The Complicated Story of Lou Holtz at Notre Dame, Part 1 of 3



With Lou Holtz being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, days after the University of Notre Dame publicly distanced themselves from the man, we present Holtz’s story at ND, in three parts.

“What is the role of a Catholic university? Pope John Paul II wrote that our proper activity is ‘Learning to think rigorously, so as to act rightly and to serve humanity better.’

         -Father John I. Jenkins, “Inaugural Address, September 22, 2005”

To be involved with the University of Notre Dame in any capacity is an undertaking in the practice of faith – strong belief without evidence. Through this faith, the university has built a diverse community—a community for academia, theology, and friendship. 

However, when these communities converge, they create a group capable of wielding tremendous influence. They become football fans.  

There are four different types of faith: the belief that sins will be forgiven upon death, faith that life is a series of tests meant to prove our commitment, the practice of prayer and staying in constant communication with our deity, and daily faith – knowing that all needs will be met without evidence. 

At some point on football Saturdays, fans will engage in all four types of faith. Whether from the comfort of their home, a bar or in relatively remote South Bend, Indiana, nearing levels of overconsumption of adult beverages while draped in blue and gold. 

If a Catholic university’s role is to think rigorously and act rightly to serve humanity better, Saturdays in the Fall must be reprieved from that requirement. 

However, it shouldn’t be implied that rigorous thinking doesn’t occur on Saturday in between sips of beer and mouthfuls of grilled meat. 

A tremendous amount of analysis goes on before, during, and after a Notre Dame football game.

If you talk to fans, you’ll get detailed scouting reports of the opposition – a team that Notre Dame will surely, absolutely, positively, without question ultimately defeat. They will also tell you that any Fighting Irish football team that wins ten games should play on New Year’s Day (or in the College Football Playoff) despite the Power Five’s cartel-like influence on the game. 

But one thing fans can never seem to agree on is who to follow. There was Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham, Kent Baer, Charlie Weis, and now Brian Kelly. Coaches with a combined record of 172-102, a .628 winning percentage. 

notre dame stadium

During their tenure, Notre Dame played in three BCS bowls and one BCS National Championship. The only problem?

The Irish were 0-4 in those games and were outscored by an eye-popping margin 158-57. 

For 32 years, fans’ faith has been tested in the crucible of Notre Dame football seasons. As each year begins with uncontained optimism, it generally ends with disappointment. But there is always hope—a belief that this year’s team will perform better than the one prior.

Perhaps this year will be different from the others, waking the echoes and invoking the glory days of champion coaches like Rockne, Leahy, Parseghian, and, most recently, Holtz. 

If not best known for his stutter, Lou Holtz is a coach known for his 11-season stint as the head coach at Notre Dame from 1986-1996. He was born in West Virginia on January 6, 1937, and grew up in the industrial town of East Liverpool, Ohio, about 40 miles west of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Holtz came from incredibly humble beginnings; when speaking about his childhood, he said, “we had one bedroom for my sister, myself and my parents, a cistern and a half bath.” 

Coach Holtz had a reputation as a master motivator when he came to Notre Dame. He demanded discipline from his players and emphasized the value of community and hard work. One of his first decisions as head coach of Notre Dame was to remove the players’ names from the jerseys to emphasize team effort over individual effort. 

While at Notre Dame, Lou Holtz had a phenomenal W-L record of 100-30-2.

In 1988, he led the Irish to a national championship victory with a 34-21 win in the Sunkist Fiesta Bowl over West Virginia, capping off a 12-0 season. Holtz holds the Notre Dame record for most games coached and is second only to Knute Rockne in school wins. 

During his time as the Fighting Irish coach, he took the school to nine straight New Year’s Day bowl games. His impressive performance as the coach in South Bend earned him admittance into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2008. 

For fans of Notre Dame football in the modern era, it is upon the altar of Lou Holtz that they worship. 

notre dame

He answered their prayers and led them out of the difficult times they spent wandering the desert behind Dan Devine and Gerry Faust.

Two men who proved to be false prophets – unable to fill the shoes of the venerable Ara Parseghian after his departure. It is through coach Lou that fans achieved salvation.

However, after 20 years of once again wandering the college football desert in search of a national championship, Holtz’s apostles, growing weary and ever nostalgic, erected a statue for him outside of the Notre Dame stadium. 


When presented with the statue, Holtz said, “To be honored like this is a tribute to our athletes… I’m not a complicated individual. Life is based on being able to trust each other, being committed to excellence, knowing that you care about one another, and trying to do things to the best of my ability.” Inscribed on the base of the statue were the words: “Trust, Love, Commitment.” 

For Lou Holtz part 2 go here and then for part 3 go here.

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