Monday, November 22, 2004
History will remember Holtz fondly
By Ivan Maisel ESPN.com
The public Lou Holtz, football's funnyman, tosses off one-liners and charms everyone within earshot. You heard it last week when, musing about his future, he said, "Secretary of State is open."
Holtz, who announced his retirement Monday as head coach at South Carolina, will be remembered as much for his sense of humor as for the 249 games and one national championship that he won over 33 years as a head coach at William & Mary, North Carolina State, Arkansas, Minnesota, Notre Dame and, since 1999, South Carolina.
It's his fault, of course. Were he not a master of self-deprecation, perhaps he would be recognized as the man who saved Notre Dame football. His ability to turn around the Irish in the mid-1980s produced their only national championship in the last 27 years.
The university parlayed that 1988 title, and the perennial success of Holtz's teams, into a national television contract with NBC that serves as the foundation of the Irish athletics to this day.
Holtz milked his ability to communicate and make people laugh into a lucrative sideline. For years he has commanded a five-figure fee for motivational and after-dinner speeches to corporate clients. But that isn't the real Holtz, anymore than the real Jerry Seinfeld is the character in the sitcom.
The real Holtz doesn't show himself to the public very often. You had to pay attention to see him. His players and coaches knew the demanding grinder who pushed everyone around him as hard as he pushed himself. They understood the shy loner devoted to his wife Beth and his family.
The football office at Notre Dame is on the first floor of the Joyce Athletic and Convocation Center. On the second floor is a wide foyer with glass cases filled with memorabilia devoted to the game's most storied program.
One night a decade or so ago, before a fund-raising event in an adjacent ballroom, the university held a reception and cocktail hour in the foyer. Hundreds of fans, mostly men, milled about, united in their devotion to Notre Dame and to its football coach. Oh, they might complain about Holtz and his conservative coaching, but he had put the Fighting Irish back at what the guests knew to be the school's rightful place atop the polls.
Holtz arrived a few minutes before the reception ended and the doors to the ballroom would be opened. He barely entered the foyer. He stood apprehensively in the back, pinned against a glass case, looking as if the last thing he wanted was to have someone notice he was there.
Of course, once he went into the ballroom, the public Holtz enraptured the audience. He became a national figure, and late in his life had bestowed upon him the ultimate connotation of American powerbrokerage -- a membership at Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters.
That a skinny kid with a lisp from small-town Ohio could rise to the height of societal acceptance is the quintessential American success story. So, too, is the rise of a graduate assistant coach under Woody Hayes at Ohio State to the most honored position in college football.
Holtz arrived at Notre Dame for the 1986 season with a reputation as a coach who could turn around a program fast but who wore out his welcome fast, too. After the misguided experiment with high school coach Gerry Faust, Notre Dame needed a coach who could bring more to the program than his love for the university.
Holtz preached organization and toughness, two ideal characteristics at Notre Dame. His Irish did nothing fancy. They pounded teams, but they also had the athleticism to fly by them as well. In his second season, the Irish went 8-4 and returned to a New Year's Day bowl for the first time in seven years. In his third, they won the national championship.
That's not the team I most associate with Holtz. When I think of Holtz at Notre Dame, I think of the 1993 Irish. In 1966 and 1977, the Irish won national championships that other teams (Michigan State and Alabama in '66; the Tide again in '77) thought belonged to them. The Irish got a taste of that in 1993.
In early November, in a game that felt like a bowl, No. 2 Notre Dame upset No. 1 Florida State, 31-24. Writers descended on South Bend as early as Monday of game week. On Thursday night, acting out of hospitality and perhaps pity, Holtz invited the out-of-town writers to his home for dinner. A caterer served barbecue. Lou and Beth Holtz couldn't have been more gracious hosts, and the astute among the writers (present company excepted) might have figured out that only a coach utterly confident in his team's preparation to beat a Seminole team considered unbeatable would interrupt his routine.
The Irish ascended to No. 1, and stayed there only a week, losing to Boston College, 41-38. In the Alice In Wonderland world of the polls, Notre Dame fell below Florida State in the polls and remained there for the rest of the season.
Holtz never comprehended the voters' reasoning -- Florida State lost on the road to a highly ranked team; Notre Dame lost at home, a week later, to a lesser team. In February of the following year, he spoke in Dallas, where I worked at the time, at a Notre Dame alumni function.
In those pre-BCS days, coaches weren't as liable to engage writers in debates but Holtz engaged this writer. He couldn't understand why I failed to see what he believed in his bones to be the illogical nature of my vote. Notre Dame had beaten Florida State, so the Irish deserved to be national champion.
Holtz never came that close to winning the national championship again. He retired from Notre Dame in 1996, worn out from 11 seasons of stress and determined to nurse Beth back to health from a bout with cancer. He won that game, as he won so many on the field, with faith and hard work.
He spent a season in the studio on fall Saturdays at CBS, and returned to coaching in South Carolina. The Gamecocks stunk. Holtz went 0-11 in his first season there. In his second season, they went 8-4.
Holtz never won so much as an SEC East championship. Trapped in a division with Georgia, Tennessee and Florida, all Holtz could do was restore South Carolina as a team capable of beating any team. The Gamecocks went 6-5 this season, tailing off badly in the last two games, which coincided with word of his retirement becoming public.
History will erase the black mark of a brawl that took place late in the Gamecocks' 29-7 loss to state rival Clemson on Saturday. Holtz could scarcely contain the outrage and embarrassment he felt at seeing players he coached behave that way.
But anyone who has watched Holtz through the years should remember the way that the 67-year-old raced onto the field and flung himself in front of players twice his size, ordering them away from the fray. If any part of Saturday's ugliness elbows its way into Holtz's legacy, it should be that.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your question/comments to Ivan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Your e-mail could be answered in a future Maisel E-mails.