It was, make no mistake, a perfect place for Lou Holtz to be last Saturday. That place being Palm Springs, at an exquisite house in the shadow of Mt. San Jacinto, reclining on a lounge, flanked by freshly cut flowers and soothed by a gentle breeze moving through the giant palm trees. Oh yes, did we mention that the television set was tuned to the Miami-Notre Dame game?
Indeed, for it was this game, won by the Hurricanes 58-7 in a score rudely run up by Miami coach Jimmy Johnson, that made Palm Springs a better place to be than Miami. Three days earlier Holtz, the coach at Minnesota for the past two years, had been named to replace Gerry Faust as coach of the Whimpering Irish, who in Faust's five years had an un-Notre Dame-like 30-26-1 record. Now Holtz was in the desert with his family for a long-planned holiday, a merciful 2,200 miles from the Orange Bowl debacle.
Holtz, watching the game in a subdued mood, repeatedly and softly kept saying, "No, no," to each Miami score, but at the end, Notre Dame's football program lay in shambles. Not since Joe Kuharich and Hugh Devore presided over five straight nonwinning seasons, 1959 to 1963, have things been this awful for the Irish. Said Holtz, as he watched the carnage, "What we have to do is find something positive in this football team and build from there. If we're successful, it will be because we will rally the players." That is central because, at least in legend, Notre Dame football players never give up and never disgrace themselves; on Saturday they did both. Faust's last afternoon on the Irish sideline resulted in humiliation for a decent, beleaguered man. It was not pretty.
Even the normally wisecracking Holtz couldn't stand it at times. That's when he would put down his Notre Dame press guide, pick up the remote control and click over to the Auburn-Alabama game for a few plays. So, in spite of the Miami mess, is Holtz happy to be heading for South Bend just as soon as he finishes coaching Minnesota in the Independence Bowl against Clemson on Dec. 21? "Of course," he says. "Just remember, happiness is having a poor memory about what happened yesterday. But I can't live up to all the expectations. I look at those records put up by Rockne, Leahy and Parseghian and I swear to gosh it's a misprint. Nobody can win that many games." With that, Holtz wandered out by the pool (the house is owned by a Minnesota booster who, for security reasons, requested anonymity) to make himself happy thinking a lot about tomorrow and not at all about yesterday.
December 9, 1985
But why was Lou Holtz chosen for the most storied and prestigious coaching job in America? After all, according to an SI source there were four other top candidates: former UCLA and Eagles coach Dick Vermeil, current UCLA coach Terry Donahue, Virginia's George Welsh and Maryland's Bobby Ross. But Holtz was the only one that Notre Dame talked to. And while the Irish head coach's salary is only about $75,000, radio and TV deals and other perks can run the pay up to almost $200,000 a year. However, the money really may not be that important; the football coaching job at Notre Dame isn't something to be bargained over—it's a prize, if tendered, to be accepted.
A strong case can be made for the notion that Holtz is simply the best coach working—and available. A handful of elite coaches probably wouldn't be tempted to change jobs at any price—Paterno, Shula, Schembechler. Frank Broyles, the A.D. at Arkansas, where Holtz had a seven-year 60-21-2 record before leaving for Minnesota two years ago, praises Holtz for his offensive wizardry, especially in developing no-name quarterbacks into competent collegiate performers. One was Ron Calcagni, who led the Razorbacks to a stunning Orange Bowl upset of Oklahoma in 1978. "His offense is exciting," says Broyles of Holtz, "but he doesn't flirt with disaster. He's sound. These days you can stave off defeat with your defense, but decisive victories come from the offense." Plus, Holtz has experience with all kinds of formations, ranging from the I to the wishbone, and is tops at making the formation fit the talent. His offensive philosophy: "You have to be able to run, when everybody knows you're gonna run, and throw when everybody knows you're gonna throw."
Central to Holtz's selection, in the mind of Notre Dame A.D. Gene Corrigan, was Holtz's 17 years of experience as a head coach—three at William & Mary, four at North Carolina State, one with the Jets, seven at Arkansas, and the two at Minnesota. Former coach Ara Parseghian recently told Corrigan, "People forget that I was a head coach for 14 years before I came to Notre Dame, and I needed every one of those years when I got here." Obviously, the lesson of Gerry Faust and his lack of college coaching experience weighed heavily.
