One day last month after Notre Dame won the NCAA fencing championship, the new Irish football coach, Lou Holtz, sent a congratulatory note to his fencing counterpart, Mike DeCicco: "I firmly believe that if our team was allowed to use sabers, our chances would be greatly enhanced this fall."
A few days later Holtz strode into a meeting of his staff, popped open a Diet Coke (a Diet Coke at 8 a.m.? "Yeah, well, people complain if I drink bourbon") and moved quickly through his agenda as his assistants accorded him slightly more attention than is normally paid the Pope. "The Notre Dame coach," says Holtz, who was hired for the job last November, "is treated with great respect—initially."
He tells the staff he'll be away during part of a day because he has to see a doctor about a tear duct that isn't tearing. Says Holtz: "I think it's just a signal that one of the prerequisites to be coach at Notre Dame is that you can't cry."
And so it goes these days in South Bend as Holtz settles in with his legendary sense of humor to turn around the Notre Dame football team, which itself has become a joke in recent years. In 1985, the Irish were 5-6, only their eighth losing season since they started playing football in 1887. In the final game of the season they were beaten 58-7 by Miami, the worst Notre Dame defeat in 41 years. Notre Dame had been struggling, in fact, for five years under coach Gerry Faust, which is why he jumped just before he was pushed. Good heavens, the last time Notre Dame went to a major bowl was 1981—when this year's entering freshmen were in seventh grade. This is no laughing matter around a place that takes its football very seriously.
"All we want Lou to do," says athletic director Gene Corrigan, "is wake up the echoes." That's all? Somewhere, Rockne and Leahy and the Gipper are watching with interest. "I didn't come here to be a legend," Holtz was saying late one evening. "I just want to be a football coach. Preferably, a winning football coach."
Not good enough, Lou. His 16-year record as a college coach is 116-65-5, a fine .637, 20th-best among active Division I-A practitioners. That translates into an average season mark between 7-4 and 8-3—which isn't going to cut it in the long haul at Notre Dame, where such a performance would quickly change the name of Lou to Boo. And the 1986 schedule is murderous, with the likes of Michigan, Alabama and Penn State gracing it. LSU, SMU and USC are other '86 rivals, prompting Holtz to muse, "I'm always real leery of schools that have letter abbreviations. They always seem to be real good. We could be 0-11 and be the 12th-best team in the country." Indeed, seven of the '86 opponents went to bowls after last season.
So how does Holtz hope to turn things around before spring practice grinds to a close on April 26? How is he meeting the challenge of succeeding at a school that thinks of winning as winning them all?
Part of the answer: with his sense of humor. While Holtz is not naive enough to think he can laugh his way to many victories—and in fact, behind the kidding facade, Holtz is all spit, polish and hard-guy discipline—his special brand of humor is clearly the underpinning of his revamping effort. His jokes almost always have an edge to them. Holtz is afraid he doesn't have enough tools this fall, and so sabers would be real nice. And while it is true that Notre Dame at its worst is still better than all but a handful of other schools at their best, there are times—especially in the film room—when Holtz does feel like crying. Poring over team stats, he says, "Let's see, we lose 61 percent of our rushing offense [with the graduation of alltime leading Irish rusher Allen Pinkett] but, on the other hand, all of our interceptions return."
He is extremely concerned about both his offensive and defensive lines, his quarterbacks, his tailbacks and his full-backs. However, he does like the looks of the returning linebackers, defensive backs and receivers—most of all flanker Tim Brown. Says Holtz, "The only way people are going to stop us from getting the ball to Brown is if they intercept the snap from center."
In another of his jokes, Holtz recounts the time he was fired as an assistant coach at South Carolina. Rather than be depressed—and Holtz depressed is a contradiction in terms—he sat down and made up a list of 107 goals. Dinner at the White House. That kind of thing. His wife, Beth, coolly eyed the list, then said, "Why don't you add getting a job?" Funny story. Serious story. Holtz knows that long-term goals are fine, but groceries today are more important. And right now he is just trying to get through today.