ESPN held a media conference call with ESPN college football and former Notre Dame head coach Lou Holtz on Wednesday, Dec. 19. Holtz, who coached Notre Dame to national championship in 1988, provides studio analysis for ESPN’s college football coverage throughout the season and calls select games. Below is a transcript of portions of the call:
On what Brian Kelly has had to learn as the coach of Notre Dame to put together a team that can compete for a national title:
Holtz: Notre Dame is different than any other place. When I went there, Ara Parseghian said this place is different than any other and you’ll have to learn how to handle all the media, all the distractions, everybody pulls you in a different direction, your time is not your own. But he said after you win a National Championship the coaching position will change again.
He’s absolutely right. Once you win a National Championship at Notre Dame, your life is never the same again after that. However, the main thing you have to learn when you get there is that the camaraderie and the togetherness of the school is a great asset.
And you’re always going to have talent. You have to teach the fundamentals, you have to develop the young players, and you get a lot of good athletes at Notre Dame. There were great athletes there in ’86 when I went there. We had an awful lot of talent. But when a young man comes in who’s a great football player, and they always are great when they come to Notre Dame, they’ve got to learn how to accept their role on the team. They’ve always been the star. They have to learn how to take coaching; they’ve never had that before, how to take criticism, how to accept his role on the team, how to budget his time, how to do little things, you know, all these things. They’ve never had that discipline and adherence to little things, and that’s something you have to do, and getting everybody to blend in together.
And then all of a sudden you realize, hey, this isn’t any different than any other place on the field. They’re different off the field, they’re exactly the same on the field. Off the field the demands on them academically, et cetera, are very difficult. But once you get comfortable there ‑‑ and by your third year, Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine, Lou Holtz and I think Brian Kelly all win the National Championship in the third year. Why the third year? Because by that time you’re comfortable with it, the players have bought into your system, you’ve been able to recruit for your system, and you’ve been able to build a camaraderie and a trust between the players and the coaches. And that isn’t there immediately when you go anywhere, there’s never that trust.
So I think these are some of the things that you learn as you go there that, boy, the demands and the expectations and all of a sudden you feel you’ve got to special, and you don’t. Just be yourself, and by the third year you start to feel that.
On preseason thoughts about Notre Dame:
Holtz: I have about six or seven emails that were sent to me by people that – I get a lot of mail from Notre Dame people and fans, et cetera, and they sent me a copy of the email I sent them. August 26 I said this is going to be a very special year for Notre Dame. Why did I feel that? Watching their spring game, I was very impressed with Everett Golson then, his – just his presence on the field, his strength of his arm, his accuracy and his vision. And he reminded me so much of Tony Rice as far as being in control of everything.
I thought they had an excellent offensive line coming back. I did not know their defense would be as good as it has been. And if you look at the preceding year, Notre Dame had an excellent football team. Nobody really beat Notre Dame the year before. Notre Dame beat themselves.
I just felt they had receivers, they had good running back. Theo Riddick can do both. I just felt all those things were coming together, and the fact that nobody really beat them the year before, they beat themselves. This year they’ve taken great protection of the ball.
Manti Te’o, yeah, they lost Lynch which I thought would hurt them, but I didn’t think they’d be as good on defense as they are, but I thought they’d be one of the better teams in the country.
On the importance of Notre Dame and marquee programs in college football to be relevant?
Holtz: I think it’s very important, and I’ve said this before. I’m happy for Notre Dame. And I’m happy for their fans. Same thing I spoke at South Carolina’s commencement on Monday, and I’m so happy for South Carolina’s football program because the fans and loyalty, I mean, these Notre Dame fans have been waiting for years to be able to jump up and scream and holler, and it’s good for college football.
When Notre Dame is on top, college football is better. I’ve been going to ESPN for eight years, and there’s about six restaurants I go and eat in. I’ve been doing this for eight years. For the first time I’ve had waitresses say, boy, isn’t this a great year for Notre Dame. I didn’t even know if they knew the ball was blown up or stuffed. I go through the airport, I go through security – I get through security a lot easier now than I ever have before. Hey, Coach, Notre Dame is doing great; isn’t this wonderful? I mean, people that never talked to me about college football before.
