Holtz reflects on Hall-of-Fame coaching career

WINTERSVILLE – Even after a coaching career that spanned nearly five decades, Lou Holtz still has to make adjustments to his plans on the fly.

Not so much on the football field, anymore. Now, he must call audibles on the golf course.

“I try to shoot my age,” the 77-year old Holtz said, “and I can’t do that. So I just shoot my weight instead.”

Holtz, an East Liverpool native who hasn’t lost his sense of humor, started coaching football in 1960 as an assistant at Iowa. He had other assistant stops at William & Mary, Connecticut, South Carolina and Ohio State before landing his first head coaching job with William & Mary in 1969.

“Simply put, I’m old,” Holtz said with a laugh before taking the stage at his namesake’s annual Hall of Fame dinner. “The candles on my birthday cake cost more than the cake.”

Yet, he still remains one of the most recognizable faces in the college football world.

Holtz compiled a 249-132-7 in college and went 3-10 in a one-year stint leading the New York Jets.

After his second retirement from coaching in 2004, ESPN asked him to be an in-studio analyst for the network’s college football coverage.

“I quickly said, ‘no,’” Holtz said.

After some prodding they convinced him to just show up on Saturdays.

“A one-day tour of duty,” Holtz reminisced. “This can’t be too bad.”

It has since turned into a 10-year occupation, garnering sky-high ratings. Holtz joins Rece Davis and former University of Pittsburgh lineman Mark May each Saturday for a few hours in Bristol, Conn., and they enter living rooms across the country in between the network’s full slate of televised games.

“On my very first day at ESPN, they told me to go sit in the middle chair on set until we figure out who to put around you next week,” Holtz said. “Finally, this guy named Rece and this guy named Mark come in and I don’t know them, so I’m not going to say a word.

“I try to keep my mouth shut then Mark will say something off the wall and I can’t let him get away with that. We have some fun and banter and bicker all the time and it’s all natural – there’s no script, no teleprompter and no rehearsal. What you see on television is what you get from us. It forces me to use my mind.”

He stays aware of all the happenings of the country’s top programs, but he remains loyal to the teams close to home.

“I love Ohio State,” Holtz said. “Urban Meyer coached for me (at Notre Dame) and Woody Hayes was one of my longest friends.

“West Virginia will always have my following. I have strong feelings for the Mountaineers and we beat them in the national title game.”

Holtz was in his third season leading Notre Dame when the Fighting Irish topped WVU, 34-21, in the Fiesta Bowl to claim the 1988 National Championship.

He led Notre Dame to nine-straight bowl game appearances during his 11-year tenure there. A statue of Holtz was erected outside of Notre Dame Stadium in 2008, the same year he was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame.

“When they build a statue for you, you have an obligation to root for them,” Holtz said. “I had some great players in that time and we were able to accomplish some great things.”

Holtz retired from Notre Dame in 1996. He came out of retirement in 1999 and coached South Carolina for five seasons, earning National Coach of the Year honors in 2000.

“When I went to South Carolina, they said we could never win,” Holtz said. “But we beat Ohio State twice in bowl games and had a nice winning streak. It’s nice to see success from every team, it’s especially nice when the teams you coached for keep building into a strong program.”

He was also the head coach at North Carolina State, Arkansas and Minnesota before he made a name for himself in South Bend.

Holtz’s advice to younger coaches is simple: “try to have your players enjoy success.”

“Evaluate talent, but enjoy success,” he said.

“As a coach you’re obligation is not to be popular or well-liked, it’s to make (players) be the very best they can be. Have standards for them to reach. Never criticize them; criticize their performance and encourage them to perform at a higher level each time out.”