How we've gotten 1999 all wrong
And what we can learn about the 2021 season from remembering what really happened in Lou Holtz's first, winless season.
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For most South Carolina fans, the 21-game losing streak from 1998 to 1999 eventually became as much a badge of honor as a source of shame. It became a crucible that strengthened our fandom and made us feel more worthy of the success that arrived on the other side. Later, we’d look back at the 78,000 average attendance for the 1999 season and see a fan base that came out week after week, despite knowing there was slim chance of victory.
I mostly don’t have a problem with romanticizing the 1999 season in this way. But I do think a few points of crucial context have been lost along the way — points which might be relevant to some of the conversations we’re having in 2021 about Shane Beamer:
1) The 1999 team was really, really bad. Worse than you remember.
2) There was fairly intense criticism of the job Lou Holtz was doing.
There is a prevailing myth among South Carolina fans that ‘99 Gamecocks were winless, sure, but that they always gave their opponent one hell of a fight. That Holtz’s first team was often in the role of the scrappy, hard-luck loser. That the signs of the 2000 and 2001 turnaround were there all along, evident only to the diehards who kept showing up week after heartbreaking week.
None of this was remotely the case.
The 1999 Gamecocks were an absolutely miserable football team that made many observers wonder if fielding a successful team in Columbia would ever be possible. The high attendance had more to do with the celebrity coach walking the sideline than the quality of football on display.
Though the defense made modest improvements (up to top-40 from top-80 in Brad Scott’s final season), the offense was probably the worst unit the Gamecocks have put together since joining the SEC. USC ranked dead last in total offense, averaging just 3.5 yards per play. They were shut out of the end zone in five different games. Saying that USC was 114th out of 114 in scoring offense doesn’t quite do it justice: the Cal Bears ranked 104th and yet doubled the offensive output of Holtz’s Gamecocks.
South Carolina lost by at least 10 points every time out except one: an 11-10 defeat at the hands of Vanderbilt on homecoming. On that dismal day, the Gamecocks got to 10 points in the hardest way imaginable: two safeties, two made field goals, and one missed field goal with 64 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
In 1999, Lou Holtz was attempting to bring the power-running style he was famous for at Notre Dame to the SEC. It wasn’t working, even with Derek Watson, Ryan Brewer, and Andrew Pinnock in the backfield.
In his public comments, Holtz sounded like a man defeated.
“This really hurts me,” he said after the Vanderbilt loss, which all but clinched a winless season.1 “I don't get up and say, ‘I hurt.’ That's not my job. But you ask me, yeah. I've never been through anything as painful as this.”
When we look back at this dark hour with the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the successes of the 2000 and 2001 were predetermined. But they weren’t predetermined! Nor was the turnaround simply a matter of Holtz implementing his system. He implemented a system, and the system was bad. The media, with good reason, picked the Gamecocks to finish 2000 at the bottom of the SEC East for the third straight season.
Writing in the Post & Courier, Gene Sapakoff’s criticism of the Holtz-Carolina marriage was withering.
“South Carolina program is a long-term project and Holtz, 62, probably isn't a long-term solution,” he wrote.2 “Strictly speaking wins, losses and on-the-field upside, the Gamecocks probably would be better off with a younger coach with a more dynamic offensive philosophy; Kentucky's Hal Mumme has shown the formula for Southeastern Conference have-nots to gain a competitive foothold.”
What Sapakoff’s critique missed was that Holtz’s offensive style was not set in stone. Lou had already decided in late November that he’d need to move to more of a spread-style offense favored by his son, Skip. But the elder Holtz also judged that such an abrupt course-correction wouldn’t be possible in the middle of his first season. Holtz faced a moment when he needed to make a big change to his offensive approach, and he made it — even if it didn’t always sound like that’s what he was doing.
“The offensive philosophy is not going to change,” Holtz said in Nov. 1999.3 “We're going to be balanced.”
Lessons for 2021?
Sure, it would have been a lot better if Shane Beamer’s offense at South Carolina had come out of the gates looking like Josh Heupel’s offense at Tennessee. But that’s not what has happened. Calling for Ray Tanner to fire Beamer is a thing you could do, I suppose. But my suspicion is that coaching (and athletics director-ing) is as much about making the right decisions as it is about realizing when you’ve made a bad one and reacting proportionately. It seems to me that the sane thing to do is give Shane Beamer at least as much of a chance to fix his broken offense we gave Lou Holtz.
There are moments when I appreciate the theory behind what Marcus Satterfield is trying achieve on offense. But it’s abundantly clear is that his players are deeply confused about what they’re meant to be doing on any given play. Whether that’s down to it being the first year in a new offense or poor coaching, I find it harder to say than others do. We’d definitely know whether the problem is Satterfield or something else by the end of Year 2, but if you’re disinclined to give him that much time, I won’t fault you.
Improvement is required, and if it doesn’t doesn’t arrive, there should be consequences; that’s true for Beamer, and it was true for Holtz. But, for what it’s worth, the 2000 Gamecocks shot up to No. 25 in yards per play offense without so much as firing a coordinator.
Williams, Larry, “Battered Gamecocks still have three heavyweights remaining," Augusta Chronicle, The (GA), October 26, 1999: C04
Sapakoff, Gene, “Posting football grades,” Post and Courier, The (Charleston, SC), November 24, 1999
Caraviello, David, “Bring out the spread, Holtz says USC coach: offense will look different next year,” Herald-Journal (Spartanburg, SC), November 23, 1999