I think it’s the same thing with the Dallas Cowboys, with San Francisco 49ers. I mean, people that follow it nationally, I think it’s important for Alabama, for Ohio State, for Oklahoma, for Southern Cal, all these national schools to be on top because it just creates greater interest, and no school creates greater interest than Notre Dame. I don’t think you could ever pick a better matchup between two great programs than Alabama and Notre Dame, particularly if you go back to Bear Bryant, the ’73‑’74 game, cost us the National Championship. Well, he broke a record. I called Coach Bryant, and I said, Coach, congratulations. I felt I should call because I contributed to your success. He beat me in the Sugar Bowl for the National Championship when I was with Arkansas.
You know what he said to me? He said, aww, Coach, I’ll be the guy that goes down as the guy that couldn’t beat Notre Dame. He wanted to beat Notre Dame so bad and he could never do it. So it just brings back so many great memories. Yeah, I think it’s great for ESPN when Notre Dame is on top, it’s good for Lou Holtz when they’re on top.
On Louisville coach Charlie Strong:
Holtz: Charlie called me about, oh, a week or 10 days ago, and a lot of schools were – had interest in him and approached him, and Charlie called and said, I just wanted to get your opinion on some things. He started talking about Louisville and started talking about the obligation he made to Teddy Bridgewater his quarterback and his parents, about the athletes he had coming back, a couple transfers he thought were going to be outstanding, how much he loves Louisville, how much the administration had been supportive and gave him a chance when many other schools wouldn’t, and he goes on and on, and I said, Charlie, I don’t know why you’re calling me; your mind is made up. Just listening to you talk, there’s nothing you can do but stay at Louisville, and he said, you’re right, Coach, you’re right. I called for your opinion, but I know in my heart what I want to do.
Now, as far as playing Florida, Florida is an outstanding defensive football team. They’re a good offensive football team, not necessarily a great one. I think Muschamp has done a great job. But do not underestimate Louisville in that Sugar Bowl. Charlie Strong and Vance Bedford, the defensive coordinator, both were at Florida under Urban Meyer. Charlie was there, also, Charlie coached for me at South Carolina and was our defensive coordinator and we beat Ohio State in back‑to‑back Bowl games and then he went to Florida. They will be exceptionally motivated.
In addition to that, think how many players on that Louisville team are from the state of Florida, and so they will be exceptionally motivated, and they’re also a very good team. But they’re also going to be healthier. You know, at the end of the year they won a lot of close games, but they were pretty much beat up, and I think that this will be a heck of a football game. I would not be surprised if Louisville were to beat them, although I think Florida is better than them right now, but Louisville going into the ACC will be a great asset for their recruiting, as well.
On game strategy for Notre Dame and Alabama:
Holtz: I would start with goal line offense, and I would not allow them to bring both corners off the side and stop the iso. Why people have not taken advantage of the fact that they always bring their corners hard off the corner and they’ve been able to stop everybody on 4th and 1, and then when Southern Cal was the first team to fake the iso and throw at the guy wide open but he stumbled a little bit and didn’t take a particularly good throw, so I think you have to start there.
Getting down there inside the 10‑yard line not scoring a touchdown is like reaching a par‑5 in golf in two and then six‑putting. You get nothing out of it. You went down there, yeah, great, but you got nothing out of it. So you have to be able to score on Notre Dame when you do get a chance.
The other thing is being able to run the football. Alabama has a great offensive line. I think Barrett Jones is not only a great player, he’s a great young man. I had a chance to spend some time with him down at the Home Depot show, and they have a great offensive line. They’ve got two great running backs in there. But you have to establish the run because McCarron is better at play action passing than any other time. So if we can establish the run, then that makes a play action pass and being able to go downfield.
The one thing about Notre Dame, they would not give up the big play. You look at how many passes over 15 years have been completed on Notre Dame, it’s an amazingly small number. So if you can’t run the football, then you aren’t going to have a chance to run the play action.
