COLUMBIA, S.C. -- It was early on a recent Saturday and the streets were deserted when I shuffled into the Carolina Coliseum for a look-see at the Lou Holtz Ladies Football Clinic. Two short years ago, when the Gamecocks were 0-21 and the laughingstock of college football, they could have held this clinic in a phone booth. So I began searching for the conference room or small lecture hall where, I just assumed, Lou would be speaking to a few dozen female football fanatics.
That's when I heard it.
The floor vibrated. The windows shook. I pressed my palms against my ears but still couldn't quiet the eerie, amplified siren's song. What the hell is that? Godzilla? A Backstreet Boy? Strom Thurmond? I followed the noise into the arena where to my utter shock and amusement 1,500 hyper-caffeinated southern belles were screaming: Goooooooooooooo…
I checked my watch. It was 8:17 a.m.
"We had basketball crowds in the 1980s smaller than this," said a member of the USC athletic department, standing in front of a table selling Lou Holtz jackets, Lou Holtz beanie babies and Lou Holtz butt cushions.
And lined up through the bowels of the arena, weaving all the way out to the parking lot, were some 500 more ladies (a virtual sea of rooster earrings, burgundy handbags, capri pants, Lou's Crew shirts, peroxide and faux designer perfume) waiting to get into the clinic -- none of them very pleased to see me. Almost immediately it felt like I had been caught sneaking into a secret sorority meeting.
"What are you doing here?" someone shouted.
"Yeah, we don't want you sneaking around."
"Get out, ya CREEP!"
I got to my seat not a moment too soon. As the clinic director introduced him -- "one of the game's greatest all-time coaches and unquestionably the premier program builder in the history of the sport ..." -- I spotted Holtz in the shadows, frantically running a black-toothed comb through his hair. Then he stepped to the lectern, which was framed by two Outback Bowl trophies; proof of the most successful two-year span in the program's history and one of the most amazing turnarounds in any sport, on any level.
"I mean this sincerely," Holtz told the ladies after switching on his portable mike, "this is my favorite day of the whole year."
"That first season here sure wasn't easy," he said, walking toward the audience like Oprah. "My mother died, my wife underwent cancer surgery, we lost every game we played that year and I had a kicker who told me, 'Coach, I can't kick when you're watching me.' "
Deafening sighs, then giggles.
A few years back, Holtz continued, he didn't mind so much that the L.A. Times ran a picture of him at Disneyland standing between Goofy and Pluto. But he objected to the cutline: Lou Holtz is the one in the middle.
Then he got to his team, hovering somewhere in the preseason Top 25. He said this year's recruiting class is "as good as any I've ever recruited" and on defense "we're gonna surprise people ... this is the fastest defense I have ever coached."
Someone then asked him how many goal posts the overzealous 'Cock fans were allowed to tear down this year. (Odd, isn't it, how folks down here go through goal posts like Kleenex.) "You can tear them down in Atlanta," he yelled, "after we win the SEC championship!"
Lou, I wanted to yell, you had them at hike.
Later, Holtz would run some drills, break down the game-winning field goal against Ohio State, spit out his philosophies of life and, as is his schtick, generally apologize for doing the impossible -- turning the 'Cocks into contenders.
I'm something of a hopeless cynic/contrarian. And I entered that arena certain that Holtz has carefully crafted his grandfatherly, super self-deprecating image so as to camouflage what can be an insidious, win-at-all-costs-then-get-outta-town side. Trust me, you could make a living as a coaching specialist who rebuilds the programs Holtz has rebuilt.
But this morning offered a rare, refreshing glimpse of Holtz with his guard down. He was confident and aggressive, funny and outspoken. For a few moments the guy let us see him as his players, his staff, or a recruit's parents might see him. And let me tell you something: he's hard to resist. ('Course. the minute he left the arena and I told him, "you're like a rock star down here, Lou," he broke out into his "… oh-gosh-gee-man-illie-shucks-the-coach-gets-too-much-credit-blah-blah-blah-I'm-humbled-by-all-this routine.")
A longtime Holtz confidant and USC assistant coach, Dave Roberts, once tried to talk his way out of a speeding ticket by telling the cop he had Notre Dame's coach in the car. The cop lowered his Ray Bans and agreed to let him go if he was telling the truth.
"Hey," he yelled into the car, "are you Lou Holtz?"
"Well no," deadpanned Holtz, "but lots of people say I look just like him."
Then there was the time ND was trailing Michigan State and Holtz radioed to Roberts that he needed a pass the Irish could complete. On the next play QB Ron Powlus tossed a pick and, sure enough, Roberts heard his headphones click. He prepared to have his ear chewed off like a Little Leaguer.
"Uh, Dave," said Holtz, "I'm sorry ... let me be a little more clear. We need a pass we can complete TO OUR TEAM!"
This kind of stuff is why Holtz, 65, has become so huge so fast down here. For starters, he's tireless. "My wife says he's aging in reverse," says Roberts. "Really, he looks 10 years younger." And like Dubya, he's smart enough to know how dumb he is in certain areas and thus surrounds himself with great people. Most importantly, the guy is the ideal southern gentleman: genteel on the surface and ruthless as hell underneath.
"Oh, he's better than any Backstreet Boy," said longtime USC fan Becky Nates, who was attending the clinic with her mom, Margaret Lee, a silver-haired octogenarian who has been a Gamecock booster for 40 years.
"We used to attend games because we felt we should, but really, we had nothing to look forward to," admitted Margaret. "Lou has changed all that."
"He's changed more than football," added Becky. "He's changed this whole state and how we think about ourselves. So he's much more important to us than any Backstreet Boy. He's much more talented and, well, a lot cuter ... don't you just want to run up and kiss him?"
I'll pass. As would most of the football world.
But the ladies?
The ladies love Lou.
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