GREENVILLE — Just as Charleston seems always to be preceded with the modifier “historic,” so is Lou Holtz always referred to as “legendary.” And he is indeed a legendary coach, having brought Notre Dame back to the football glory of its fabled past and having been named national Coach of the Year twice. His specialty is taking losing programs and turning them into winners in a few years. Holtz has done that so often that he has become a legend in college football.
Louis L. Holtz is also a strong Catholic and a family man.
“I hope the way I live my life reflects my belief in God,” Holtz said. “Our purpose is to follow our Lord and Savior.”
He is a private Catholic, participating in Mass at whatever Columbia parish offers the weekend liturgy schedule that matches his recruiting and training schedule of the time. He worships at St. Joseph, St. John Neumann, and St. Thomas More, located on the campus of the University of South Carolina where he coaches football.
Bishop Robert J. Baker thinks that Holtz has already left his legacy with the Catholic Church.
“He not only turns football teams around, he turns people’s lives around. He’s one of the greatest coaches, and we’re very fortunate to have him in our backyard,” Bishop Baker said. “When I give my homily about the church being like a football team, I’m lifting quite a bit from Lou Holtz.”
The bishop and the coach both grew up in Ohio and both attended Catholic grade schools there. Holtz said that the lessons he was taught by the nuns at St. Aloysius School have influenced his whole life. One of the holistic training regimens that he imposes upon his Gamecock footballers is to have them write down their philosophy of life. During a May 7 visit to St. Joseph’s Catholic School, he read the one philosophy that impressed him the most.
“One player wrote that when he was born, ‘people rejoiced and I cried when the doctor slapped me. I hope that when I die, I will rejoice and people will cry.’ That’s how we should live. As St. Augustine said, proclaim the Gospel every day and, if necessary, use words,” Holtz told the middle and high school students.
He also told them about his first year coaching the USC team. His wife of 40 years, Beth, was diagnosed with cancer (now in remission) and was given a 10 percent chance of survival, his son caught a rare and life-threatening disease, and Holtz’s mother died. On top of that, he flew to Beaufort for a recruiting trip, and the plane he had been on later crashed, killing the two pilots.
“And we went 0-11, didn’t win a single game. People were saying I was too old, the game had passed me by. My kicker said he couldn’t kick with me looking at him. I told him I expected to be watching most of our games,” he said.
Citing his experiences as a coach to give examples of how attitude can overcome adversity, Holtz told the story of Ryan Brewer in typical hyperbole.
“Ryan was so slow that if he raced a pregnant mother he’d come in third,” he said. Brewer went on to become the most valuable player when USC beat Ohio State in a bowl game one year after the 0-11 start.
Holtz’s hourlong talk was full of humorous anecdotes told in a snappy, self-deprecating style, all designed to illustrate his rules for life. The most important one, he said, was: “You’re either growing or you’re dying. Say WIN to yourself 25 times a day: What’s important now? Do what’s right, do everything to the best of your ability and treat people the right way.” There wasn’t any new philosophy expounded, nothing the kids hadn’t heard before from parents and teachers. But it was done with such style and panache that they loved it.
Holtz’s own inspiration came in part from Father Edmund P. Joyce, a Holy Cross priest who was the executive vice president of the University of Notre Dame for 35 years. The priest, who died May 2, went to high school in Spartanburg and was integral in getting St. Joseph’s High School off the ground.
Eleven years at the University of Notre Dame served to cement Holtz’s reputation as a legendary coach. The Fighting Irish won the national championship in his second season there and went to bowl games in nine consecutive seasons, a record. He is now entering his sixth season at Carolina.