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Dec. 26, 2001

COLUMBIA, S.C. – South Carolina center Larrell Johnson used to sit in class as a college freshman and wince as his teachers – his teachers – made jokes about his bumbling football team.

Now, Johnson’s the one chuckling. The Gamecocks are going to consecutive New Year’s Day bowl games for the first time in 108 seasons of football at South Carolina.

“The teachers would make jokes about us,” recalled Johnson, a senior from Tampa, Fla. “They would say, ‘What’s the score going to be this week when we lose.’ I had to bite my tongue a little.”

There aren’t too many jokes these days, especially with the 14th-ranked Gamecocks (8-3) set to travel to Johnson’s hometown of Tampa, Fla., to meet No. 22 Ohio State in the Outback Bowl. A victory would give South Carolina consecutive bowl wins for the first time.

Only twice previously, in 1979-80 and 1987-88, had the Gamecocks earned two straight bowl trips – losing all four games.

In 1998 and 1999, the Gamecocks were 1-21.

“Sometimes, it’s hard to believe we’ve done this,” said tailback-wide receiver Ryan Brewer, last year’s Outback Bowl MVP.

Brewer endured an 0-11 freshman season in 1999 under first-year coach Lou Holtz.

Holtz “changed everybody’s attitude here,” Brewer said. “That’s what I think was missing that first year.”

Holtz has repeatedly credited the hard work of his players and assistants.

“You couldn’t get any worse,” he said. “Here we are two years later, nationally ranked the entire year.”

Holtz has refused to flat-out say he’s disinterested in returning to Notre Dame. While it appears Holtz and the Irish have not had more than a discussion about viable coaches, one columnist for the South Bend (Ind.) Tribune said Sunday that maybe it was time Notre Dame stopped looking for the next Lou Holtz and brought back Holtz.

That kind of talk leaves South Carolina supporters queasy. Holtz has said his intentions are to be with South Carolina and he expects the Gamecocks to be better in 2002. Defensive lineman John Stamper says the hard times earlier in his career have made these seasons extra special. “I’m asked about it a lot and I answer it the same way,” he said. “I wouldn’t trade what we’ve gone through at all. It makes our victories sweeter.”

Johnson, South Carolina’s center, said Holtz has stressed discipline, leadership and the fundamentals of football.

“He took us back to square one,” Johnson said. “I didn’t know there was that much to football. I’ve grown tremendously in all that. Once you get that down, there’s nothing you can’t do.”

By PETE IACOBELLI
AP Sports Writer