As renowned as former football Coach Lou Holtz was for his success at Notre Dame and several other universities, it was his contributions off the gridiron that played a large role in his selection as the 2019 James V. Day “Good Guy” Award recipient by the Past Department Commander’s Club (PDCC) of The American Legion. Holtz spoke with the Legion’s deputy director of media relations, John Raughter, prior to the awards luncheon held in his honor at the organization’s 101st National Convention in Indianapolis.
Q: What was your reaction to learning that you were nominated for this award?
A: Well, when you see all the great people that they honored, you’re humbled. So many people you (the PDCC) recognized for what they did. I’m being recognized for basically what other people did: athletes, coaches, etc. Anytime you receive an award, it’s because somebody else gave you an opportunity to do so and I think of all of the other people who played such a prominent role in my life.
Q: Before you were a coach, you were an Army veteran. What was that like?
A: I went to ROTC. I was taught at an early age that I had an obligation to serve my country. This was when they still had the draft. And going to college, I was an officer in the Army — and the first two years of ROTC was not the greatest experience for them because I wasn’t really serious about it. And at the end of my sophomore year, they started paying me $27 a month and all of a sudden that seemed to be a great incentive. I went to summer camp at Fort Campbell, Ky., and really came to appreciate the things that the military can teach you. Then I graduated and reported to Fort Benning for basically officer infantry leadership school. And after that I was assigned to Fort Knox, Ky., where I served my time until I got out. It was after the Korean War and before the Vietnam War. Then I served in the reserves for seven years.
Q: What drew you to coaching?
A: Well, I had no desire to go into coaching. I had no desire to do anything except have a job, a car, a girl and $5. My high school coach at the end of my junior year told my parents that I should go to college and be a coach. Nobody in my family had ever gone to college, let alone graduated from college. I worked as well as played athletics, saved my money to buy a `49 Chevrolet and my parents insisted that I use that money to go to college. College wasn’t nearly as expensive as it is now. So, I went to college and that’s how I became a coach. It was at the influence of my high school coach.
Q: When you coached at a previous school, you famously had a “Notre Dame” clause – which allowed you to leave. Why?
A: When I went to Minnesota, they had offered the job to five different coaches. All five turned it down. The athletic director had open heart surgery. So the president of Minnesota Alumni Association, Harvey Mackay, said ‘I was going to hire a coach.’ So he approached me and they lost 17 straight games, the average score was 47-13, so it wasn’t a really good situation. We were wondering if I was going to take it or not, and I just felt that I should put the Notre Dame clause in because Gene Corrigan was the athletic director at Virginia. He tried to hire me three different times. My logic, (he had just become athletic director at Notre Dame), was if he tried to hire me at Virginia, why would he not be interested in trying to hire me at Notre Dame? Plus if we were to turn the Minnesota program around…In fairness to Minnesota, the clause also said, and this is not advertised very much, we had to accept a bowl bid before I was free to go. And I think it was fair to them and it was fair to me. I was not free to go to any other school than Notre Dame and they had to contact me and we had to accept a bowl bid first. Nobody expected to get a bowl bid in our second year and beat Clemson. So that’s how it came about.
Q: What were some of the values that you tried to instill in the players that you coached?
A: I just tried to teach them to make good choices. If you followed three simple rules, you always make good choices. Rule number one: just do what’s right. Do what’s right and avoid what’s wrong. It’s never the wrong time to do the right thing and it’s never the right time to do the wrong thing. If you have any doubt about what’s right or wrong, just get out a Bible. But just do the right thing. The reason it’s important to do the right thing is because it’s the only way to build trust and have a meaningful relationship with anybody, whether it’s in the military, business or whether it’s your personal life. So it’s important to always do what’s right and not just because somebody’s looking.
Rule number two: let’s do everything to the very best of our ability. Not everybody can be an All-American, not everybody can be a first-teamer but everybody can be the best that they are capable of being. Rule number three: Let’s show people that we genuinely care. Everybody needs a smile and a kind word, everybody’s got difficulties. And, if you do what’s right, you build trust. If you do everything to the best of your ability, people know you’re totally committed and then they know you care about me. In 40 years, I never needed a fourth rule and never taught a fourth rule. Then you put that with fundamentals: blocking and tackling and give the people something to do and demand that they do it. It’s not any more complicated than that.
Q: After coaching the NY Jets, you said that ‘God didn’t intend Lou Holtz to coach in the pros.’ Why do you believe that?
A: I turned the job down three different times and finally I warned the general manager that I should come to New York to explain to Mr. (Leon) Hess (owner) and Mr. (Phil) Iselin that I did not desire to coach the Jets. I left for New York and then called my wife that night and she said, ‘you did what?’ And I said, ‘I’m the head coach of the Jets.’ I went there without a vision and I went there without a commitment. But here’s the point: I’m there one month, we have a great running back named John Riggins, who signs with the Washington Redskins. He’s a first year free agent. We get nothing in return. That’s not right, that’s not fair. Then we go it alone and before the opening game, the coaches who had been in the pros recommended that we pick up nine people off waivers. I said we can’t get nine, we might get one. We got all nine. And that disrupts the team as well. Then Mr. Iselin died, a beautiful human being. And Mr. Hess was as fine an owner as you’d ever want to be around. The word was that he would sell the club. If he was going to sell the club and I had only been there eight months, the new owner… well, man...I tried to get a hold of him (Hess) but he was in Saudi Arabia and then you didn’t have access to foreign phones in the `70s. And, Arkansas was pressuring me and the unknown of not being able to control as much as you’d like to.
