Now that he's giving occasionally surreal pep talks and diagnoses to NCAA football teams as part of ESPN's college pigskin studio crew, it's easy to forget that Lou Holtz was one of the preeminent coaches in the college game until fairly recently. Let's look at five things you might not know about Coach Lou:
1. A Young Bill Clinton Had His Back
Throughout his coaching career, Holtz insisted that his players perform well on the field and behave off of it. Sounds like a pretty sound policy, but it didn't always make him popular with players or win-at-all-costs boosters. In 1977, Holtz's first season at Arkansas, he found himself in a pickle. Star running back Ben Cowins, top receiver Donny Bobo, and another player were involved in an incident with a woman in a players' dorm. The woman ended up undressed, and when Holtz caught wind of the story he suspended all three players for the Razorbacks' Orange Bowl clash with Oklahoma.
Running back Cowins was a decent NFL prospect, and he needed the national exposure of the Orange Bowl to pump up his draft stock. He hired an attorney who filed a suit seeking an injunction to allow the three suspended players to appear in the Orange Bowl. Once Holtz came under legal fire, the university quickly sought top-notch counsel for him in the form of the Arkansas Attorney General, a promising young lawyer named Bill Clinton.
With the help of Clinton and his staff, Holtz's legal team defended the coach in U.S. District Court, and the players eventually withdrew their lawsuit. Obviously, it was a victory for team discipline, but wouldn't losing the offense's two biggest weapons kill the Razorbacks' Orange Bowl chances against the mighty Sooners? Not quite. Backup running back Roland Sales had an epic 205-yard, two-touchdown game, and the sixth-ranked Arkansas squad crushed number-two Oklahoma 31-6.
2. His Game Didn't Translate to the Pros
Holtz was a hot up-and-coming coaching talent in 1976. From 1969 to 1971 he'd helmed the College of William & Mary Tribe on a successful run that included what remains the school's only bowl appearance, a berth in the 1970 Tangerine Bowl. Holtz then jumped to North Carolina State and led the Wolfpack to four bowls in four years while piling up a 31-11-2 record.
Following the 1975 campaign, Holtz jumped to the pros to coach the New York Jets. While making the leap to the NFL seemed like a great opportunity, Holtz's time with the big boys turned out to be a complete debacle.
Even before the games started, Holtz's coaching tactics seemed a bit out of place in the NFL; he lined his players up by size for the national anthem and wrote a team fight song that none of the players wanted to sing.
The 1976 Jets stumbled out of the gate with four straight losses, including a humiliating 46-3 loss to the Broncos in Week 2. When the team, which was quarterbacked by an aging Joe Namath, saw its record fall to 3-10, Holtz quit before the season was even over. (Broadway Joe certainly didn't help Holtz any by completing less than half of his pass attempts.) In a recent interview with Chris Russo on Sirius XM, Holtz said he told Jets ownership that he planned to step down at the end of the season, and he was told to pack his bags immediately.
To his credit, Holtz admitted he bungled his time in the pros, saying, ''God did not put Lou Holtz on this earth to coach in the pros." He recovered nicely by grabbing the head-coaching job at Arkansas before the 1977 season.
3. His Friendship With Jesse Helms Cost Him
When Holtz was at North Carolina State, he became chummy with North Carolina's ultraconservative Senator Jesse Helms. The two men continued their friendship even after Holtz moved on to Arkansas, and in 1983 Holtz appeared in a pair of commercials endorsing Helms. The people of Arkansas were less than delighted to see one of their state employees dabbling in another state's politics, but the move was particularly toxic for Holtz because Helms was in the midst of spearheading a charge to block Martin Luther King Day from becoming a national holiday.
As the outrage over the Holtz-Helms connection gained steam, Holtz resigned under pressure from his Arkansas job on December 19, 1983. He landed on his feet with the head-coaching gig at Minnesota and quickly tried to distance himself from political issues. Upon arriving in Minnesota, Holtz met with Governor Rudy Perpich and publicly told the popular Democrat, "I assure you this, I will have nothing to do with politics."
4. He Was a Golden Gopher For Life. Except Not.
When Holtz went to the University of Minnesota, he was under the impression that he was signing a lifetime contract. He wanted one exception, though: an out clause that let him leave to take the head coaching job at Notre Dame. The school agreed, but when Holtz received his copy of the lifetime contract, there was no "Notre Dame clause" in it. He refused to sign, and the Gophers eventually gave him a clause that allowed him to leave to take any job he wanted. Holtz's caution was justified; he got the Notre Dame job just two years later.
5. He's Quick With a Quip
Although Holtz had a well-deserved reputation as a motivator, some of his most memorable moments came when he was dishing well-timed one-liners, usually at his own expense. When Arkansas fans pelted the field with oranges to celebrate the 1977 Orange Bowl berth, Holtz observed, "Thank God we didn't get invited to the Gator Bowl."
During his first season as head coach at South Carolina in 1999, the Gamecocks went 0-11, prompting Holtz to dryly note, "We raise more money per win than any school in the land." Later, when Holtz had restored the Gamecocks' program to the point that one writer picked the team to win the SEC in a preseason poll, Holtz deadpanned, "[The writer] probably voted in crayon."
Another classic Holtz story comes from an attempt to make a little money early in his career by selling cemetery plots. His wife, Beth, warned, "You can't sell anything." Holtz later triumphantly joked, "She was wrong. By the end of the summer, I'd sold our stereo, our car, and our television."
Bob Hope Once Bailed Him Out
One bonus anecdote this week: Holtz and the late Bob Hope were pals and often played golf together. On at least one occasion, the friendship really paid dividends for Holtz. The coach flew to Milwaukee for a speaking engagement in July 1983, and after a ride in a sweltering taxi, Holtz badly needed a shower before stepping to the podium.
There was just one problem, though: when Holtz got to his hotel room, his key broke off in the lock. When maintenance couldn't open the door, the front desk told Holtz that unfortunately they were totally booked. When Holtz began to loudly despair, another guest opened his door to ask for a little peace and quiet. Holtz recognized the complaining voice as Hope's, and after a big laugh, the comedian let the coach crash in his room.
'5 Things You Didn't Know About...' appears every Friday. Read the previous installments here.