April 29, 2011

Holtz says Catholic faith has shaped his life

By John Shaughnessy

Lou HoltzAs a motivational speaker, legendary football coach Lou Holtz has often relied on humor to win over an audience.

Consider his comment about how to be happy: “Happiness is nothing more than having a poor memory. If you can’t remember what happened yesterday, you feel pretty good today.”

He sometimes even directs his humor at himself, including this memory from his days as the football coach at the University of Arkansas:

“After one big victory when I was at Arkansas, I was put in the Arkansas Hall of Fame and a stamp was issued with my name on it. But the next year, we lost to Texas and they had to take me off the stamp. People were spitting on the wrong side.”

A former head football coach at the University of Notre Dame who led the team to a national championship in 1988, Holtz also has a flair for magic tricks. He has been known to apparently rip a section of a newspaper into several parts then restore it to its original, intact form while encouraging a team or a group of people to have “faith and belief, and stay together.”

Now a college football studio analyst for the cable television sports network ESPN, Holtz will share his blend of humor, magic and inspiration as the keynote speaker for the Spirit of Service Awards Dinner on May 11 at the Indiana Roof Ballroom in Indianapolis.

During the dinner, which benefits the efforts of Catholic Charities Indianapolis to help people in need, the archdiocese will honor four Catholic individuals for their outstanding volunteer service— Fiorella Gambetta-Gibson, Charles Guynn, David M. Jackson and Leo Stenz. (Related story: Tickets are still available for Spirit of Service Awards dinner on May 11)

In anticipation of the awards dinner, The Criterion interviewed the 74-year-old Holtz about a variety of subjects, including his upcoming 50th wedding anniversary, the importance of his Catholic faith in his life and his bond with other Notre Dame football coaches. Here is an edited version of that interview.

Q. You are sought after as a speaker. What led you to agree to be the keynote speaker at this year’s Spirit of Service Awards Dinner?

A. “I have a daughter who lives in Indianapolis with three grandchildren and a son-in-law. Plus, Brian Baker, who played for me at the University of Notre Dame, asked me to do it. It’s also good to recognize people who give of their time in order to help other people. It’s what we call ‘being significant’ rather than ‘being successful.’ That comes when you help other people to be successful.

“The idea of getting on an airplane, traveling, being away from your family, and dealing with the work that has piled up when you get back, you look at it many times and you say, ‘Why in the world do I do this when it creates such a problem?’ Then you think about the sacrifice that people have made, not only to put on the dinner, but the people being honored. ‘Well,’ you say, ‘this is a worthwhile cause,’ and you go do it.”

Q. Talk about the importance of your faith in your life.

A. “I don’t know how you get by without faith. I’ve had a lot of people say, ‘Oh, faith? Show me proof, and I’ll believe.’ Well, faith is believing without fact.

“We pray as a family. It’s kept our family together. And we pray on major decisions. We prayed when I was offered the coaching job at [the University of] Minnesota. After praying as a family, we decided we would take the job if we could put a Notre Dame clause in it [a clause that he could leave the Minnesota job if Notre Dame offered him the position of head football coach]. This goes on and on. We pray on major decisions.”

Q. How has being a Catholic shaped your life?

A. “I was raised Catholic on both sides of the family. I went to a Catholic grade school. I’ve just come to believe in Catholicism, and I believe in it stronger today than ever—even with all the problems and difficulties that the Catholic Church has had in recent years. Jesus told St. Peter, ‘Upon this rock, I will build this Church’ ” (Mt 16:18).

Q. You and your wife, Beth, will be celebrating your 50th wedding anniversary on July 22. What is the approach that the two of you have brought to your marriage and your family?

A. “I think everything has to be based on trust. We’re [as] opposite as night and day, but we have the same core values, the things we believe in. She’s very religious. She’s the strongest part of our family. We just try to do the right thing for our children and each other. And we make sure we can trust each other unequivocally.”

Q. One of your sayings is, “There are four things that we must do and have to succeed in life. Something to live for. Someone to love and love us. Something to hope for. Something to believe in.” What do you live for and hope for these days?

A. “I think that’s the biggest problem that most people have when they get older. You stop having something to hope for. Dreams, goals and ambitions are what motivate people and keep people alive. When [legendary University of Alabama football coach] Bear Bryant got out of coaching, he died two months later.

“I think it’s important for people of all ages to have something that they want to accomplish and hope for.

“My wife, being a survivor of stage four cancer, wants to see a grandchild get married and wants to see great-grandchildren. It’s just now more personal—about family and things like that. No longer is it about accomplishing anything materialistic or professionally.”

Q. In September, your son, Skip, will be returning to Notre Dame—where he played for you and coached with you—as he leads his University of South Florida football team in the opening game of the season. What will that day be like for you?

A. “Obviously, I have a great deal of respect for Notre Dame, but he is my son. I will not be at the game. My family will be. I’ll be at ESPN. And it’s probably better because I get too nervous when I’m at one of his games. It’s only his second year coaching there, but he’ll bring a well-coached football team to Notre Dame.”

Q. Is there a bond among the people who have been the head football coach at Notre Dame?

A. “I definitely think so. I know that Ara Parseghian and I have a very, very close bond. I have the utmost respect for him. And Gerry Faust, there’s not a better person that I’ve ever met than Gerry. It’s just special at Notre Dame, even with the trials and tribulations, the pressure. And yet, at the same time, you can’t really understand it unless you’ve been there and done it.”

Q. What are some of the main ways you have tried to make the connection between sports and faith in your coaching career?

A. “I never really preached it, but I hope the way you live your life reflects the faith you have in God.”

Q. Is the advice you give your grandchildren the same as you gave your children?

A. “Absolutely the same. No different. It’s about doing the right thing, doing the best you can and showing people you care. Those are the only three rules you need. We have county laws, state laws, federal laws, corporate laws, in-laws, bylaws and outlaws, but just do what’s right.”

Q. You’re considered a great motivational speaker. What’s the most important message that you hope people remember from your talks?

A. “You understand that everybody’s got problems. Everybody’s got difficulties. This is all part of life. You’re never going to be free of problems. What’s important is being able to handle any problems and being able to cope with them.” †

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