Corrigan also liked Holtz's background at William & Mary, a school with high academic standards. He figures that gives Lou an edge in understanding the importance Notre Dame attaches to the classroom. In phone conversations last week (Faust resigned Tuesday morning, and by late that night Holtz was all but signed), Corrigan went out of his way to impress upon Holtz the seriousness with which Notre Dame views academics, even for football players. "I knew that he had a lot of players at N.C. State who couldn't have gotten into Notre Dame," says Corrigan. Holtz got the message and now says, "I couldn't get into Notre Dame."
Holtz figures to be more of a taskmaster than Faust was. Once, during a hot summer practice in Fayetteville, Holtz reached up, grabbed the face mask of a towering tight end and lectured him unmercifully while swinging the player's head back and forth. Asked later about the incident, Holtz bristled and said, "What we established is who is going to coach this football team." Around South Bend, the feeling is strong that discipline has gone down the tubes under Faust and that under Holtz it will be back with five-star vengeance.
Holtz can be biting. Once, when William & Mary got trounced by Cincinnati, he immediately offered the opinion that his team had too many Marys and not enough Williams. Although Holtz is being extremely circumspect these days, he did suggest—while watching Saturday's game—that Notre Dame players must be stronger and that they need to handle adversity on the field better. "To have a chance," says Holtz, "we had better start with good players, then get a lot better every day."
One of the blemishes on Holtz's record was his impulsive jump to the Jets for the 1976 season. It was a terrible move. He wrote a victory song, and the players balked at singing it; he made them practice how to stand for the national anthem. People laughed at him. When he quit with a 3-10 record, he said, "God did not put Lou Holtz on this earth to coach pro football."
Then there was Holtz's ill-advised endorsement in 1983 of Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina. Holtz made two television commercials (never aired) in support of the conservative Helms, who led the fight against establishing Martin Luther King's birthday as a national holiday. That didn't sit right with a lot of people in Arkansas and seemed—as a practical thing—downright foolish in a sport in which black athletes are often a key to success. The endorsement contributed to Holtz's undoing in Fayetteville. Still, Holtz says he didn't agree with Helms on everything—certainly not on the King birthday issue—but that the Senator was a friend and supporter when Lou was at N.C. State. And, simply, friends help friends. Asked about the Helms affair, a Notre Dame spokesman said, "There are no political tests for football coaches at Notre Dame." Indeed, the record cannot substantiate any racial prejudice on Holtz's part. Holtz takes offense at the implication: "Yeah, I'm prejudiced. I'm prejudiced toward players who can block and tackle."
It has been whispered that Holtz moves too often, supposedly evidence of a lack of loyalty. But this is a business in which lots of job changing goes on—often involuntarily. For example, Broyles, for all his kind words, gently escorted Holtz to the plank in Fayetteville. But it may also be that the Holtz act plays best in shorter runs, that he wears out his welcome with his aggressiveness and flamboyance. And while he tends to vow at each stop that this is forever, he says he truly expects Notre Dame to be his last coaching position. His word may stick this time, if only because it's hard to move up from Camelot. Holtz, a Catholic, has been a Notre Dame guy since he marched to recess, lunch and dismissal at his elementary school in East Liverpool, Ohio to strains of the Victory March. So much did he dream of South Bend that he had a clause put in his Minnesota contract that allowed him to jump to Notre Dame in the event the job were offered. Says his wife, Beth, "I feel good because he's excited."
Unspoken, but clearly a factor in the Holtz hiring, is that Notre Dame and Lou appear to be moving toward each other. The school chafes at suggestions that it is stuffy, and Holtz and his brand of humor can help alter this perception. At the same time, Holtz is toning down his act. He is not doing magic tricks for his players anymore, and he knows he has to guard against being the buffoon. "The problem with having a sense of humor," says Holtz, "is often that people you use it on aren't in a very good mood."
If all goes as planned, Holtz will bring to South Bend the coaching ability that Faust lacked and the outgoing personality that Faust's predecessor, Dan Devine, lacked. Holtz can cook the meals and also provide the entertainment. And he can fan the nation's love-hate relationship with Notre Dame. "An atheist," intones Holtz, "is someone who doesn't care whether Notre Dame wins or loses."
Holtz is half watching the end of the Miami game when he catches an announcer saying that "perhaps Notre Dame will rise from the ashes." Holtz repeats the phrase, with the emphasis on perhaps. Then a little smile comes across his face. "All I can say," says Holtz, "is don't expect a miracle."