So I would say this: Got to establish the run on a consistent, and what Notre Dame has to do is disrupt them. Alabama is going to make some yards running, but what you can’t let them do is go four, five, six yards like what happened to Georgia. I don’t care if they go four yards, five yards, minus two, zero, and then you disrupt the rhythm. But you can’t let them get in a rhythm.
As far as what Notre Dame has to do against the University of Alabama, they match up very well. The fact that you have a quarterback that can run in Everett Golson, he doesn’t throw interception, hasn’t thrown an interception in the last four football games, he also is very elusive, he can run, he makes good choices. That gives them problems.
In Theo Riddick you have a young man who was a wide receiver for three years, now plays tailback. You have Tyler Eifert, could have went to school on a basketball scholarship. You can split him out, throw the alley‑oop to him, throw the corner route, which they’ve done very successfully, so I think you do that because Alabama likes to match up according to your personnel. You have three wide receivers, they’ll go and play five defensive backs, but all of a sudden you don’t know whether they have two wide receivers, three wide receivers because of what Theo Riddick is going to do.
A lot of people don’t think Notre Dame has a chance. They match up very, very well in this football game. If Brian Kelly is smart he’ll be able to do some different things that will surprise Alabama a little bit, but it’s going to be a great game.
Let me say one thing, though, on behalf of Alabama: If I was coaching Alabama, I would be a little bit upset. Here we are defending national champs, we’ve won two of the last three National Championships, and you never hear about them. The only thing you hear about is Notre Dame. There’s only one team playing this game. I turn on the TV I see nothing but specials on Notre Dame. You never see anything about Alabama, and I just think that Alabama is going to sit there and they’re going to say, we get no respect at all. That’s what’s going to be interesting about this game. I think it’s a great match‑up. It’s going to be a lot closer than people think.
On Notre Dame code of conduct and how handling of discipline by coaches changed on college football:
Holtz: Well, we had a policy at Notre Dame. They explained this to me before I went to Notre Dame, that I would have nothing to do with discipline. Now, they had a policy there that if an individual received a citation that he could not play athletics. In addition, if he violated certain policies on campus.
Now, let me give you an example. In ’89 we’re defending national champs. We had an All‑American linebacker, Michael Stonebreaker, who was going to be a junior, and he was cited in a traffic accident for having alcohol on his breath. He was not charged with drunken driving. They did not allow him to play the entire year because he had received a citation. That same day I found out that Tony Brooks, our leading ground gainer, who likewise was a rising junior, would not be allowed to play because he drove his car on campus. Now, he drove his car on campus to empty his clothes for the fall, but he had had parking tickets and he was not allowed to bring it back on campus. Neither one of those players played the entire year.
Now, it’s my understanding that Notre Dame has changed that policy a little bit in their student code. An individual can be arrested or receive a citation ‑ I don’t know all about it, but I do know it has changed a little bit because it was a little bit unfair to certain athletes.
Now, how does it change at different schools? I think that drug testing now ‑‑ when you see an individual has been dismissed from the football team for violation of team policies, almost all schools test for drugs now, as does the NCAA. When you get ready to go to a Bowl game the NCAA comes in and randomly tests like one third of your football team, if those results come out positively.
But I think that everybody has to have their own. I only had three rules. Three rules on our football team was, number one: Do the right thing. I mean, I don’t think it’s right to find a teammate’s wallet before he lost it. I think that’s called stealing. So just do the right thing.
And the second thing is do everything the best you can in academics, et cetera. And the last one is just show people you care, on the team and in the school. If you follow those three rules we won’t have any problems.
I look back on it, and we didn’t have many athletes run into difficulty with the law, but everybody has to handle it a little bit different. Some people overlook it a little bit more than others; some do it based on talent, et cetera. But I think in the long run all coaches are trying to have a discipline on a football team and a standard on it, and it’s not easy to do, particularly in today’s society when so many things are permissive.
On discipline if a player broke those three rules:
Holtz: This was what was critical about it, and it was the same rules I had for my children. You sit down and say I don’t believe you’re doing the best you can and here’s why. I never tried to attack the performer, you always attack the performance, and there were times where just ‑‑ you aren’t going to be late; I’m telling you right now, if you’re late one more time, your fault, my fault, bus driver’s fault, heart attack, you ain’t playing. When they became late, we sent both of them home from the game where we played Southern Cal, and we were both 10 and 0. You give somebody your word, you honor it.
