The first time I met Lou Holtz was three years ago at a Republican policy retreat—he's a friend of House Speaker John Boehner. At the time, Notre Dame was a mediocre football team following a string of disappointing seasons. Yet here was a former coach of the team—when it had last been a national power, from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s—predicting a return to the glory days from a newly hired coach.After a very interesting digression on how Mr. Holtz got to where he is today, for which I recommend the link above, Lou expatiates on the popularity of college football today:
Brian Kelly "will have Notre Dame back in the national championship game," Mr. Holtz said. "The man is a winner."
I laughed back then when he said it. After Mr. Holtz resigned in 1996, having spent a decade in the demanding job, he was followed by Bob Davie (1997-2001), Tyrone Willingham (2002-04) and Charlie Weis (2005-09), who all arrived amid high hopes and left with no titles and few bowl victories. Why would Brian Kelly be any different?
Well, now Mr. Holtz is the one laughing. The Fighting Irish face another storied college team, Alabama's Crimson Tide, on Tuesday in a dream matchup for the NCAA, television executives and, not least, college football fans. The game could be the most avidly anticipated since . . . the last time these two teams met in the Sugar Bowl for the national championship, on New Year's Eve, 1973—a game won by Notre Dame.
How did college football become so popular and such a "big industry," as he describes it? "It's the whole environment. The pageantry, the bands, the tailgating. It's become the family thing to do. And then ESPN has had a tremendous impact with all the games and highlights," he adds. "Plus, people identify with a school. And even if they didn't go there, they will adopt that school."And the terrible situation at Penn State, where the NCAA is fining the school $60 million plus four years of ineligibility?
Mr. Holtz also cites the wide open, pass-happy, hurry-up style of play that has replaced the dull days of three yards and a cloud of dust. And with the NCAA's limitation on scholarships, the Notre Dames, USCs and Ohio States can no longer hoard all the talent, which helps other schools compete: "It's great for the game. It means on any given Saturday anyone can win."
So schools are now making a fortune off the athletes. Why not pay them? "No, no, never," says Mr. Holtz with a frown. "I'm adamant about that. First and foremost, you're there to get an education. You get a scholarship and that's what the agreement should be. The schools do more for the players than they do for the schools, and I always felt the athletes needed me more than I needed them."
Recruiting scandals have always been a problem in college football, but an unprecedented blemish in recent years was the sex-abuse scandal at Penn State and the collapse of coach Joe Paterno's reputation. Mr. Holtz was appalled by the revelations about the abuse of children by former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.But wait, there's more. On the pros, concussions and spinal injuries, Coach Holtz has a lot of common sense:
But he also says: "I thought that was unfair, what happened to Penn State," speaking about the four-year ban from postseason bowls and $60 million fine. "The guy who committed the offense is in jail for life. I didn't think it was an NCAA violation, I thought it was a criminal case. But don't penalize the kids."
It is "the kids" in the college game that retain much of Mr. Holtz's attention and concern. He says the satisfaction of coaching was that the "lessons you learn in football are the same you need later for success in business and life."
He used to warn his top players not to get too carried away about NFL stardom and riches, reminding them that the average tenure in professional football is about four seasons. "That means you're 26 and your life is only one-third over. What are you going to do with your life then?"Finally, the discipline that teaches players lessons, often harsh, that life requires:
Mr. Holtz is troubled by the increase in concussions and spinal injuries in what seems to be an ever more violent sport. Without mentioning ESPN by name, he complains that dangerous and dirty hits are glorified on TV replays.
How to reduce the violent hits? "Take the face guards off the helmets," he says. "That way players can't lunge headfirst and use the helmet as a battering ram." He also suggests using softer helmets. "Players would go back to the fundamentals of tackling—no more concussions."
Mr. Holtz wants to be remembered as a disciplinarian and character-builder. Before perhaps the biggest game of his career—when he took his 10-0 Irish into Los Angeles for a final game against USC during their 1988 championship run—he stunned the college football world by suspending two star players for showing up late to a team meeting. "I wanted the kids to know that actions have consequences," he says. The Irish won anyway.Love him or leave him, Lou is one helluva coach and ESPN attraction...
He also refused to put players' names on jerseys because "you're playing for ND, you're not playing for yourself. To win, it is always about putting the team first." One change he did want to bring to Notre Dame was adding the letters "ND" to the players' gold helmets. No, school officials told him, "the helmets represent the golden dome" of Notre Dame's landmark Main Building, dating to 1882. He stewed and then said: "Well, could we paint 'ND' on the golden dome?"