Long retired from coaching, Lou Holtz still one of college football’s most popular personalities…because of what he says, but more, for the way he says it.
(Ed. Note: Exactly a year ago today we posted the following interview with ESPN personality, and former coach, Lou Holtz, who appeared at the 2015 OHSAA state boys basketball tournament. The piece was so popular it became the #1-shared article on Press Pros for the ensuing twelve months. We thought it might deserve an encore. One of the nicest, and funniest sports personalities alive. Enjoy!)
Former William & Mary, North Carolina State, Arkansas, Minnesota, Notre Dame and South Carolina head football coach, Lou Holtz, was in Columbus last weekend, appearing as an inductee of the Ohio High School Athletic Association’s “Circle Of Champions” ceremonies at the boys state basketball tournament.
This is a great addition, by the way, to the tournament, one that perhaps contributes more positive marketing profile to the legacy of Ohio prep sports than anything else available to the OHSAA. People love their heros, and this year’s class included such past Ohio greats at Randy Gradishar, Bob Golic, Lisa Cline, “Beanie” Wells, Troy Smith…and Holtz, whose introduction was met with a loud chorus of “LOU”s from the nearly 11,000 watching the Division II title game between Defiance and Cleveland Central Catholic.
A native of East Liverpool, Ohio, and a national champion with Notre Dame in 1988, Holtz spent 33 years as a head coach during his football career, but is still admired most in Ohio for his tenure as an assistant at Ohio State for Coach Woody Hayes. That association culminated with another national championship team, in 1968, which featured Hayes’ “Super Sophomores”, including Rex Kern, Jan White, Jack Tatum, Ted Provost, and Mike Sensibaugh.
Holtz has always been a great interview, a willing source for a good story, and he did not disappoint on Saturday when he met with members of the media covering the tournament. He fielded one question after another, pertaining to the attributes of sports and competition to developing adolescent athletes. But his most popular and entertaining anecdotes were those dealing with his days as coach at Notre Dame, and lieutenant to the Buckeye icon, Woody Hayes.
“Outside of my wife, Woody Hayes had the greatest influence on my life of anyone I’ve ever met,” he said with his characteristic smile and personality. “Football was important to Woody, but it was his ability to understand people, and serve others, that really made him special.
“Back then he insisted on visiting hospitals and nursing homes, “paying forward” we call it now…just letting the average person know that they mattered as much as football. This is what I learned from Woody, in addition to his organizational talents and his example of responsibility for the football program here. I’ll always be indebted to him, even though he fired me five times. But he also told me don’t worry about it…until you see it in writing.”
Holtz was asked…if he had been contacted to take the Ohio State head coaching position after Hayes was let go after the 1978 season.
“Hugh Hindman was the athletic director at the time and he called me and asked me to interview for the job. I asked him, ‘Hugh, how many other guys are you going to interview?’, and he told me about five, but that I would be their leading candidate. I was coaching at Arkansas at the time and had a good football team there, a better football team that Ohio State had, and I told Hugh that I’d take the job if they offered it to me, but I wouldn’t interview.
“If you interview in a situation like that it would have been a show of disloyalty to Arkansas, that you were looking for something better. Now if you’re offered the job and you take it that’s just business. I didn’t interview and they ended up hiring someone else (Earle Bruce).”
Ohio is a state with a rich tradition of football, and divided loyalties between the public schools and parochial powerhouses like Moeller (in Cincinnati) and St. Ignacius (in Cleveland. Those loyalties extend beyond, of course, to include divisions in support for Ohio State football, and Notre Dame, where Holtz would eventually coach and win a national title in 1988. Woody Hayes, however, was reticent to schedule and play the Fighting Irish. Holtz explained why.
“I always told Woody that we should take our big offensive line and running game over to South Bend and whip ’em pretty good. But Woody knew that a lot of Catholics in Ohio loved both Ohio State and Notre Dame. They rooted for both schools. But if the two schools played…then you made people choose one over the other. He didn’t want to make anyone choose.”
On the current concern over safety in football, Holtz bristles over the fact of it being a shared, yet ultimate responsibility by those who play.
“It’s because everyone uses (leads with) their head,” he’s famous for saying. “You take the face masks off helmets and they’ll stop doing that. Things will be fine.”
As he got up to leave the interview room Saturday I approached him, introduced myself, and asked if he would fill me in on the origin of one of the most famous Lou Holtz stories of all.
When he left Ohio State after the 1968 season he took the head job at William & Mary, a small school in the Southern Conference looking to establish a football tradition. Holtz was hired as the man to do it.
“I took the job,” said Holtz. “And then I looked at our schedule. It was a killer. We had North Carolina State, Virginia, West Virginia and Virginia Tech on there and we got killed. We only won three games that season and the administration asked me at the end of the year why we didn’t win more games.
“It was pretty evident to me, having come from Ohio State the year before. So I looked at the people in the meeting and told them, ‘We got too few Williams here…and too many Marys.'”
Such was my moment with Lou Holtz, who turned 78 years of age this past January and is still going strong, still planning on being a part of ESPN Saturdays next fall with their coverage of college football.
But he also prefaced his future with one more quote on Saturday.
“If you want to make God laugh, just tell him about your plans.”
Gulp! I had planned on watching.