Archive for Wednesday, November 8, 2000

Spurrier, Holtz go head to head

Masters of mind games trying to get into players’ heads

November 8, 2000


— They're masters of motivation, scientists of psychology, and this week Steve Spurrier and Lou Holtz are wrapped up in a delicate mind game as riveting as anything that will happen on the football field.

On the one hand, Holtz will spend the week telling the No. 21 South Carolina Gamecocks about the impossible task they face going to the Swamp to play Florida with the SEC East title on the line.

On the other, Spurrier will spend his week instilling his own brand of confidence while telling the No. 5 Gators not to listen to Holtz.

If there's any iota of truth to the theory that football games are won and lost in players' minds before they ever step onto the field, this week's game could be the ultimate proving ground.

"I think both coaches, just by the nature of their success wherever they've gone, have shown they have enough experience at motivating players," said sports psychologist Thomas Tutko, a former professor at San Jose State. "They go about it in different ways. But they both know what they're doing."

In Spurrier's case, it means making sure his message, and not Holtz's, is the one getting through to his players this week.

Spurrier has always been confident, so it would seem his message and Holtz's would be about the same. But there's a big difference between feeling good about yourself and listening to someone else talk, and Spurrier has spent much time explaining it this week.

"Coach Holtz can save a lot of conversation about how great we are, because we're not going to listen," Spurrier said. "I'm sure after listening to him, you'd think our offense is like the St. Louis Rams and our defense is like the Iron Curtain of Pittsburgh in the 70s."

Iron Curtain, Steel Curtain either way, the point is well taken.

Even when he was at Notre Dame, Holtz had practically perfected the largely disingenuous role of the sad-sack underdog, simply looking to emerge from the next impossible game with a shred of dignity.

"The underdog attitude can be very empowering," said Dr. Roberta Seldman, a sports psychologist at Florida. "Especially with young people, if they start taking things for granted, if they're not at least a little afraid, you can find they slow down a bit."

In true form, Holtz started planting the seed for this game three weeks ago, when he said the trip to Florida would put the Gamecocks in "an impossible situation."

He kept the theme going Tuesday.

"The biggest problem you have is getting your players to believe that they have a chance against Florida," Holtz said. "You can say what you want, but I've watched film on Florida. And we've played some of those teams that played Florida. And I want to tell you something: They don't play Florida the same way they play us."

Tutko said at some instinctual level, both Spurrier and Holtz try to recruit players who will accept their message.

At Florida, it's most noticeable with the quarterbacks.

Those who have succeeded have come to campus with confidence, and an innate ability to handle the coach's harsh criticism without losing sight of the reason Spurrier recruited them in the first place.

They also tend to see the world of competition the same way their coach does.

"I don't think coach Spurrier is that type of coach," quarterback Rex Grossman said, when asked if Spurrier would ever motivate by poor-mouthing his team. "He tells it like it is, and I respect him for that."

Holtz would never admit to intentionally overestimating another team just to pump up his own. Yet this was one of his favorite ploys at Notre Dame, even when the Irish were on top.

He continues to use it at South Carolina. It carried weight last year when the Gamecocks went 0-11, but could slowly be losing its punch as the program continues to develop.

Still, this week, he has a point. The Gamecocks are 14-point underdogs.

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