But I never dismissed a player from a football team that I did not give him a path to get back. In other words, you’re not going to be part of this team any longer, you just ‑‑ I tried to get you to conform to these three rules and you won’t, and I can’t live with it any longer. You’re no longer going to be a part of the team. However, if you’ll do this, this and this and this, you can come back next year. And always gave him an option. Never, well, you’re no good, you’re out of here, you’re a bad person, no. You can come back, but you’re going to have to earn the right to come back.
On what it is like being the coach at Notre Dame where you compete for a national title:
Holtz: Well, once you win it, all of a sudden you don’t win a National Championship, you wake up one day and you are the national champion. But what happens is when you win it, everybody puts you on a pedestal. And once you’re on a pedestal, no matter what you do, it ain’t good enough. We finished second in the country, and everybody called me an idiot. A guy finishes last at medical school they call him Doctor. When you win, you didn’t win impressively enough and you didn’t win big enough. You get nothing but criticism after that time.
I mean, yeah, they’re nice to you, et cetera, but if you go 11 and 1, which happened to us in ’89 and in ’93, it was a disaster. But you know what, now everybody says, oh, you were a great coach, we loved having you. Well, where were you when I was there? And that is the difference. The story is the rise to the top. Once you’re on top, the only story then is coming down.
We went, I think, 10 straight years, we went into November with a chance to win the National Championship, some chances were better than others, but I don’t think we ever had more than one loss going into November.
But it’s just a difference ‑‑ the expectations become different. You’re supposed to be infallible, you’re supposed to never make a mistake, your team is always supposed to have everything perfect, and I think Darrell Royal summed it up best, and this is what happened. When you win, it’s a relief; when you lose, it’s a catastrophe, and it’s not much fun anymore. When you win and you can’t enjoy it and celebrate it, then that’s not good.
And I think as Father Joyce said, the mistake they made at Notre Dame was after 11 years. Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz all coached there 11 years. After 10 years they should say go take a year of sabbatical and come back. Ara Parseghian was young when he retired. But it sort of wears on you, grates on you. If they had given him a year off, Ara would have been good for another 10 years and would have been the best coach in the country then as he was the previous 10.
On if Notre Dame is placing more emphasis on recruiting in Florida and the Southeast:
Holtz: Notre Dame has always been able to recruit nationally. When I was at Notre Dame, Mark Green, our tailback, was from California. I think you look at Kory Minor was Player of the Year from California, Allen Rossum was from Texas, Tim Brown from Texas. One thing about Notre Dame, it can go anywhere in the country, and it will be ‑‑ and if the young man qualifies academically, it will be one of the two in the final choice. It will be ‑‑ in Texas it’ll be you and Texas; in California it’ll be you and Southern Cal perhaps; Florida it might be you and Florida or Florida State. But I think that the fact that the population shift is moving to the South ‑‑ and here’s the other thing that people don’t look at about the Big Ten: The Big Ten did not have a very good year, but let’s also look at the economic structure with the steel mills being gone, the potters being down, I’m from that area, and consequently the tax base. And so the schools have cut back an awful lot on their athletic programs.
I remember when I played, I mean, football was big. We had assistant coaches, we had a boosters club, everybody played their flag on game day. You grew up and you wanted to be a potter, you wanted to play. Now they don’t have that financial resource, so you don’t have as good an athletic program in the Midwest as you once did, plus much of the population is moving down south. And you have great emphasis on speed ‑‑ I don’t want to tell you, there was a high school football game here in Apopka, and I’ve never seen more talent on a football team in high school. I’m talking about throwing and catching and running. It’s incredible.
And so you can look at it like South Carolina and Louisiana are two states that people don’t realize what great athletes there are in that state, and so you go where the athletes are.
Now, Notre Dame has made some changes academically which has really enhanced and helped them tremendously since I was there. We could not offer a young man a scholarship until he came on campus and visited with the admissions officer, and we couldn’t do that until we had his second six‑week grade his senior year. So the first time we could offer a young man a scholarship would be the first week in December, and that was the policy then.