You didn’t have a lot to say about who you drafted and etcetera. There wasn’t anything wrong with professional football. But if you’re attitude is not right and you could put somebody on the NY Jets, which is a great situation, but if you’re attitude is not right, you’re going to be miserable, unhappy and unsuccessful. On the other hand, you put somebody in a Minnesota situation, a job nobody wanted but it was a great experience and successful, what’s the difference? The difference is within you. Not the environment, (it’s) your attitude, your mentality and your approach to things. I made a mistake and it bothers me that I was unfair to people that had faith and confidence in me. But when I look back at thing, I find that I had missed certain principles.
Q: Why did you start the Holtz Charitable Foundation and the Lou’s Lads Foundation?
A: When I got out of coaching, I wrote a couple of NY Times bestselling books. We decided to take that money, all the proceeds, to start a foundation. We wanted a foundation because it forces you to give back. I averaged in 11 years at Notre Dame, my salary average was $115,000. That’s what I averaged over 11 years. And yet they paid Charlie Weis $21 million. So we never had that much money. But we decided that as a family that we wanted to do three things. Number one we wanted to help education. And we provide basically $100,000 a year in scholarships to trade schools in our Ohio Valley. And the trade schools match that. So that’s $200,000. I think I had 27 graduates from a motor school working for a trucking company. And we have culinary graduates, oh, we have just everything. We also endow scholarships at Notre Dame, Kent State, Arkansas, etc. In addition to several schools where I spoke at commencements. So education is big.
The second thing is medical. My son is a diabetic. And the insulin probably saved his life. So we provide insulin pumps to children who are diabetic and can’t afford it. The other thing we do is finance a diabetic camp in Louisiana. Every counselor, everybody is a diabetic. And it’s free of charge. When our son went to a diabetic camp, he found out that there are a lot of people just like him. And, then of course, my wife being stricken with cancer twice, we do things.
And the third thing we do is sponsor religious causes, you know, retired priests, retired nuns. Our granddaughter and my daughter-in-law went to Honduras three weeks ago to go help. That was an education for them in a different country. But we’ve had people say, ‘well, we have no fundraiser, we never used a cent of expenses, it’s just a small foundation that we try to do some good with.’ And they say, ‘we aren’t interested in your foundation because it’s religious.’ And that’s fine, it’s who we are and we aren’t going to adjust because of what you want us to be. This is who we are and we probably give away close to a million dollars a year.
Now Lou’s Lads (https://www.louslads.org/), when they dedicated a statue of me at Notre Dame in 2008, the players came to me and said, ‘we would like to start Lou’s Lads.’ There used to be a group there called Leahy’s Lads. And they were predominantly a social group. They came back for a game, etc. But most of them we’re dying out. And so the players wanted my permission for Lou’s Lads. And I said that’s fine, as long as you just aren’t a social club but doing something worthwhile. So they started Lou’s Lads. And Notre Dame last year for the first time gave its volunteer of the year award to a group and not just an individual. They gave it to Lou’s Lads, who provide a food bank to 87 cities and three countries, etc. We meet at the second home game each year.
We also provide scholarships for deceased athletes’ children. And now we want to expand it to provide medical (treatment) and education for athletes who may be having a difficult time. That’s what Lou’s Lads has done and we’re now on our 11th year. They (players) came to me and started it. Everybody who’s played for me over 11 years is a part of it.
Q: You’ve said that you learned more from the military than you ever did in a college classroom. What did you mean by that?
A: The things I learned is that the obligation and responsibility that you have to your fellow man exceeds your personal character. When you join the military, you join a team, you join a business, you have obligations and responsibilities, you must honor those. And the reason it’s so important in the military, is because a guy’s life might be dependent on you fulfilling your obligation in that role. The other thing I learned is that you do little things. You do little things that if you do little things the right way, big things take care of themselves. Why do you march? Why do you have left flank, right flank, and oblique? Because you learn to take orders, you learn to do it instinctively without thinking twice about it. You learn to do little things the right way. Your gig line, your shirt, your belt buckle, your zipper are all aligned. You learn the responsibility of making your bed and shining your shoes, and doing the things you’re supposed to do. You do it then because you’re sort of forced to, but that should carryover. Why wouldn’t I shine my shoes long after I left the military? Why would I try to be as neat, etc.? And the camaraderie that you have, you’re always away from home. And it’s the sacrifices you make as well. You learn you have to make sacrifices, there is no other way. There’s a price to having freedom. And those are just some of the things I learned.