever tried before.

After two glorious, landmark seasons with a record 17 wins and a pair of Outback Bowl victories, Holtz has discovered what just about all who walk the Gamecock sidelines do -- South Carolina success seldom lasts.

Holtz's Gamecocks opened 5-2, then struggled through five-straight losses. Each week toward the end brought a new quick-fix that only made things more disheartening.

Holtz took control of the offense before the Arkansas game, and the team responded with its poorest performance of the year in a 23-0 loss. Holtz shifted 26-year-old starter Corey Jenkins from offense to defense the next week, opening the slot for skittish sophomore Dondrial Pinkins when one victory would mean an unprecedented third straight bowl game

The result? Back-to-back losses at Florida and Clemson. At the end, the 66-year-old Holtz had no answers and headed home to Orlando, Fla., for a rest.

When he returned, he put the losing season behind him and -- just like his oft-performed magic trick of tearing up a newspaper and making it whole -- he went to work on fixing the Gamecocks.

The players have focused on what's ahead and not behind. "We just didn't play the way we should've the last six games," Holtz said.

And history shows it's hard for Gamecock coaches to rebound after a winning run ends. Brad Scott had winning records in two of his first three years (1994 and 1996), then went 6-16 before he was fired in favor of Holtz.

Before Scott, Sparky Woods opened his tenure in 1989 with two winning seasons. But he, too, couldn't sustain things and was dismissed three years later.

The most successful Gamecocks coach? Billy Laval, who never had a losing record in seven seasons at South Carolina from 1928-34.

Holtz, starting his 32nd coaching season, indeed has a plan. He says his players' attitudes in offseason workouts has been as good as he has ever seen. His eyes twinkle when someone brings up that this upcoming season and its lowered expectations is a lot like three years ago when South Carolina came in with a 21-game losing streak and left with the Outback Bowl trophy.

"Yes, very similar," Holtz said.

The players, too, are ready to throw a crack-back block on Gamecock history.

"I think there's definitely the talent there to take a step up," senior tight end Hart Turner said. He says the team has gotten faster, stronger and more determined in his four years. "We've got guys who weight 300 (pounds), but look 250," Turner said.

So what happened last year?

Turner thinks when things went bad last year, the players didn't fight through their problems. He doesn't blame the offensive switches, particularly at quarterback, and vows this year will be different.

"I can tell you we've put it behind us and we're not thinking about it that much," Turner said. "But it's always in the back of our minds. Because if we have another season like we did last year, we're not going to a bowl game."

Much of Holtz's hope rests with Pinkins. The junior from Camilla, Ga., is a solid 6-foot-2, 250-pounder who can slip around the corner on defenses as he did to set up South Carolina's only touchdown against Tennessee, or strike through the air as he did to hit a streaking Troy Williamson for a 70-yard touchdown against Clemson.

"Being that starting guy, you know you have to prepare before the season," Pinkins said. "Being that starting guy is a big job."

This season, offensive coordinator Skip Holtz will call most of the Gamecocks offense. The younger Holtz says Pinkins has come in with more confidence that began to grow the moment he took the field as the starter.

"It's hard feeling like you're ready to play and then not playing," said Skip Holtz, Lou's son.

It's also hard expecting to succeed and then failing, as Lou Holtz's Gamecocks did last year. Maybe it's time to get the old magic act polished up again.

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index