Now, Notre Dame has changed that policy. They tentatively will admit a young man or say you’ll be admitted based on his first three years of high school. Now, they have not changed the academics. They have not lowered the academic standard. When I was there, and I think it’s the same, you need three years of math through calculus, four years of English, two years’ foreign language, et cetera, but the reason they changed is because everybody signs early. Everybody does junior recruiting. When Skip left South Florida, they were already filled. They were recruiting for the following year, and that’s what happens.
So schools would say this: Well, you don’t even know if you’re going to get into Notre Dame and we aren’t going to wait until the last second to find out, so they had to make this concession to be competitive. Now, understand they did not change the academics one iota, but they had to change this in fairness to the football players and the football coaches because everybody is deciding by the end of their junior year.
On top 10 teams not making the BCS:
Holtz: The fact that you can only have two from a conference was put in there. There’s no other conference that would ever have to worry about getting two in except the SEC. But I think they have Georgia going to the Conference Championship 11 and 1 and played Alabama and had they spiked the ball maybe the outcome would have been different not to be able to play in it. I think LSU is in the top ten, A&M, South Carolina, I think you make good justification on it.
But that’s the way the rule is, and it’s because of the amount of money, and I think that they want to make sure that all conferences share in that wealth because you look at the amount of money somebody gets for going to a BCS school is tremendous.
I know they’re going to a playoff system. I really wish, and I mean this from the bottom of my heart, and I’ve been preaching this for several years and nobody listens to me ‑ and my wife doesn’t listen to me, I don’t know why the committee would ‑ but I would love to see this for college football: Let’s go back and let’s play all the Bowl games by January 1. Let’s not change the Bowls. Don’t tell the kids at East Carolina when they went and beat Boise State in a Bowl game that that wasn’t a tremendous experience.
Then on January 1 let’s take the top four teams then after January 1. So now in essence you’d really have an eight‑team playoff, and here’s why I think that’s important: Because then a Boise State, for example, would have a chance to be one of those four teams. If they went to a Bowl game and beat an Oklahoma, then they might be ‑‑ right now there’s no way anybody except a major conference is going to be one of those four teams, and I think eventually we’re going to get to four or five super conferences, that seems to be the direction we’re headed, but yeah, I think that the schools you mentioned, six teams from the SEC, any of them could be in a BCS game and without a doubt be justified.
On his third season as coach at Notre Dame and why the third year phenomenon keeps happening at Notre Dame:
Holtz: By the third year we had as much talent in ’86 as we had in ’88, but we had recruited for our system. We had Tony Rice, who was a very mobile quarterback compared to Beuerlein my first year. We had taken some people, we didn’t have many running backs, Alonzo Jefferson and Hiawatha Francisco were both injured my first year.
We had recruited Anthony Johnson at fullback; we had moved Mark Green to a tailback; we had taken Andy Heck from a tight end to an offensive tackle, where he made All‑American; we took Frank Stams from a fullback, where he was a decent fullback, to a defensive rush end where he became All‑American; we were able to take a Pat Terrell, move him from wide receiver to safety, and you know the importance that he made.
Some of the younger players we recruited, a Todd Lyght, a Stan Smagala, started really developing; a D’Juan Francisco, moved him from running back to cornerback; a George Streeter. And just we had moved a lot of players to different positions and the staff became familiar with them, they became familiar.
Barry Alvarez becoming the defensive coordinator brought the chemistry of the football team together. But just the fact that we had a Raghib Ismail all of a sudden split out, a Pat Eilers who came to us from Yale as a walk‑on, a lot of the players were in different positions and we were able to utilize their talents and ability, plus the expectations.
I remember talking to our football team in the spring of ’88, and by that time I had come to the realization that at Notre Dame you expect to win, and it isn’t winning most of them; you’re expected to win every single game, and you have those expectations about what it’s going to take in order to do that and about the tradition and the history of Notre Dame and the excellence there. You just get involved with it because all of a sudden you realize what that’s all part of. I think that’s predominantly why things happened at least in our case.
