It was the green and the wrought-iron fences. It was the brick and light standards. It was the chairs emblazoned with the school logo. It was the paint and that massive new scoreboard at Williams-Brice Stadium.
It was the little things Lou Holtz raved about on Monday afternoon after touring the USC campus and its athletics facilities prior to speaking at the schools commencement exercises.
I spent two days in Alabama, and their facilities arent any better than what you have here, Holtz said. Ive never seen any better facilities from a recruiting (standpoint). I tell you, ESPN should come down and do a story on this. Im sure theyve got some pictures of what we were like in 99.
To see where it is now? Holtz added. You want to talk about a miracle.
The ESPN studio football analyst said Monday marked just the second time he had been to Columbia since he departed as football coach following the 2004 season.
Holtz was 33-37 in his six seasons with the Gamecocks. His tenure included consecutive Outback Bowl victories against Ohio State on the heels of what had been the nations longest losing streak.
Seeing what has become of USC in the years since his departure had Holtz recollecting the scene he walked into 13 years ago when he took the job as Gamecocks coach.
We had the longest losing streak in the country, and there were a lot of articles saying we should not be in the SEC because we cannot be competitive, Holtz said. I remember going to play Kentucky, and they said they should throw us out of the conference.
The improvement on the field is as great as the improvement off the field, he said. Its great to see South Carolina on top. Cant say enough, cant give Steve Spurrier enough credit for the tremendous job he has done. There are no fans who deserve it more.
Despite the rainy conditions on Monday, Holtz was thorough in his tour of the school grounds. He visited briefly with Spurrier at the stadium, where he viewed the numerous stadium upgrades since his time as coach. Then with athletics director Ray Tanner, he took in the renovated farmers market grounds, visited the new athletics offices and student-athlete center and did a walk-through of Carolina Stadium.
I look on everything as if I were a recruit coming on campus, Holtz said. Thats your mentality: How does a recruit perceive it?
What you perceive here is everything is first class now. They dont cut corners on anything.
Of all the facilities he visited, none seemed to impress him as much as the new parking area on the former farmers market grounds.
It used to look like a third-world country, Holtz said, laughing. Beautiful.
Holtz said the upgrades, in tandem with the inherent dedication of players and fans in the state, has USC positioned for continued success.
Theres a sense of pride here, he said. Theres a sense of pride in this university that I did not see in 1999 when I came here. Do you ever lose anybody to Clemson? I cant understand why you ever would.
This is also the only school Ive coached at in my entire life where I never had a football player want to leave, Holtz added. They may not like me, but they love South Carolina. I dont know if its Five Points I dont know what it is but they love to go here.
Holtz later received an honorary doctorate degree in education and delivered the commencement address to graduating students at Colonial Life Arena. In his 12-minute address (I dont know what Im going to do in 12 minutes, Holtz said before going on. It takes me 12 minutes to say grace.) he hit on five themes.
• Be excited.
• Make good choices.
• Do what is right.
• Do everything to the best of your ability.
• Always show people how much you genuinely care.
Other Holtz observations:
• On what he wanted to be when he grew up: I wanted to be a garbage collector because they only worked on Tuesdays.
• On his first stint at USC as an assistant coach under Marvin Bass: My wife was eight months pregnant when we moved here, and one month later Im reading the paper and it says Marvin Bass resigned. I said, I wonder if hes related to my coach.
• On his wife, Beth, being his best friend: A friend of mine asked me who my best friend was, and I said it was my wife. He said, No its your dog. Look, do this. Lock your wife and your dog in the trunk of your car and come back in an hour and see which one is happy to see you.
• On the best piece of advice his son Kevin received upon becoming a lawyer: If someone goes to jail, make sure its the client, not you.
• On the Outback Bowl: I think South Carolina will win the game. I dont think the Big Ten is very strong. I think that South Carolina is just an outstanding team in all areas. I just dont see Michigan matching up.
• On his own Outback Bowls: To beat Ohio State back-to-back, that was quite an accomplishment and I think it sort of let people know, hey, we can be good here at South Carolina.
• On quarterback Connor Shaw: I think hes an outstanding quarterback I wouldnt want to defend. He can run, he can pass, hes smart, hes a coachs son, he makes good decisions and also is very accurate.
• On Ray Tanner: When theres success in one sport it carries over to other sports. Rays success in baseball, but particularly winning two national championships and finishing second, that motivates all the sports to come together.