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A Case of the Bends : Lou Holtz Loved Notre Dame’s Stage, but Roller Coaster Season May Have Been Too Much for Him

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He would light up a bowl game, telling anyone who would listen about taking a job at William & Mary and finding most of his players were Marys; doing what everyone called magic tricks, which were really sleight of hand, tearing up a newspaper page, then revealing the sheet, whole again.

He was a football coach on the make, working his way up through the system: assistant at Iowa, William & Mary, Connecticut, South Carolina, Ohio State; the boss at William & Mary, N.C. State, the New York Jets briefly, Arkansas and Minnesota until finally he had it made.

Lou Holtz finally had reached the top as Notre Dame’s football coach, only to find that the mountain was really a volcano. He then climbed from the crater and will coach his last game Saturday at the Coliseum, or, more likely, in a bowl game somewhere, but it will be his last at Notre Dame, a school that employed him on its terms, and which he is leaving on his own.

Or is he?

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“I’m basically an insecure person,” says Holtz, 59. “Psychiatrists could have a field day with me. Lots of them would like to have me on their couches.”

The insecurity is covered by one-liners and stories, and it’s a product of being too small to play the game he has coached since 1960, of being a less-than-indifferent student, of seeing success taken away when his father went bankrupt and of working in an environment in which each week there is a test with only two grades: pass and fail--and failure is unthinkable.

Of working for football greats and wanting to be great, and then of finding that greatness brings its own baggage: largely a target and you are the bull’s-eye.

He is a builder, which many believe is the most difficult thing you can do in life. Not so.

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“There’s an old adage,” says Ara Parseghian, part of the Notre Dame legacy that now includes Holtz, “that it’s a hell of a lot tougher to stay at the top than to get there.”

Holtz came to a program that was in miserable straits after Gerry Faust, a genuinely nice man, discovered it was tough to be one as the coach in South Bend, Ind. On Saturday, the Irish had lost to Miami, 58-7, and had plane trouble getting into snowy South Bend. The players got home at 9 a.m. and were weary, downtrodden and sullen.

A few hours later, Holtz met with them for the first time.

Center Chuck Lanza was sitting down front, with his feet on the stage.

“ ‘If you want to be part of this program, son, you get your feet off the stage,’ ” Holtz told him.

It was 1985. It was Holtz’s stage, and it has been that way for 11 seasons, through 100 victories, second only to Knute Rockne at Notre Dame.

And 29 losses, second to none.

“Perfection at Notre Dame will not only be demanded, it will be expected,” wrote Holtz to his 1988 team, which won his only national championship. “I don’t expect to lose another football game as long as I’m at Notre Dame. . . . You cannot give me one reason in the world why we should ever lose a game at Notre Dame--not a one.”

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But “I haven’t felt pressure here,” he said in a news conference to announce he was resigning. “I don’t get ulcers. I give them.”

Holtz has tried to have it both ways. He jokes, but often it is kidding on the square.

“He talks about how when he came he was told that he was expected to win,” says Joe Doyle, a Holtz friend and confidant since his days on Woody Hayes’ staff at Ohio State. “And when he won, he was told, ‘No, we meant win them all. And when they did in 1988, he was told, ‘No, we meant win them big.’ ”

Holtz says he learned about pressure at Arkansas, where winning was expected, but at Notre Dame he has learned about a whole new scope of pressure, perhaps self-imposed. He wasn’t answering to farmers in Arkansas, but to farmers there, and auto workers in Michigan and aerospace engineers in California and policemen in New York, to alumni and would-be alumni, to the so-called subway alumni.

Everybody wanted him to be Rockne and Leahy and Parseghian.

“There’s no question that it wears on you,” said Parseghian, who retired from coaching in 1974 when it wore him down. “I’ve noticed Lou has gotten a little more testy, more so than in the earlier years.”

Increasingly, at least for public consumption, the Holtz humor grew out of weekly puffery of the Irish’s opponents, laughs that weren’t meant to be accompanying sideways glances when he extolled the virtues of Rutgers or Rice or “the University of the Naval Academy.”

It was as though the coach at Notre Dame had to ration his wit for fear of seeming not serious enough to beat Air Force or Purdue.

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Privately, the humor remained funny, sometimes off-beat, often wry.

Holtz has walked the pathway to the end of the Notre Dame line for about five years now. “When he started at Notre Dame, he said, ‘I don’t know if I can coach more than about five or six years,’ ” Doyle said. “He said, ‘I don’t know if people will be able to stand me longer than that.’ ”

They have stood him for 11, but for the last five sometimes with difficulty.

In 1992, when the Irish tied Michigan, 17-17, after having the ball on their own 11-yard line with 65 seconds to play, then running twice and throwing two incomplete passes, Holtz and NBC analyst John Dockery had an exchange on camera that incensed many.

Holtz’s explanation that Notre Dame ran to see what Michigan would do on defense didn’t wash with Dockery and most of America.

A news conference the next week was picked up by CNN, so curious and angry were Irish followers.

CNN never picked up Holtz’s news conferences at Arkansas and Minnesota.

A Notre Dame linebacker, Demetrius DuBose, sat out two games in 1992 after receiving loans and gifts from another Irish alumnus. It was the only time the NCAA has had a quarrel with Notre Dame’s football program.

