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.
Once, Holtz told about the first time he saw Raghib Ismail, known as "The Rocket," on the Notre Dame campus.
"The Rocket" was probably the fastest runner ever to play for Notre Dame and became one of the great kick returners in college football history.
"I saw him playing tennis and I went right home to tell my wife how impressed I was," Holtz said.
"What's so great about that?' she asked. It was then that I told her he was playing by himself."
Holtz always tells the story about how when he was coaching at Arkansas, they created a special stamp with his face on it after his team beat Oklahoma.
"That impressed me," he says, "but they had to retire the stamp the next year after Arkansas lost to Texas.
"People were spitting on the wrong side of the stamp," Holtz says.
In the book, which also documents Holtz's greatness as a coach, an exceedingly unattractive portrait of his personality nevertheless emerges.
He is a tyrant and a cheapskate.
Former lineman Joe Allen tells the story to Yaeger and Looney about Holtz having a kid in his office go out every day for a double cheeseburger with mustard from Wendy's. It cost $2.48, and Holtz gave him the exact change every day. "One day the kid comes back and he forgot the mustard on it. Holtz threw the hamburger against the wall and sulked in his office the rest of the day."
Holtz is generally hated and feared by his assistant coaches, whom he bullies and embarrasses, even in front of the players. For this reason, Notre Dame has the highest ratio of turnover among assistants of any big-time program in the country.
George Marshall, a former defensive tackle, explained why to the authors.
"He has no understanding of respect," Marshall said. "When we're on the football field, he suddenly steps in. He's the smallest guy out there. He doesn't hesitate to push a coach aside and say: 'This is the way it's supposed to be done.' Even if it's not. With him blasting an assistant coach, who am I, as a player, supposed to listen to?"
One time, Irish defensive coordinator Gary Darnell, who had coached the best defensive unit in the country at the University of Florida, fell under Holtz's wrath.
Scott Kowalkowski, a former defensive end, remembered the incident, which occurred during a game against Tennessee in 1990.
"We had time-out on the field. The game was on national TV and the cameras were right there. Coach Darnell was trying to tell us something and Holtz comes in and shouts at him: 'Listen, you just shut up,' and then he told us what to do."
The one assistant coach who does not speak badly of Holtz is the team's offensive coordinator, Skip Holtz.
Lou Holtz hired his son for a job which was coveted by every young coach in the country, despite the fact that his credentials consisted of one year as an assistant under Bobby Bowden at Florida State and another year at Colorado State under Earl Bruce--both jobs his father helped him get.
Dan Devine, a former Irish coach who won a national championship in the Seventies, told the authors how highly he regards Holtz as a coach.
Then Devine adds:
"Well, his reputation with other coaches is not good. They think he cheats and they think he's hypocritical. They don't think he's a good winner. He's just an unpopular guy. I guess I would say that he is perceived by his enemies as being ruthless and by his friends as being determined. Lou's strength is in selling Lou Holtz. And the one thing I know for sure is that he can get from here to there as well as anyone."
The detestation for Holtz is almost unanimous among his former players and faculty associates.
Dr. Robert Hunter, who was the trainer at the University of Minnesota when Holtz was there, summed him up thusly:
"Lou is a repellent. Nobody can stay around him for too terribly long. He either moves or others move away. That is his personality."
One former player, Chris Lacheta, recalled what happened to him at Holtz's hands:
"It was spring practice in my freshman year, and I had had knee surgery just before I came in. Then I got mono and my weight went down from 240 to 220. I had no strength. I was running with the first team and I made a lot of mistakes."
At the end of practice, Holtz began shouting at Lacheta in front of everyone. He called him a coward and told him not to come back in the fall.
"First, he grabbed me by the face mask and shook it. Then he just spit on me."
Holtz often says that the greatest insult you can heap upon someone is to spit on him. He has spit on players often through the years.
I thought of all those things last Saturday when I saw Holtz storm out onto the playing field and drag one of his own players to the sidelines, cursing at him all the way.
We are both mesmerized and ultimately deceived by success. Woody Hayes, the old Ohio State coach, was fired from his job for behavior like this.
I need not remind you what happened to our own sainted Frank Kush.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.