Monday, December 2, 2019

30 Minutes with Coach Lou Holtz

Coach Lou Holtz was the head football coach at the University of Notre Dame my entire time as an undergraduate student. During his eleven year tenure, Holtz had a win loss record of 100-30-2 and  took the Irish to bowl games for nine consecutive seasons—which remains a Notre Dame record. In 1988, the Irish had an undefeated season and earned the University's eleventh and most recent national championship title* On Friday, November 30, 2019 I sat next to Lou for 30 minutes as my friend Don--the mayor of insert your American city here— drove him to SFO for his red eye flight back to his home in Orlando, Florida. I have a feeling all of us in the car, would have driven him 3,000 miles if he had let us. His stories, his spirit and his wisdom will stay with each of us...forever.
Coach Holtz with ND Alumni and Classmates Jim and Don
At 82 years old, he was as peppery and vivacious as ever. He flew to San Francisco to serve as the keynote speaker for the Legends Lunch. Out of sheer generosity, his love for Notre Dame and the magic of Don Smail, Lou arrived late Thanksgiving night and left 24 hours later. At the lunch, several former players: Ricky Watters, Reggie Brooks, Junior Bryant and Oscar McBride shared their memories of playing for Coach Holtz. Their love and respect for him was real. And those in attendance will affirm: those sentiments were mutual. Holtz gained more and more energy with each of their stories and recollections. He laughed loud and hard. We all did.

By the time we took him to the airport, his cup was full. I aimed to lay low, knowing that a whole lot of people had demanded his attention. I immediately climbed into the back seat expecting the guest of honor sit in the front. Lou climbed in next to me and said he hates wearing a seat belt and wasn't planning on wearing one. Before any of us could chide him or laugh nervously, he went into coaching and preacher mode. "This is the risk I take. I grew up never wearing a helmet on a bicycle and came out okay. I don't ride motorcycles and so I get away with this by not sitting in the front." As he spoke, I figured that if we were in an accident, I would lean over and potentially lose my life for Coach. What die hard ND fan wouldn't?  Fortunately, no life insurance was needed.
Lou sitting with long time Stanford AD Ted Leland
He asked me to tell him a little bit about myself. I said I graduated in 1996 and lived in Farley Hall. I said I taught in the ACE program and he immediately smiled and said "Ah! The good work of Father Scully and Father Lou.!" I knew those ties were strong. I said I now coach varsity girls golf and teach theology. In fact, one of my classes is called Sports and Spirituality and I love to show the "30 for 30" film, "Student/Athlete" about Reggie Ho. Again he smiled and told me that Reggie has gone on to do great things as a cardiologist. I responded by sharing Ho's story speaks to me personally because he is an electrophysiologist and I have an ICD. If I lived in Philly, I would want Reggie to be my doctor. Lou looked at me incredulously. 

He said, "How's your health now? I haven't had any health problems. I've been blessed. No strokes, no heart issues. I have a terrible diet and I eat a lot of junk food. I can't explain it." 

Given his quick wit and sense of humor, I told him "Coach, I think I have a harder job as a coach than you did. Trying to get athletes who play an individual sport to think as a team isn't easy." Without missing a beat—or laughing for that matter—he went into coaching mode once again. He said "what is so challenging about golf is that you can only focus on the moment. Players have a tendency to think ahead, or when they have messed up—hang on to that. With golf as a team sport, every hole counts. You really need to stay in the moment."
Holtz was wearing a Masters sweater and I knew he was a member of Augusta National. I should have been more excited to ask him about football, but I have only met a few people who are members of Augusta and Holtz was was eager to share. He spoke about the history and tradition of the golf club. and what he does when he hosts other golfers. He told me he reads the greens better than a lot of the caddies. I assured him that is a good thing when he lamented how much speed he has lost on his swing. In our discussion of his green jacket, I asked him if the attendants call him Mr. Holtz or Coach Holtz. He paused and smiled. "They call me Mr. Holtz." Augusta does it right. So does Lou.

Our thoughts returned to how special the day had been. Holtz was laughing at these grown men recalling how intimidated they were by Coach. In response, I referenced an article from Notre Dame Magazine, that asked the question why more women don't coach men's sports. I paraphrased what you can read hear from the article "Calling the Shots"
John Soares has posed the question "Will women ever coach men? to his “Sport in American History” course at Notre Dame for the past five years. Until last autumn he had always received the conventional wisdom: No. 
In a commentary the assistant professor of history delivered this spring on Michiana’s National Public Radio affiliate, Soares outlined common reasons his predominantly male classes of 35 students had given for dismissing the idea: differences in the rules between men’s and women’s games, possible locker room awkwardness and, finally, most women’s lack of what male athletes might consider an imposing physical presence. 
Counterarguments offered by Soares and dissenting students included the fact that male U.S. coaches have won at the Olympics under international rules, that men coach women’s sports and that Lou Holtz, as one example, is less than physically imposing. These had failed to persuade the majority.
I said see Coach, as you have said, "attitude is everything. I think presence is too."

To be in Holtz's presence was a true honor. I had difficulty wrapping my mind around all that he has done, experienced and shared but I was grateful to share but a half hour only to be reminded that the Notre Dame is special is two-fold.  

One: it's the people. People like Don who go out of their way to bring the Notre Dame family together. Who wrote a personal and compelling letter to Coach Holtz, convincing him to show up and make the Legends Lunch live up to its name. And of course people like Lou Holtz who have it in them to respond and say "yes"—by the sheer fact that its Notre Dame. 

Two: it's Our Lady's University. We say this often, but the graces that flow from the wisdom, vision and love of Mary are worth considering ever particular during this Advent season.

As he exited the car, Coach Holtz gave each of us a gift: a gold keychain. He said he likes to give these to special people. He certainly made each of us feel that way....which is exactly what he speaks about: Great people make others feel valued and important. What that we all did no less.

Photo Credits
Lou at Augusta


  1. Love this! And you know I love Coach too! What an amazing gift to share that close time with him. I know you'll treasure that always. Cheers!

  2. Well said Anne, a true Notre Dame moment for us all!