Lou Holtz's tough love turns a South Carolina program plagued by factions and losses into a tight-knit winner.
They were a team in name only.
That stark realization waylaid South Carolina coach Lou Holtz in July, after two former Gamecocks were charged with trafficking 40 pounds of marijuana.
Suddenly, that brutal 0-11 campaign in '99 faded into the background. The legendary coach faced something far more disturbing:
What was wrong with South Carolina? And why didn't he and the coaching staff know?
"The fact that they didn't trust me enough to come and tell me this was going on upset me," Holtz said. "I was wanting to know why."
Why? Because the Gamecocks were more cliques and factions than offense and defense. Players barely knew each other, and suddenly it seemed the coaches barely knew them as well.
Never again, Holtz decided.
Monday's Outback Bowl battle between South Carolina and No. 19 Ohio State is all the proof needed of that.
Holtz has pulled off another motivational coup. He forged a team where none had really existed before, defying low expectations as he took the revitalized Gamecocks to within a game of the Southeastern Conference title.
Holtz did it by falling back on what he knows best: Fundamentals, strict obedience, hard work and stern discipline. His standards were as high as ever, and woe be to any player or coach who failed to meet them. He again waged total war on little mistakes.
And he did it with a few of his famous psychological gambits, and some new tricks, building a team even as he rebuilt each player from the ground up.
As with all Holtz rebuilding projects, it started with the voice.
"God gave me the ability to project," Holtz said. "He didn't give me the ability to dance. He didn't give me the ability to have a demanding appearance.
"I mean, I walk into a room, I'm 5 foot 10, 152 pounds, wear glasses, have a lisp, girls under 17 and over 70 have always loved me, in between those ages there's very little infatuation with me.
"But I do have an ability to project my feelings. I'm consistent in what I do and what I believe. I felt certain we could win at South Carolina."
Strong safety Rashad Faison remembers what it was like on Dec. 4, 1998, when Holtz first met the players. "Sit up," was the coach's first command.
"The first time I heard him, honestly, it really gave me chills," Faison said. "It was the first time I had ever seen him talk, and I was in awe."
After that summer diagnosis, Holtz went to work at the start of camp.
The coaches took everyone's car keys. Freshmen had to get upperclassmen to sign media guides. Everyone had a big or little brother. Once, Holtz had his players lead each other blindfolded to practice, to build the trust that is as valuable to him as fundamentals.
"The more honor and respect among the team, the greater the team," he said, "and that's a fact."
Holtz's most effective trust-building exercise was an emotional team meeting, during which each player recounted his life story.
"Before we were a name, we were a number, we were a face," Holtz said. "I wanted us to be a personality."
One of Holtz's most popular gambits on the practice field is, well, whining.
Popular to him, anyway.
"Oh, Coach, don't work me hard today, don't yell at me, I don't want to be great," said Skip Holtz, USC's offensive coordinator, imitating his father. "I don't want to be one of the best in the country. Don't yell at me!"
In practice, the little things always catch Holtz's attention _ and ire.
"If you don't want to be yelled at," converted tailback Ryan Brewer said, "you'd better do it right."
Skip Holtz, of whom much has been demanded by his father, said the players realized the coach does what he does for them, not to them.
"He is an unbelievably caring, loving guy," he said. "He is unbelievably demanding, he is very stern and very hard and he taught us right from wrong. He disciplined the heck out of me growing up, and now I can say thank you.
"But I didn't like it at the time, and the players may not like it now."
But his father knows when he has pushed too hard. Placing his arm across a sports writers' shoulders, Skip Holtz re-enacts a scene he has seen time and again.
"He'll be all over a player one day, and then in the meeting room he'll have that player stand up and he'll tell them he says what he says because he wants them to be the best player in the nation," Skip Holtz said, "and you can bet that player walks out of that meeting strutting a little, his head up high."
Holtz's tough love has definitely taken hold.
"A tough coach makes a tough team," said cornerback Kevin House, namesake son of the former Tampa Bay Bucs' wideout and a Chamberlain product. "He works us hard with the fundamentals. He coaches us tough so we'll beat tough teams."
Wednesday evening, Holtz took his team to see Phantom of the Opera at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. He noted that several players did not wear ties, as instructed.
Even the generational gap cannot hold Holtz at bay. At Thursday's practice, all offenders ran sprints.
"I've been 18, they've never been 63," Holtz said. "When they get to be 63 I'll listen to them.
"That's the way I am."