Long and Winding Road: East Liverpool to the ‘Hall’

Lou Holtz Achieved a Lifelong Dream When Named Notre Dame Coach — Then Made The Most of It

“It is a fine thing to have ability, but the ability to discover
ability in others is the true test. ” — Lou Holtz

On the weekend of September 12-14, 2008, former Notre Dame players from across the country who played under Lou Holtz gathered on campus. The members of the 1988 National Championship team celebrated the 20th anniversary of their achievement. And at Notre Dame Stadium, the dramatic sculpture of Coach Holtz giving instruction to a pair of Irish players — another excellent work by ND sculptor extraordinaire Jerry McKenna — was unveiled to an appreciative crowd.

Beneath his dates of service as Notre Dame head coach (1986-1996), his superlative record (100 wins – 30 losses – 2 ties) and a mention of the ’88 national title are just three words — “Trust…Love….Commitment.”

Lou Holtz ND
Lou Holtz ranks second only to Knute Rockne in ND coaching victores, with 100 to Rock’s 105.

These describe as well as any what he expected, or rather demanded, from those in his charge. And what he used to mold 11 groups of Notre Dame student-athletes into winning, often dominant teams.

At a campus gathering during the ‘unveiling’ weekend, 1988 co-captain Ned Bolcar, recalled: “Every time we came through that Tunnel, or took the field on the road, we had complete trust in one another. We knew we were well prepared, and that we could rely on one another. We had a great pride in the University, and a great commitment to play our very best, our hardest, every play.”

With Holtz, motivation wasn’t just a fiery locker-room speech, though he was certainly capable of delivering one. It was a daily dedication to doing things right, testing oneself and getting tougher, stronger, smarter and more united with everyone on the team.

Holtz’s early ND teams, of course, included some tremendous stars such as 1987 Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown, Raghib “Rocket” Ismael and Tony Rice, among others. But perhaps it was players like fullback-turned-defensive end Frank Stams and free safety Pat Terrell, who seemingly “came out of nowhere” to play essential roles for the ’88 champs, who best exemplify Holtz’ ability to develop players and put them in the right spot to succeed.

At the same time, Holtz was able to develop and delegate authorty to emerging assistant coaches like the young Barry Alvarez, defensive coordinator of the 1988 squad.

That ability — to judge the attributes of individuals, and sometimes see things that others missed, things deep in their character — made Holtz a near-mythical figure. And, as much as anything, brought him to this weekend’s induction into the College Football Hall of Fame in downtown South Bend.

What a trip it’s been.

Holtz would often talk about singing the Victory March while growing up in East Liverpool, Ohio. One can almost imagine the slight kid with the lispy voice dreaming grand dreams about playing — or maybe coaching — at the pinnacle of Catholic education and college football.

Real life, though, would mean a largely unremarkable playing career at Kent State, followed by a coaching odyssey across the South, East and Midwest. First, a stint as graduate assistant at Iowa, then assistant coaching gigs at William & Mary, Connecticut, South Carolina and Ohio State, the latter including helping the Buckeyes to the 1968 national title.

As a head coach starting in 1969, it was back to William & Mary, followed by stints with North Carolina State, the New York Jets, Arkansas and Minnesota. Golden Gopher fans were upset when Holtz, after leading Minnesota to a turnaround regular season in 1985, utilized the “escape clause” in his contract, taking the Notre Dame job.

To some, it’s the dream job of a lifetime. It was with Holtz. It was with his predecessor Gerry Faust, who brought terrific spirit, energy and faith to the job. But he didn’t have the skills to consistently mold and guide Notre Dame football players to the level that is expected.

Holtz did.

And in the end, the 100 victories at ND, the ’88 championship, the numerous All-Americans, the countless graduates who have succeeded in all walks of life — it adds up to a Hall of Fame career.

All told, including his ‘comeback career’ at South Carolina, Holtz compiled a career college mark of 249-132-7, including 12-8-2 in bowl games. He remains the only coach to lead six different programs to bowl appearances.

Today’s younger college football fans likely know Holtz best as the effervescent “foil” of fellow analyst Mark May — forever predicting great things for the Irish, and occasionally coming off as something of a self-caricature because of it.

They should have seen him at his best — intensely pacing the Notre Dame sidelines, always analyzing, communicating, anticipating, directing. Totally in the game — and demanding that everyone else be as well. Searching, it seemed, for any tiny strategic advantage. Because, as he is wont to say, “no detail is too small to escape close attention.”

That lifetime of commitment — to excellence, and to seeing and bringing out the excellence in others — is deservedly celebrated this weekend.

Congratulations, Coach.

Links to others’ coverage of Holtz’ induction

College Football Hall of Fame: Countdown to Enshrinement Spotlight

South Bend Tribune: Skill for repair work landed Holtz in Hall

BlueandGold.com: Holtz In The Hall

ESPN.com/AP: Holtz headlines ’09 Hall class