As college football nears the midpoint of its 143rd season, Lou Holtz is among the many taking it in. The 75-year-old ESPN analyst has seen more than his share of games, mostly from the sidelines as a head coach. He coached a total of 388 games at six Division I schools.
Holtz is best known for his years at the University of Notre Dame, between 1986 and 1996, which included an undefeated national championship season in 1988. What is less known, but no less important to him, are the experiences that prepared him for the Notre Dame years.
One of the things Holtz prizes most is the education he received, fittingly enough from the Sisters of Notre Dame, while in grade school in East Liverpool, Ohio. He also cherishes the more than half century he has spent with his wife. And, most important of all, he appreciates being Catholic.
Holtz recently explained this and other things to Register correspondent Trent Beattie.
You’ve spoken glowingly of the religious sisters who taught you in grade school. How did they influence your life?
The Sisters of Notre Dame at St. Aloysius Grade School influenced my life tremendously. This was due to the fact that they encouraged you always to make sure that God is the focus of your life, and they didn’t allow you to do anything except to the very best of your ability.
When this is passed on to you in your formative years, I can’t begin to tell you how important it is. I owe the good sisters so much for what they taught me and will be forever grateful for their selfless dedication.
In high school you asked God to make you a great athlete, but you were guided into coaching instead. Do you think that if you’d become a great athlete, you never would have become a great coach — and that maybe coaching was a way for you to become more selfless?
I used to pray that God would make me a great athlete, and he never did. Yet he put me in the coaching profession, where I’ve experienced 45 years of being involved in great games and competitiveness and having a positive influence on other people’s lives. Had I been a great athlete, I’m not sure I would have even gone into coaching. I may have turned out feeling that my life ended when my athletic career ended, as happens so many times with various athletes.
I do know this: God does answer your prayers, but it’s not always in the way you expect. God knows what’s best for us, though, so there’s no need to worry when things don’t go how we originally wanted them to go. We just have to be willing to make changes and go a different route sometimes.
What are your top memories from Notre Dame?
Impossible to answer. Every single day being there was very special because there were so many opportunities to encounter and live out the Catholic faith. Mass and confession were always available, and you could pray the Rosary at the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, which is a smaller-sized replica of the original in France.
If I had to give some top memories, though, I guess they would be having three of my four children graduate from that fine university and then one of them getting a second degree from the law school. Just being on campus and being able to represent Notre Dame through football are great memories, but I think the statue they built of me and dedicated in 2008 has to rank up there as well. That was a very humbling experience.
You’ve been married for more than 50 years. What do you value most about marriage?
I appreciate my wife, Beth, so much. She has been there through good times and bad, and no one has been more supportive of me. Her loving attention and candor have helped me more than I can say. We’ve always done things as a team, not just me going my own way. That’s essential if you want your marriage to work, and ours has for many years. It has been more than 50, thanks be to God.
You’ve stated that if something wouldn’t bother you on your deathbed, it shouldn’t bother you right now when it actually is happening. Has that belief brought more peace of mind to you?
That’s a great perspective to live life with, similar to the serenity prayer. It’s helpful for anyone, but maybe in a special way for coaches. Coaches can get too focused on results and winning, so it’s good to step back and let go of things a little bit. I just try to change the things I can, accept the things I can’t, and pray I have the wisdom to know the difference between the two.
I follow three rules: Do the right thing, do the best you can, and always show people you care. You’ve got to make a sincere attempt to have the right goals to begin with, then go after them with appropriate effort, and remember that you can’t really achieve anything great without the help of others.
Another way of seeing it is that anything great you do achieve will be for others, in the sense that helping other people realize their potential is what achieving is all about. It’s not a one-man show; it’s about contributing to the good of the team. That’s how you have to see it.
Our perspective in life is so important, and this was reinforced by my experience with the New York Jets in 1976. That was one of the best coaching jobs in the country at the time — and, yet, I didn’t take advantage of it because of my own attitude. I came into it seeing problems instead of opportunities, and this prevented me from getting the most out of the team.
Everyone goes through adversity in life, but what matters is how you learn from it. I like to say that life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you respond to it. I did learn from the Jets experience, and it really helped me in subsequent years with other teams.
You’ve stated there’s nothing the Catholic Church teaches that you don’t believe. Do you think many people are rudderless, in that they accept only some Church teachings and not others?
I think life is a matter of choices and that wherever we are, good or bad, is because of choices we make. If you choose to do drugs, drop out of school, join a gang or have five children out of wedlock, you’re choosing to end up in prison or in poverty, and that is not a result of choices I made, but of choices you made. We need to get back to holding people accountable for their choices, and that includes people in the Catholic Church.
I think the Catholic Church is infallible when it comes to religious principles [on faith and morals]. That’s what I was taught by the Sisters of Notre Dame growing up, and I believe that to this day. Do I agree with the practical decisions of Church leaders on some things? Certainly not. But, by the same token, I try to follow the Catholic teachings. That’s what brings meaning and lasting happiness to life.
Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.