Based on 33 seasons as a head college coach and one national title, Lou Holtz has established himself as a college football icon. On Sunday, he’ll speak at Purdue Northwest’s Sinai Forum, which has brought some of the world’s biggest names to Northwest Indiana. This year, Holtz follows former FBI director James Comey and Washington Post national political reporter Robert Costa.
Region sports fans likely remember Holtz best for his 11-year stint at the helm of Notre Dame. Frankly, Holtz revived a slipping program. Before Notre Dame’s legendary 1988 national championship season — which included a victory over Miami in the famous “Catholics vs. Convicts” game — the Fighting Irish hadn’t won 10 games since 1977.
Holtz spoke with The Times about his upcoming appearance at the Sinai Forum, what makes a good coach and today’s college football landscape.
Q: Your speech at Purdue Northwest’s Sinai Forum is titled, “Game Plan for Success.” What is the most important characteristic for people to have in order to follow your game plan?
A: “It would easily be the choices you make. Wherever you are — good or bad — is because of the choices you make. Choose to do drugs, drop out of school, join a gang, … get arrested, you’re choosing that difficulty of life, and don’t blame other people for that. So I think the most important thing is, wherever we are — good or bad — (is) because of the choices we make. There are (countless) words in the English vocabulary. The most important word, by far, is the word ‘choice.’”
Q: What was your impression of the Region’s sports scene during your time at Notre Dame?
A: “Well, it was very good (athletically). … But what makes it so special in that area is the people genuinely care about the youth. They support them, whether it be football, basketball, women’s volleyball, whatever the case may be, and that’s unique. When there’s a love, and a feeling and a caring where you support the high school not because you have a son or a daughter participating, but because you’re interested in the youth being supported.”
Q: What do you think makes a good coach?
A: “A good coach is somebody that develops a feeling in a young person that they can be successful, they can accomplish things, they feel good about themselves, they have high standards. Making an athlete feel good — raising their self image — is not by making their life easier, and is not by lowering the standard for them. A good coach is one that has high standards for an individual and shows them how they’re capable of reaching it.
I always felt that, as a coach, one always gives the participant, the player, something they can specifically do and demand they do it. And never criticize the performer, but criticize the performance. But believing in people, and yet at the same time demanding, I think, is critical. There are too many people today that are just concerned about keeping people happy — that everybody’s happy and nobody has disappointments — and that’s not life.
One thing I know for sure: You’re always going to have problems; you’re going to have difficulties, obstacles. I’m an old man, and even in all my years, I’ve never had a period of my life when I didn’t have worries or concerns, obstacles, challenges. That’s all part of life, and learning to handle that is critical.”
Q: Did coaching at Notre Dame exceed your expectations?
A: “It exceeded my expectations. I was an assistant at Iowa in 1960, and we finished second in the country. The last game of the year was at Notre Dame. We beat them, I think, 28-0. Notre Dame wasn’t particularly good that year. But I’m standing on the sideline thinking, ‘Boy, this is the epitome of my coaching career’ at age 23 or 24, that, ‘Wow, it doesn’t get any bigger than this.’ Because at that time, the only coaches Notre Dame ever had were alums, and I wasn’t an alum.
I wasn’t smart enough to get into Notre Dame, but they thought I was smart enough to coach there, so I guess they have a higher standard to be a student than to be a coach. It’s when they hired Ara Parseghian that everything changed. No longer did you have to be a Notre Dame alum to coach there.
Notre Dame is special. As I’ve said so many times, if you’ve been to Notre Dame no explanation is necessary; if you haven’t been a part of Notre Dame, no explanation will suffice.”
Q: If there’s one thing you could change about college football, what would it be?
A: “I think I would change the facemask. I would do something to eliminate the fact that players can use their head as a weapon. When I started playing the game, we did not have a facemask on it, so consequently, nobody used their head for anything, except to get out of the way. Everyone always thought they were better looking than they really are, and they didn’t want to mess up their looks. But now, people use their head as a weapon, and that scares me. …
Another thing I would change: I would go from a four-team playoff to definitely an eight-team playoff.”
Q: Do you expect there to be an eight-team playoff any time in the next few years?
A: “Yeah, I definitely think that there will be. I think there’ll be such growing demand for it, but it will happen after this year’s TV contract is up, which is I think in the year 2020 or something like that (actually after the 2025 season). When that’s up and they go to renegotiate, I just think that it makes sense to take the five power conference champions, and the best non-(power)-five team and then the next two (best team), which hopefully will be Notre Dame every year.”
Q: What’s your favorite part of traveling the country for speaking events?
A: “I think the positive effect that I’ve received from people that say that it has caused them to make better choices in their life, to look at things a little bit differently.
I try to make four assumptions of people: That they want to be more successful professionally, that they want to have a good personal life — I don’t think you have to sacrifice one for the other — that they want to feel needed and they want to feel secure about their future. I try to get my simple philosophy that enables them to achieve those things. You’ve had so many good speakers there in the past that I’m humbled to be asked to come up there, and I hope to live up to the expectations that they provided me with.”