Later that season, Holtz put a headlock on referee Thomas Thamert, showing it was what Brigham Young players were doing to the Irish.

BYU wasn’t penalized for holding, but Holtz got 15 yards.

And a book, “Under the Tarnished Dome,” was written, alleging problems at Notre Dame and placing them at Holtz’s doorstep.

Things calmed, but, said Doyle, “He talked with me about quitting two years ago. He said, ‘That might be just the right thing: leaving the new coach with a new stadium.’ ”

Bob Davie will coach the Irish in expanded Notre Dame Stadium against Georgia Tech on Sept. 6, 1997.

In the end, friends and associates saw the insecurities come out. A new athletic director, Mike Wadsworth, replaced Holtz’s friend, Dick Rosenthal, in 1995 and instituted a plan of reviewing employees.

Wadsworth, Holtz and Father Bill Beauchamp talked in December and again in February.

The February meeting “came when Lou asked for it,” said Wadsworth, who played for Parseghian. “He said, ‘I don’t know how I stand with the administration here.’ ”

From that meeting came a written job description and a frank assessment of declining Irish fortunes in the classroom and off the field.

“We had worked it all out,” Wadsworth said. “We had had a couple of bad recruiting classes, frankly, and with some players going on early to the NFL and a couple having academic or discipline problems, the graduation rate was dropping to the mid-70s[%], which isn’t acceptable here.

“It’s no mystery. Lou had hired a new recruiting coordinator, Bob Chmiel, and everything was going well. There were no problems, and we told Lou that he ‘could coach for life here.’ ”

From that came a story of a “lifetime contract” for Holtz.

More recently, the meeting has drawn at least part of the blame for his leaving South Bend.

“I think that’s because Lou has been less than forthcoming about his reasons for resigning,” Wadsworth says. “I don’t see how anything but something positive can come from that meeting.”

At no time, Wadsworth says, did Holtz’s resignation come up. “He could have mentioned it flippantly,” Wadsworth adds, “but I don’t remember it, and in my position I would remember something like that.”

The end actually came when Holtz quit after Notre Dame had been upset by Air Force, 20-17, in overtime, but, fearing it was an emotional reaction to the second Irish loss of the season, Wadsworth said he and Beauchamp had asked Holtz to think about it a bit longer.

After Notre Dame beat Navy in Dublin, Ireland, two weeks later, Holtz quit again, delaying the announcement until the week of the Rutgers game, when his family could be in town for the christening of his grandchild in Notre Dame’s log cabin chapel.

“Notre Dame had won by a field goal in Texas, then lost to Ohio State, then gained about 600 yards in beating Washington and then lost to Air Force,” Parseghian says. “The roller-coaster effect takes a lot out of you. I’m sure it took a lot out of Lou.”

Maybe enough for him to resign at Notre Dame.

Holtz says he wants to coach again, but “there is nothing out there waiting for me, no job. Either I have to get a job or my wife does. A patient of Dr. Kevorkian has a better future than I do.”

Speculation is rife. The NFL?

“There’s something about [the NFL] that bothers me, there’s some question in my mind,” he says, the bother having come in an aborted 1976 season with the Jets, when they were 3-10 and he was hired by Arkansas. “Do I want to do it? Yes. Do I want to do it bad enough that I would leave Notre Dame for it? No.”

Or television?

“I have the face for radio and a lisp for silence,” he says.

Or something else?

“I think when he sits down and thinks about it, he might not go back into coaching,” Doyle says. “He would be good heading up some organization, maybe a charity.”

Whatever Holtz decides to do, he sounds as though it will be easier than coaching at Notre Dame has been. The wit is back.

“I really didn’t want to go in on Monday,” he says. “It was OK after I got around the other coaches and started to work, but it was like a kid not wanting to go to school. And his mother says, ‘You have to go to school for two reasons: No. 1, you’re 41; and No. 2, you’re the principal.’ ”

After Saturday, or after a bowl game, Holtz won’t be the principal anymore: “I don’t think you ever go from Notre Dame to another coaching job and look at it as a step up.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

He Has USC’s Number

How Notre Dame has fared against USC with Lou Holtz as coach. Team ranking at time of game is in parentheses:

*--*

1986 (NR) Notre Dame beat (17) USC, 38-37 5-6-0 1987 (10) Notre Dame beat (NR) USC, 26-15 8-4-0 1988 (1) Notre Dame beat (2) USC, 27-10 12-0-0 1989 (1) Notre Dame beat (9) USC, 28-24 12-1-0 1990 (7) Notre Dame beat (18) USC, 10-6 9-3-0 1991 (5) Notre Dame beat (NR) USC, 24-20 10-3-0 1992 (5) Notre Dame beat (19) USC, 31-23 10-1-1 1993 (2) Notre Dame beat (NR) USC, 31-13 11-1-1 1994 (NR) Notre Dame, (17) USC tie, 17-17 6-5-1 1995 (17) Notre Dame beat (5) USC, 38-10 9-3-0 Total 9-0-1 Record vs. USC, Avg. Score: 27-18

*--*

SATURDAY’S GAME

NOTRE DAME at USC

Coliseum, 5 p.m.

Channel 7, KLSX-FM (97.1)


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