On key matchups he looks forward to seeing in the game:
Holtz: Boy, I think that the key matchup is Alabama versus Notre Dame. But as far as matchups, I am anxious to see how Alabama’s offensive line matches up with Manti Te’o and the defensive front of Notre Dame. They’re probably the two best. This Notre Dame defense is very comparable to an SEC defense. They’re very physical, they’re very strong. They get good pressure with the four‑man rush. They’re very good fundamentally.
That’s going to be the key because Alabama has got to be able to run the football with some degree of success on a consistent basis. Doesn’t have to break the big one, but three or four years, because as you know, McCarron, who I think is an underrated quarterback, he is ultra successful, particularly this year, when he throws play action passes.
Now, unlike Golson, Golson can scramble, run bootlegs, present a lot of problems, and you don’t know where the pocket is going to be on Golson. That’s one of the advantages of being able to spread out and drop back or run play action passes, because Notre Dame knows where McCarron is going to throw the ball from. He’s going to be behind the center about seven yards deep.
When Alabama goes to blitz, Notre Dame, they don’t know, do I bring an inside blitz and all of a sudden he’s sprinting out or bootlegging out, and all of a sudden he’s out there and now we don’t have him contained, now we’ve got to be able to cover the guy for four seconds instead of two. That just presents an awful lot of problems, but I do believe the key matchup is Alabama’s offensive line versus the defensive line of Notre Dame.
Then you say, well, can the receivers get free, can Alabama and Amari Cooper get free on the secondary of Notre Dame, and Notre Dame does a very good job of disguising their coverages.
On Everett Golson:
Holtz: I watched their spring game, and I’m not very smart, but I do have ‑ what’s the word called ‑ I have a photographic memory when it comes to a football film, and I can picture in my mind today the ball on the 27‑yard line, and he’s back and he’s got pressure and all he does is sidestep one guy, never takes his eyes off downfield, continues, and then delivers a strike to a guy in the right corner of the end zone. And that was a freshman in the spring game. I said, wow.
I think he has matured, he has developed, he has unbelievable poise. He doesn’t get flustered. He doesn’t make bad decisions. You aren’t going to pressure him into throwing a bad ball. He’s very difficult to sack. I mean, I remember Manziel giving an awful lot of problems to Alabama. Well, I think Golson does the same thing. He doesn’t have the speed of Johnny Manziel, but he’s not slow by any stretch of the imagination, but he just has a great presence, and I don’t think there’s any doubt that he’ll be even better.
On what he learned from winning the national championship that he would share with Brian Kelly:
Holtz: I want to tell you, what I’m about to say is the most important thing you’re going to hear, and that is we took the program, we took it to the very top, and for 10 straight years we kept it there. Nine straight years we went to a January 1 Bowl, the Sugar, the Cotton, the Sugar or the Fiesta. Nobody had done it before and nobody has done it since. In the 10th year we miss an extra point with two minutes to go or a minute and a half to go, which would have put us up by nine over Southern Cal which would have put us in a major Bowl again my last game I coached.
And you get on top and you say, you know, this is pretty good. Let’s not risk it, let’s not jeopardize it. There’s a role in life. You’re either growing or you’re dying. A tree is either growing or it’s dying; so is grass; so is a marriage; so is a business; so is a person. It doesn’t have a thing to do with age; it has everything to do with are we trying to get better or are we trying to maintain.
You get on top, you say this is pretty good, let’s not change anything. Well, you don’t change anything, you don’t have anything you’re trying to aspire to, no reason to celebrate, no reason to get excited. When I left Notre Dame, I thought I was tired of coaching. I was not tired of coaching, I was tired of maintaining.
This is true in the media business, it’s true in football, it’s true in life. When people say why do you continue to work when you’re so old your birthday candles cost more than the cake? Because everybody needs four things: Everybody needs something to do, someone to love, someone to believe in, something to hope for. And as long as you’re coaching, and the dumbest thing I did, we should have set standards that nobody felt was possible. But you get pulled and tugged in so many different directions, and that’s the thing I regret. Don’t maintain. We maintained it well, but that was a mistake.