Skip Holtz Inspired Man Who Inspired Millions

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skiprudy.jpg - It's opening week, Notre Dame week, alma mater time for South Florida coach Skip Holtz, and the question was a throwaway.

Skip Holtz was asked: Have you seen "Rudy?"

"Rudy lived across the street from me," Holtz said.

Wait, there's more. We're just getting started. Daniel Eugene "Rudy" Ruettiger is on the phone.

"Skip was an inspiration to me when I was trying to get the movie made," Ruettiger said.

"Rudy," the feel-good 1993 blockbuster, inspired millions - and USF's coach inspired Rudy.

You got all that?

Our story begins in 1990, when Skip Holtz, then 26, returned to Notre Dame to work for his father as a coach. Holtz and his wife, Jennifer, newlyweds, moved into Oak Hill Condominiums, not far from campus. Already present, just across the way: Rudy.

Rudy Ruettiger was a 41-year-old sales manager at a car dealership at the time. America didn't know him. Rudy had returned to South Bend with a decade-old script he'd co-written and a dream: A major motion picture based on a true story, about a pint-sized underdog walk-on who won't quit until he gets in for a few plays at the end of the 1975 season for the team and school he'd loved all his life.

Rudy and Skip and Jennifer became fast and forever friends.

"Rudy is one of those people who you meet and before you know it you feel like you've known him since birth," Jennifer Holtz said. "He lived so close. When I was pregnant, and Skip was at work, Rudy would see me taking out the trash and he'd run over and do it for me. He'd check on me when Skip was working late to see if I was OK. He was always over for dinner. 'Hey, what are we having tonight?' he'd say."

They'd sit on the Holtz's back patio and Rudy would tell his story and his movie idea, and Skip never got tired of it. "Skip had a lot of Rudy in him, too," Rudy said.

Never mind that Skip's dad, Lou, became Notre Dame coach in 1986, Skip's lone season on the Irish football team. Rudy knew that both he and Skip came to Notre Dame by way of nearby academic proving ground Holy Cross College. Rudy knew they were both walk-ons whose football moments were beyond fleeting.

So they'd sit on the deck and Rudy would tell his story, sometimes acting out the parts. Skip, always positive, said it was great. They'd go over the script, chapter by chapter. Skip would bring other coaches to hear Rudy. Anybody who visited the Holtz condo had to hear Rudy's story. "Rudy was an inspiration," Holtz said.

But Hollywood wasn't calling back. Rudy also couldn't get the Notre Dame administration to allow a movie to be filmed on campus.

"It was no, no, no," Rudy said. "But that's where Skip came in. ... I was really down, really pushed to the wall, and I needed words of encouragement. Skip would give me pep talks. ... you've got to do this, Rudy. He'd tell me to go talk to Father Beauchamp, (then Notre Dame executive vice president). Skip just made me keep believing in myself, not to back off."

Skip took Rudy's script and showed it to his father. Lou Holtz promised to read it, then promptly forgot Rudy's script in a desk drawer.

Then, in 1992, a miracle: Rudy, being Rudy, had gone to Hollywood and tracked down Angelo Pizzo, who seven years earlier had written the screenplay for "Hoosiers," which was already classic Americana. Pizzo told Rudy he'd get back to him.

Well, he did. Pizzo came aboard for a new Rudy script, as did David Anspaugh, who had directed "Hoosiers." They had major studio backing. Pizzo said all that was needed was Notre Dame's permission, which Rudy had, right?

Um ...

Rudy again turned to good neighbor Skip, who again went to his father.

Dad, did you ever read that script I gave you?

Well, he had.

"I told Skip I read it and that I liked it very much," Lou Holtz said. "And with that, Rudy took six copies, went over to Father Beauchamp's office and told him Coach Holtz thought this would be a good idea to film it at Notre Dame. I didn't say that, but Rudy said I did, which was fine."

Shooting began shortly thereafter.

Rudy Ruettiger, 63, lives with his family in Las Vegas, but he travels the country as a prized motivational speaker. He was in Minneapolis this week to speak to the American Legion national convention. Rudy made sure to get photographs of himself with two of the other speakers: Miss America and President Obama.

Rudy and Skip keep in touch. Rudy has seen Skip's teams when Skip was head coach at Connecticut and East Carolina, but he can't be at Notre Dame on Saturday when the Irish meet South Florida because of a speaking engagement he can't break in Salt Lake City, which is too bad.

"Skip is one of the guys who kept me going," Rudy said.

They don't even put this stuff in movies.

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