ALONE AT THE TOP

In a largely misspent life, I have spent entirely too much time in the company of football coaches. In a way, they have always both fascinated and repelled me.

Finally, I have hit upon an unpleasant truth. Only the losing coaches have a chance to remain decent human beings. All the winners are inclined to be bullying, dishonest tyrants accustomed to achieving their way with brutal measures.

As a group, they are all cut from the same cloth. Joan Quinn, the mother of former Notre Dame end Dan Quinn, put it rather eloquently when she said of Lou Holtz:

"He's a cruel, self-serving son of a bitch."
That phrase kept running through my mind the other day as I sat glued to the television watching Holtz, the Notre Dame coach, pace frantically up and down the sidelines as his team narrowly defeated Florida State.

The victory means that Holtz and Notre Dame might possibly be headed for a national championship game in the IBM/OS2 Fiesta Bowl on New Year's Day.

I remember what it was like a few years back when Holtz brought his team here to play West Virginia in the battle of two unbeaten teams in Sun Devil Stadium. What turned out to be the most surprising thing about Holtz's Notre Dame team was that it was so out of character with what we always believed to be Irish tradition.

For all their talent as players, this new breed of Notre Dame team seemed to have as many thugs on that squad as the notorious Miami under Jimmy Johnson or even Oklahoma during the days of Barry Switzer.

We shouldn't have been surprised. The rumors were all around that Notre Dame had indeed made a compact with the Devil by hiring Holtz, who has been tinged by scandal wherever he coached in the past.

No matter what is said about him, Holtz is a great favorite with Irish football fans who demand winners. He replaced the almost saintly Gerry Faust, who was everything Notre Damers claimed they wanted in a football coach.

Faust was gentle, devout, demanding only that his players place their classwork at a premium. He was a great sportsman.

However, he didn't win very much.
Faust was fired after his five-year contract ran out. Holtz was waiting in the wings at the University of Minnesota.

Holtz has had 11 coaching jobs in his career and is regarded as one of the best sideline coaches in the game. Football observers contrast his technique with that of Faust in this way:

"Faust always seems to be worried about what went wrong on the last play. Holtz is planning strategy for the next three plays."
Holtz has one of the best coaching records in the business and has been a winner wherever he has gone. But there has always been a shadow over him. That's why it was surprising that Notre Dame hired him.

In this regard, I have been watching an interesting thing take place. Not long ago, Under the Tarnished Dome, a book which thoroughly investigates the Holtz-Notre Dame story, was published by Simon and Schuster. It is subtitled: How Notre Dame Betrayed Its Ideals for Football Glory.

In the book, authors Don Yaeger and Douglas S. Looney interviewed more than 150 sports figures, including a hundred former Irish football players. Their investigation reveals that Notre Dame has become a renegade program marked by pregame fights, trash talking, off-the-field hell-raising and abuse of steroids.

Players who get injured at Holtz's Notre Dame are made to feel unwelcome. Tony Rice, an outstanding quarterback, was compelled to play half a season with a broken wrist.

When you look at Holtz, he does not look like an ogre. However, according to the book, he is regarded by his peers as the most unpopular coach in the country.

He is tiny, unathletic and dyspeptic. In person, he looks a little like Woody Allen. He has a reputation, at least among sportswriters, who are not known for a high level of sophistication, as being something of a standup comic.

Holtz certainly is effective in front of a microphone. Much in demand, he reportedly gets paid up to $15,000 an evening for motivational talks to business executives all over the country. For some reason, this category of people seems to enjoy nothing so much as the opportunity to sit in awe before big-time coaches, either football or basketball. Not surprisingly, two other authoritarians, Bobby Knight and Pat Riley, are also big favorites.

Recently, in Denver, Holtz told a group how Notre Dame ended up in South Bend rather than in San Diego, the destination where they originally intended to build their campus. The priests got caught in a terrible snowstorm and were forced to halt temporarily in Indiana.

"Let's put up our tents here," they said, "and we'll leave when the weather gets better."
Holtz then added that they were still waiting on the campus in South Bend for the weather to change.

I remember when he was here for the Fiesta Bowl. Holtz had funny stories to tell every day at press conferences that were standing-room-only affairs. Most of the jokes are in this new book. Obviously, he doesn't change his repertoire often enough.

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