Lou Holtz, as the popular fable goes, is the first and only football coach to lose a national championship on account of his personality.
You remember 1993. Holtz's Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Bobby Bowden's Florida State Seminoles finished the season 10-1. Both won their New Year's Day bowl games. There wasn't much to separate the teams except this: In mid-November, in South Bend, Holtz's team beat Bowden's team, 31-24.
The championship decider?
Hardly. Despite the defeat, Florida State swept the top spot in both major polls. The real championship decider had more than a little to do with Bowden's aw-shucks likability and Holtz's uber grouch persona--the grim and gaunt Granny Holtz, forever whining and sandbagging his team's chances ("Northwestern is a truly frightening team; they put 11 men on the field and everything") and generally applying sandpaper to the nerves of most Americans.
Holtz should have listened to the motivational speech delivered Thursday afternoon at the Anaheim Marriott for the lunchtime entertainment of a few hundred local real estate managers and conventioneers.
The keynote speaker was Lou Holtz.
"I don't know if you realize how difficult it is to coach at Notre Dame," Holtz began, and the room braced itself for the worst.
"The year before I went to Notre Dame, Miami beat us, 58-6, so the alumni said, 'Coach, all we want to be is competitive.' My first year we lost five games by a total of 14 points against some of the top teams in the country. I thought that was rather competitive, but the alums said, 'No, you don't understand. Competitive at Notre Dame means to win, not come close.'
"The second year we went to the Cotton Bowl and the alums said, 'We meant win 'em all,' and the third year we won 'em all and they said, 'We meant by a big score.' "
Notre Dame didn't win them all in 1994, which left Holtz in a precarious position behind the podium at a recent alumni gathering.
"There was a guy sitting in the front from the FBI," Holtz said. "He was a Notre Dame alum, but I noticed he had a Magnum .357 pistol in his pocket in a holster. And it made me very, very nervous, and I could tell he didn't like what I was saying.
"I really got nervous when he took the gun out and put it on the table. They could tell how nervous I was and he sent me up a little note that said, 'Dear Coach, don't worry, I'm not going to shoot you. But I'd sure appreciate it if you pointed out the person who invited you to speak.' "
The Notre Dame football coach--he can't even eat out in public in peace, Holtz said, rimshot sadly missing.
"A few years ago, we took Notre Dame down to play Florida in the Sugar Bowl," he said. "I thought we had a pretty good team and I thought we'd win the game, which we ultimately did. But before the game, I was out to dinner with my wife and four children . . . and the waiter came up and he recognized me and he said, 'You're Lou Holtz, the coach at Notre Dame, aren't you?' And I said, 'Yessir.' And he pulled out a pen. I thought he wanted to get an autograph.
"He said, 'Let me ask you a question.' He said, 'What is the difference between Notre Dame and Cheerios?' I said, 'I don't know.' He said, 'Cheerios belongs in a bowl, Notre Dame doesn't.' "
Yeah, yeah, Holtz had heard that one before.
"So I say to him, 'Let me ask you a question. What's the difference between Lou Holtz and a golf pro?' He said, 'I don't know.' I told him, 'A golf pro gives tips.' "
Holtz told an Irish joke. And a Pope joke. And a guy-buys-a-talking-bird-at-a-pet-shop, bird-doesn't-talk joke. He waited for the belly-laughs to subside and he spun a few yarns.
On seeing Rocket Ismail for the first time: "I came home and said to my wife, 'Boy, that Rocket Ismail is really gonna be good.' She said, 'How can you tell? He's only been there one day.' I said, 'I saw him play tennis.' She said, 'What was impressive about that?' I said, 'He was playing by himself.' "
On his days as an assistant coach at William & Mary: "It was a nine-month job, so that meant three months out of the year I had to get a job to make ends meet. The job I got in 1963 was selling cemetery plots. I don't know how tough your job is, but I'm gonna tell you something--my wife told me, 'Cemetery plots? You won't sell anything.' That motivated me. I wanted to prove her wrong, so that summer I sold more than anybody else. I sold my car, my stereo . . . "
On a photo shoot at Disneyland after beating USC to go 11-0 in 1988: "They asked me to pose for a picture and on my left hand was Pluto and on my right hand was Goofy. I thought, 'OK, this is a little weird,' but I went along with it. All I did was pull down my Notre Dame hat. [A few days later] I saw the picture in the paper and the caption said, 'Lou Holtz, head coach of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, visits Disneyland.' What bothered me was the next sentence: 'Lou Holtz is the one in the middle.' "
This being a motivational speech--ostensibly--Holtz lectured his audience on the importance of specifying goals. For instance, Holtz said, his football team has three main goals in 1995.
"The third most important goal is to win the national championship--not to go 10-2, not to go to a bowl, but to be the best. That's why we practice, that's why we lift weights.
"The second most important goal is to graduate from Notre Dame. That's why they're there, they're there to get an education. You don't go to Notre Dame to learn something, you go to Notre Dame to be somebody.
"The most important goal we have at Notre Dame in 1995? Our players understand this completely. Make sure we win enough games to bring Coach Holtz back in 1996."
Bobby Bowden never worked a room any better.
The next time Holtz needs a few sportswriters' votes to move up in the polls, he needs to remember: Tell the one about the FBI agent again.