Holtz’s coaching success exceeded by devotion

Lou Holtz has put together one of the most distinguished coaching careers in college football. 

He made his reputation taking underachieving programs and turning them into winners with perhaps his most famous stint being at the University of Notre Dame where he guided the Irish to a 12-0 won-lost record in 1988 and a national championship, but none of his accomplishments are as important to him as his Catholic faith.

The Follansbee, West Virginia, native is used to being not taken seriously due to his 5-foot, 10-inch frame and having a lisp.  Yet his undersized stature has seen him fight for everything since his football playing days as a linebacker at Kent State University where injuries cut short his career.  One cannot estimate success by the size of someone, especially when it comes to Holtz and the strong beliefs he has for his religion.

"Some people want to see the proof to believe," Holtz said.  "The whole basis of faith is that you don't need to have something shown to you to believe in it."

Holtz grew up in East Liverpool, Ohio, where he attended St. Aloysius grade school for eight years.  Holtz, 76, says that it was not the gridiron that would be his lifelong calling.

"I thought I would be a priest when I was a young kid because of my strong belief in the Catholic faith and in the Bible," Holtz said.  "These were two very important things in my life, and they still are today."

What he learned in the Catholic grade school became the foundation of his faith and life.  "I was taught by the sisters of Notre Dame, and I had nuns teaching me in each class for eight years at St. Aloysius," Holtz said.  "We had religion taught to us every day and were taught the catechism.  Plus, being an altar boy really influenced my beliefs.  They gave me a great education, especially how to live."

Holtz started his coaching career as a graduate assistant at the University of Iowa in 1960 where he earned his Master's Degree.  His first head coaching job occurred at William and Mary in 1969.  He had other stints as a collegiate head football coach where he successfully turned around each program.

Holtz said his Catholic faith was once again tested when the University of Minnesota called him for its head coaching job in 1984.

"I immediately went to my family, where we prayed for a half hour on whether or not I should take the job, and I decided to take (it).  I was able to come in and accomplish the goal of turning around the program and getting them into a bowl."

From 1986-96 Holtz posted a won-lost-tied record of 100-30-2 at Notre Dame and led the Irish to nine consecutive bowl games.

His success did not go unnoticed and made him attractive for other programs who wanted to turn around their fortunes.  And so it was that the most storied program in college sports – the University of Notre Dame – approached Holtz to turn around its ailing program in the mid-1980s.

Holtz's contract at Minnesota contained a "Notre Dame clause" allowing him to leave if he was offered the Irish head coaching position.  He seized the opportunity to coach at Notre Dame and accepted the position in 1986.  Coaching Notre Dame football ranked high on the list of 108 things he wanted to accomplish in his lifetime.  He has accomplished 102 of them.  Among those on the list that stand out for Holtz was when he got to meet Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict.

"I really enjoyed coaching at Notre Dame and being on the campus," Holtz said.  "It was nice to know that it was easy to be able to practice my Catholic faith and not have to worry about somebody calling the ACLU," Holtz said.

The most recent adventure for Holtz, who is now an analyst for ESPN, was just over three weeks ago when he visited the United States troops in Afghanistan.  He was in the region for eight days where he visited several military outposts.  Holtz called it one of the most satisfying things he has ever done.

"It was just an incredible experience where we had the opportunity to meet with several generals," Holtz said.  "We were able to take gifts and toys and visit troops in the hospital."

In citing those that have made the biggest impact in his life, he says, "My wife Beth and I have been married for 52 years.  She is a cancer survivor and has started a Bible study group in our neighborhood.  She has been my greatest inspiration.  Father Hesburgh and Father Joyce were very influential to me while I was at the University of Notre Dame, and I have not forgotten what they have taught me over the years."

More in US

The end of that statement is clear as Lou Holtz is not only an accomplished sportsman, but a great Catholic.

Posted with permission from the Catholic Sports Association, an organization dedicated to highlighting Catholic sports professionals and enriching junior high and high school student-athletes with Catholic sports articles, conferences, a Web series, and other programs.


Our mission is the truth. Join us!

Your monthly donation will help our team continue reporting the truth, with fairness, integrity, and fidelity to Jesus Christ and his Church.