Old coaches with new beginnings; Football: UNLV's John Robinson and South; Carolina's Lou Holtz have been successful in the past, but after rough inaugural seasons at new schools, they know they have tough tasks ahead.; COLLEGE FOOTBALL

THE BALTIMORE SUN

John Robinson and Lou Holtz are among college football's biggest names, having spent a majority of their respective careers in the glare that comes with coaching at schools such as Southern Cal and Notre Dame. Eleven years ago this week, their careers and teams collided at the Coliseum in Los Angeles, with the Fighting Irish beating the Trojans and going on to win the national championship.

They are now far removed from that moment and those programs, with Robinson at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and Holtz at South Carolina. In different ways, both veterans have endured difficult inaugural seasons.

Robinson: 'I feel good'

For Robinson, the promise the Runnin' Rebels showed in September and October has faded, with the team having lost three straight by a combined score of 128-29. Going into today's game against Colorado State, UNLV is 3-7.

However, that performance is certainly better than the 0-11 season a year ago under Jeff Horton.

"I didn't know what to expect," Robinson, 64, said recently. "But I feel good about what we've done. The football program was in such a bad state that people doubted that we'd even win a game. We're not trying to become Florida State, but we certainly can become a Top 30, Top 25 team and be one of the top teams in our conference. Those are doable goals, but we have to travel a distance to get there."

When he accepted the job last December, even some of his friends questioned Robinson's sanity. While things had ended badly for him the year before, in his second stint at Southern Cal, they didn't understand why he would consider ruining a legacy that included 104 victories in 12 seasons, five Pac-10 championships, a 4-0 Rose Bowl record and a national championship in 1978.

Robinson, for one, said he didn't give a hoot about his record. All he knew was that he was a little bored not coaching. "I didn't have any trepidations about coming here," he said. "I like the adventure of it all."

The lifestyle isn't bad, either. Though he has been putting in 12- to 15-hour days since early August, Robinson loves the 10-minute commute to work ("In L.A. it used to take me 35 minutes just to get on the freeway") and the five-star restaurants around the fabled Las Vegas Strip. Family and friends are always visiting. "Everybody wants to come to Vegas," he said.

Perhaps he can convince a few blue-chip prospects to do the same. For now, much of the team's future is being built around transfers. Five will be eligible next season, including quarterback Jason Thomas, who had a falling-out with Robinson's successors at USC after Robinson recruited him from South Central Los Angeles.

Jason Vaughan, who started the season at quarterback before recently being benched, believes Robinson will turn the program around.

"He just has an astonishing mind," said Vaughan, a junior college transfer who spent his freshman year at the University of Mississippi. "He teaches you on and off the field. We're laying the groundwork now. We're going to come around."

A month ago, Vaughan and his teammates were 3-3 and held out hope of going to a minor bowl game. While the recent string of one-sided defeats has been demoralizing, Robinson's positive outlook hasn't dimmed, nor his belief that a town that once filled the Thomas & Mack Center for a nationally ranked basketball team can throw its support toward football.

"They were enthralled with it," Robinson said of the fan interest during UNLV's stretch as one of college basketball's best, and most controversial, teams. "The memory of that national championship [1990] is there. The attitude of the people in this town is sensational. You think of Las Vegas in the context of The Strip, but there's a lot more, a whole vibrant community. They think big-time."

Holtz: Loss streak goes on

Holtz has found life painful in Columbia, S.C., both on and off the field.

His Gamecocks, who will take the nation's longest Division I-A losing streak (21 games) into winter workouts, became the first team in Southeastern Conference history to go 0-11 without any forfeits. They ended the season last Saturday with a competitive, yet frustrating 31-21 defeat at home to rival Clemson.

Having used six quarterbacks, including one converted from wide receiver, and 16 different players on the offensive line, seven of whom previously played defense, Holtz's team was last among 114 programs in scoring. The team's best tailback, Boo Williams, sustained a season-ending knee injury in the fourth game.

As competitive as the Gamecocks have been at times on defense, it has not really mattered who was coaching.

"They could have brought Vince Lombardi, Knute Rockne and Bear Bryant in, with one of them being the head coach and the other two being assistants, and I don't know know what they would have done," Holtz said.

At South Carolina, where fans had seen their team go to only one bowl game since 1988, there was much excitement when Holtz accepted the job. In the background were any concerns over the NCAA violations alleged during his stint at Notre Dame, which he left after the 1996 season. Among other things, a booster club member was convicted of embezzling money to make gifts to players.

Holtz had spent time as a TV commentator and knew a return to coaching would be difficult in the SEC. The Gamecocks' daunting schedule included back-to-back games against Tennessee and Florida.

"The only promise is that we're not going to forfeit," he joked over the summer, during the SEC's Media Days get-together in Birmingham, Ala.

Had he foreseen this kind of struggle, both for the team and his family, it seems doubtful the 62-year-old Holtz would have taken the job.

His son Skip, the team's offensive coordinator, was hospitalized for an abdominal infection. Holtz's wife, Beth, has been battling cancer and has spent most of the season convalescing near her doctors in Florida. On Nov. 12, the day before South Carolina lost to Vanderbilt, Holtz's 82-year-old mother died. He attended the funeral in Ohio before making the trip back to Columbia for the second half of a practice.

Many believed he took the South Carolina job to set up Skip, who left the University of Connecticut to join his father. Lou Holtz even acknowledged the concept of Skip as his successor in a quip over the summer about the program's need for a massive rebuilding job.

"By the time we turn it around," he said, "it will be almost time for my son to retire."

But the poor season has led to speculation that Holtz, noted for his magic tricks, will make himself disappear.

"People who say I'm leaving don't know Lou Holtz," he said recently. "Or I don't know myself."

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