Dec. 29, 2017
By John Heisler
He won’t be found waving pompons and decked out in blue, gold and green Monday at Camping World Stadium.
But possibly the biggest University of Notre Dame football fan in Orlando lives about 20 miles southeast of the site for the Notre Dame-LSU matchup in the Citrus Bowl.
That would be former Irish football coach Lou Holtz.
Interestingly, the 2017 football season marked the first in decades that Holtz was not involved in the game in some formal way, either on the sidelines coaching or as a member of the media. But don’t think the Hall of Famer has been twiddling his thumbs.
“I still do a lot of speeches, a lot of interviews, a lot of work for various charities and foundations,” he says. “I follow college football, follow Notre Dame very, very closely.
“This is the first year I’m not doing anything that has to do with football. Although in the month of August the last several years I’ve gone to spend time with various football teams and spoken to them for up to an hour during two-a-day practices. Usually I do three a year--this year I went to Wisconsin because of (Irish defensive coordinator in 1987-89) Barry Alvarez, I did Ohio State because of (Irish receiver coach in 1996-2000) Urban Meyer and did USF because of (Irish defensive line coach in 1995-98) Charlie Strong. Two years ago I did Alabama the year it won the national championship. I speak about attitude, winning and how to conduct themselves on the field and off the field. I’ve done three a year for the last four or five years.
“I get so many requests to do so many things. I tried to sit down and look at the last year’s schedule and I probably did between 100 and 150 appearances. One third are for corporations, one third for charity and one third for the University and friends. I probably end up speaking at Notre Dame four or five times a year. I try to keep a balance on all three of those areas.
“As Mark Twain said, ‘The two most important days of your life are, one, the day you are born and, two, the day you discover why you are born.’ The older you get you discover you were born to try to make a positive influence on other people. As I told the athletes at the schools where I’ve been, ‘You give me everything you have for four years, and I’ll be there to help you for the next 40.’ Thank God the 40 are almost up because a lot of those players are very successful and they call and say, ‘Hey, coach, would you come here and speak or do this or write that?’ I promise you this, I still have a full-time assistant because my schedule is so hectic I couldn’t handle it myself.”
Despite two back surgeries and two neck surgeries, Holtz still enjoys spending time on the golf course. Almost any golf course.
“God gives you Alzheimer’s so you can’t remember how far you used to hit the ball,” he says. “My attitude is, ‘Forward is good, forward in the air is even better.’ I’m still playing pretty well. (Former Irish football coach) Ara (Parseghian) told me once that at age 79 he shot his age 79 times. I told Ara that at age 79 I shot my weight 79 times. If I gain five more pounds I can shoot my weight pretty consistently.”
After 42 seasons involved in college football--33 as a head coach producing 249 career wins—Holtz can’t imagine Saturdays without football.
“I still watch games on Saturdays and evaluate things,” he says. “The game really has not changed. It’s still a game of fundamentals—giving players something they think they can do and execute and demanding that they do it.”
Holtz admits he would handle himself differently if he went back to the sidelines:
“If I ever went back into coaching, I’d be a better coach than ever before because what I’ve learned is that what you say is important but it’s not near as important as your tone of voice and your facial expression.”
Notre Dame’s former head coach knows fans still remember the time he grabbed an Irish linebacker by the facemask to get a point across.
“That was Huntley Bakich—and we’ve stayed in very close contact. He lives in Dallas, and his son (Boomer) was a football player (safety) at West Point. It’s a real pleasure to stay in touch with so many of the athletes.”
Holtz, who Saturday will serve as grand marshal of the Florida Citrus Parade, also has a good feel for the 2017 Irish.
“I see almost all of Notre Dame’s games,” he says. “I think they’ve had a tremendous year, did not finish maybe as strong as they would have liked. The offensive line has played well, (tailback Josh) Adams played very well, the quarterback (Brandon Wimbush) will do nothing but get better in the future.”
Holtz knows a little about bowl games, having led his Notre Dame teams to nine straight New Year’s Day appearances (three Orange, three Cotton, two Fiesta, one Sugar). Putting his ESPN analyst’s hat back on his head, here’s Holtz’s take on the Citrus Bowl:
“I’ve known (LSU head coach) Ed Orgeron since he was at USC as an assistant for Pete Carroll. Notre Dame can win this football game for a couple of reasons. Number one, LSU is very talented on defense, although their great pass rusher (Arden Key) is going to pass up the game to prepare for the draft. They are good on defense, they are not unstoppable on offense. They have a great tailback, they don’t do a lot of play-action passing, they don’t throw it deep a lot. They are going to try to out-physical you, and I don’t think they can do that against Notre Dame.
“The last time Notre Dame played LSU in a bowl game Notre Dame ran the ball 51 times (for 263 yards). You’ve got a great offensive line, you’ve got the Joe Moore Trophy winners, you’ve got two All-America offensive linemen which has not happened at Notre Dame since 1931.
“I think Notre Dame will be excited to go to Orlando after losing two of its last three games and not playing as well as it wanted the last month. I think they will have a great desire to go in there and play this game. I always told my teams, you have to be excited about the opponent you are playing.
“On the other hand, LSU finished the season very, very strong. I think they are looking at the bowl game as a reward. I think Notre Dame looks at the bowl game as a chance to raise its ranking from number 15 to maybe the top 10.”
As the years have gone by, Holtz—who won 100 games in his 11 seasons in South Bend from 1986-96, highlighted by the 1988 national championship--increasingly cherishes the relationships he has maintained with his former players.
“That’s one of the great things about coaching, you have a chance to be significant in people’s lives and that’s very rewarding,” he says. “The experiences I had at Notre Dame? There’s no place like that.”
Holtz’s Orlando home suffered significant damage in June 2015 after it was hit by lightning and caught fire. He and his wife Beth finally moved back in last April. That gives Lou and Beth a chance to play host to a gathering of Notre Dame connections later this week.
“My wife had an unlimited budget to redo our house, and she exceeded it,” he says, tongue firmly in cheek.
Don’t look for Holtz in the front row at the Citrus Bowl Monday.
But count on him to be as invested as anyone in the end result for the Irish.