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Lou Holtz: Country Boy Makes Good

The Baltimore Sun

Lou Holtz can aw-shucks with the best of them. Raised up (that’s how they say it) in a part of Ohio that more closely resembles West Virginia, he learned to talk the way all football coaches seem to talk, which is to say country.

For instance, the only people in the world who say criminy -- also, my golly -- are football coaches and certain elderly, Southern librarians who wear their hair in a bun. You suspect Holtz would talk that way if he had been born in Gotham itself.

Which is why you had to laugh, just a little, when Holtz, having won himself a national championship, talked of always dreaming about coaching at Notre Dame but never, my golly, letting himself quite believe the dream could come true. At the close of the Fiesta Bowl Monday night, Holtz said the job was “for movie stars” and not for the likes of him, an old country boy.

You laughed because you knew that, for years, Holtz had put escape clauses in his contracts, allowing him to leave his position if Notre Dame ever called, or hollered.

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Three years ago, as the Gerry Faust era came crashing to a close, Notre Dame went looking for someone who could return the school to its past glory and settled on Holtz, known equally for his country-boy savvy and for winning football games. It was also suggested that he would retain the proper respect for Notre Dame academic tradition.

And now, it has happened, the first Notre Dame championship since 1977, an epoch by Irish standards, and there is the inevitable self-congratulation for which Notre Dame is also famous.

“This is what is good and right in America,” said Andy Heck, an All-American offensive tackle. “Notre Dame being No. 1.”

Just two years ago, the Irish were coming off consecutive 5-6 seasons and nothing was good or right in America. Now, they’re 12-0 and winners of either their eighth or 11th national title, depending on who is doing the counting. (Notre Dame claims three in the days before wire-service polls.)

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In either case, it was Holtz’s first, and he would admit that he wasn’t quite sure, after 19 years as a head coach, if he knew how to handle it.

“I’m no Barry Switzer,” he had said earlier in the week. “This sucker’s new to me.”

He is no Barry Switzer, and we can be thankful for that. In Notre Dame, we have a national champion worthy of the honor. In these times where the concept of student-athlete is the basic dictionary definition of oxymoron, Notre Dame stands out like a gold helmet. Once again, it has graduated all its football seniors. Since 1981, when the College Football Association began awarding honors for graduation rates, Notre Dame has won five times. Duke and Virginia, not exactly football powerhouses, have won twice apiece.

Would you rather the champion had emerged from the depths of the Citrus Bowl, where Clemson and Oklahoma were playing? Is that what college football is all about?

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Of course, it’s easier at Notre Dame, it being Notre Dame. People want to go there. There is that tradition. There are those ghosts. Just as Holtz dreamed of coaching there, a million kids across America dream of playing there. But no one ever dreamed the Irish could be as hopelessly mediocre as they were in the five years of Gerry Faust, who was a very nice man but a very bad wizard.

Holtz, as you might have heard, is an amateur magician, but he is a very professional football coach. Even under Faust, Notre Dame always attracted good players, and now the Irish have someone who can make something of the stew. The bigger problem was in forcing Holtz to admit he had any players at all.

For the entire week before the big game, when hype makes right, Holtz had underplayed his team, not unlike a hustler in a pool hall, suggesting that his team won with a combination of grit and luck and perhaps a modicum of skill.

“Oh, my,” he said. “We’ve really got some problems on our team.”

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Seriously, folks, when Holtz took the job, he foresaw just this scenario -- winning a championship and then being expected to repeat. He said he wanted Notre Dame to reach the point where it could be ranked No. 1 and no one would even notice. That’s the way it used to be.

It looks as though it could be that way again.


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