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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: BOWL WEEK : Holtz and Notre Dame: Merger of Possibilities

December 29, 1987|THOMAS BONK | Times Staff Writer

This is the Lou Holtz sideline check list: Cap on. Eyes staring straight ahead. Hands shoved deep into jacket pockets. Pacing back and forth in front of the Notre Dame bench so he can fight off brain lock. You know, like maybe he can walk it off.

Is there something funny going on here?

"If you pace, you think a little bit better than you do if you're just standing there," said Holtz.

So what is this Lou Holtz? The world's first stand-up comicoach ?

When he has paced his last sideline, there's always the Comedy Store or the Improv beckoning to him, but Holtz said Notre Dame is going to be his last coaching job.

"Yeah, I mean where do you go from Notre Dame?" Holtz asked.

OK, where do you go from Notre Dame?

"Well, if you win, you go to Heaven. If you lose, you go to Purgatory."

And if you're 8-3, you go to Dallas.

It is there, in the Cotton Bowl, that Notre Dame will play Texas A&M on New Year's Day in a matchup that seems to have very little going for it, other than something that may eventually be regarded as a small piece of history--Notre Dame's first bowl game with Holtz as coach.

Last season, after Holtz had bolted from Minnesota and Notre Dame was wallowing in its Faustian funk, the Irish finished 5-6. And you know what? No one suggested that Holtz be thrown in front of that light in the tunnel, the one that belongs to that oncoming train Holtz has spoken of so many times in his travel monologues.

Let's look at Holtz's itinerary: Begin in 1969. Start with the two years at William & Mary, where his only regret was that he wasn't there long enough to find out their last names.

In the four seasons from 1972 through 1975, Holtz's teams were 33-12-3 and went to four bowl games at North Carolina State. Then he was lost on the runway with the New York Jets for a year. After that, Holtz spent seven years and six bowl games at Arkansas, where his teams had a 60-21-2 record, followed by two seasons and a 10-12 record at Minnesota.

Now, after only two years and just one winning season at South Bend, Holtz is receiving a lot of praise. First-year Athletic Director Dick Rosenthal, who inherited Holtz instead of hiring him, said that Holtz had already leaped right up there in Irish lore with some of the biggies.

"Honest to gosh, if somebody had an assignment to mold a Knute Rockne and a Frank Leahy, they couldn't have done a better job than Lou Holtz," Rosenthal said. "He is Notre Dame."

Now, that's funny, Holtz said.

"I want to tell you this," he said. "We've had so many great coaches here, the chances of Notre Dame having another one are very small. So don't expect anything. People say, 'How do you want to be remembered at Notre Dame?' I'd say as a dumb coach who was the luckiest guy to ever win three national championships.

" 'He was dumb, but that little sucker was sure lucky. Can you believe he won three national championships?' That's how I'd like to be remembered."

So far, Holtz--that dumb, lucky little sucker--is saying all the right things, making all the right people happy and winning enough games to make the whole thing worthwhile. It is actually a difficult chore. Being the football coach at Notre Dame is kind of a pressure job. Picture the Pope with a whistle.

It's still early in the Holtz era at Notre Dame, where you don't just pace the sideline, but you pace it beneath the watchful eyes of Knute Rockne and Frank Leahy, who are looking down from above, the Irish say. Meanwhile, from Florida, Ara Parseghian is also watching when he's not playing golf, and Parseghian likes what he sees of Holtz.

"He's turned the program around in two years," Parseghian said. "When he took the job, I said he'd have them in a major bowl game in three years, so he's ahead of schedule. Notre Dame people are very encouraged by Lou. I know there was a lot of criticism of Gerry Faust, and I'll give you an example of how things have changed.

"There used to be so many errors, like offsides and delay of game, and they were repeated. That was the thing that saddled Gerry Faust. Now, the feedback I get is that this football team doesn't make repeated errors with Lou. That's good coaching. As far as I'm concerned, he is the right coach at the right time at the right school."

So there you have it. This season, life was just a bowl game for Lou Holtz and Notre Dame. The Irish couldn't wait to get Faust and his 30-26-1 record out of South Bend. For five years under him, Notre Dame was the punch line to a football joke.

Now they've got a genuinely funny guy who is downright serious about his coaching. And here is something that looks like a real upset. This humor thing, no matter what appearances Holtz may give, might not be something to laugh at after all.

But before the serious stuff, a few Holtzisms:

On rumors he was leaving Arkansas to go to South Carolina: "I have never thought about leaving Arkansas since I got here. Suicide, yes. Leaving, no."

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