Former Notre Dame quarterback Tony Rice didn’t want to bother Lou Holtz at the Vanderbilt game a few months ago, so he planned to say a quick hello and be on his way.
But Holtz wouldn’t let him go so fast. It had been seven years since Rice played for Holtz, but the coach remembered he had just celebrated his 29th birthday and wanted to wish him well.
“It’s little things like that,” Rice said when asked how he would remember Holtz. “But the little things mean a lot, and that really made me feel good. I love the heck out of him, that’s for sure.”
With Holtz’s career at Notre Dame coming to a surprisingly sudden end, the comparisons to the great Irish coaches - Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy and Ara Parseghian - have already begun. When asked how he’d like to be remembered, Holtz doesn’t talk about the 1988 national championship or the fact he won more games than anyone but Rockne in his 11 years.
No, Holtz talks about his players, and the role he had in their lives.
“I’m more interested in how our players will remember me 20 years from now,” he said Tuesday, the day he resigned. “Will they reflect back and think upon the experiences we had and the lessons they learned? To me, that’s far more important than how I’ll be remembered.”
Others, however, will remember - and judge - Holtz solely on what the Irish accomplished on the field during his tenure.
His 99 victories are second only to Rockne’s 105, and he coached more games at Notre Dame than any other coach. He’s one of only 15 coaches to have won 200 or more games. His 1988 and 1989 teams won 23 consecutive games, a school record.
But he didn’t win as many national titles as Parseghian, Rockne or Leahy, and he actually lost more games (29) than any other Irish coach. His 1988 team - led by Rice - won the national championship, but Notre Dame finished No. 2 in 1989 and 1993. And there were other teams that fans thought should have contended for the title and didn’t.
“It’s a little too early on how history will remember him,” said Dan Devine, whose 1977 team won a national championship. “(But) his record will be wellremembered.”
Holtz, 59, came to Notre Dame in 1985 when the Irish were wallowing in mediocrity. They’d had two losing seasons in five years under Gerry Faust, and people had started questioning whether Notre Dame could really win again with its tough academic requirements.
But Holtz had a reputation for reviving programs. The thin, frail-looking man with a lisp was hardly an imposing figure, but he became a different person on the field. He had an obsessive desire to win, and he demanded perfection from his players.
He would scream at them during practice and games, and he once led a player off the field by his facemask.
“Practice was hard,” Rice said. “But he wasn’t doing anything to harm you, he was doing it to help you out and make you better.
“He gave us the motivation to go out there and try to accomplish something. And learn from your mistakes and make sure you don’t make the same mistakes.”
And Holtz got results. Three years after he came to Notre Dame, the Irish won the national championship. They came close again in 1989, finishing No. 2 to Miami. Another Florida team, Florida State, edged Notre Dame for the title in 1993.
Ask Holtz about 1993, and he’ll say that title rightfully belongs to Notre Dame. Both teams won their bowl games and finished with one loss, and Holtz claimed the Irish should have been No. 1 because they’d beaten the Seminoles head-to-head - the same reasoning that gave Miami the national championship in 1989.
“I thought we won in ‘93,” he said. “And I think if you pray on it like I have, you’d feel the same.”
But there’s more to Holtz’s legacy than the national championships he won or didn’t win, Parseghian said. People might not realize how much he accomplished now, but they will develop a greater appreciation for him once he’s gone, he said.
“I don’t think they’ll isolate it down to one national championship,” he said. “He’s become a legend, simply by the fantastic record that he has.”
There was more to Holtz than just statistics, Rice said. Though he might have appeared harsh or unfeeling, Holtz cared as much about his players’ preparation for life after football as he did about the games they played.
Rice credits Holtz for helping him find his first job, and said the coach is still willing to share his time and advice whenever Rice needs it.
“Most people are just worried about you playing football for four years and then they disown you,” Rice said. “He did a very good job of preparing his players for the real world.”
No matter how Holtz is judged - by his records or the effect he had on his players - he will be remembered well, Devine said.
“He leaves with a distinguished career and highly respected,” he said. “I don’t think he will soon be forgotten.”