He had racked up a terrific record at Arkansas, going 60-21-2 in seven years. True, he was only 6-5 in 1983, but as Holtz says, "I have great friends in Arkansas. I also have great enemies." His detractors had labeled him a weak recruiter whom black players didn't trust. Certainly his pitch for Helms didn't help him on that score. His wisecracking personality and his penchant for filling his time—and his bankbook—with dozens of speaking engagements rubbed some people the wrong way. Nonetheless, no sooner had Holtz's bad news crackled over the wires than the Minnesota search committee was on the phone to him.
It was 29 below zero in Minneapolis when Holtz, his wife, Beth, and two of their children visited the campus. "They never let us outside," he recalls. "They turned up the heat all over the hotel. They have 22 blocks of heated walkways in downtown Minneapolis, and they never let us out of them."
The Minnesota athletic director is Paul Giel, 52, the former golden-boy halfback who finished second to Johnny Lattner of Notre Dame in the 1953 Heisman balloting. Giel has presided over the Gophers' failing football fortunes since '72. He seemingly is blessed with the same kind of Teflon coating that protects Ronald Reagan. When Holtz visited Minneapolis, Giel lay in a hospital, recovering from a quadruple heart bypass. Holtz was ushered into the room, and from his bed Giel flashed his famous grin, which is still boyish. "It sure would do my heart good if you'd take the job, Lou," said Giel.
Holtz gulped and left the hospital to begin the requisite interviews. After a day, he still couldn't decide whether to accept the job. "We went back to the hotel to be alone as a family," he says. "We had come to no conclusions, so we each went to a separate place to pray. Half an hour later we met again and decided I should take the job. This is obviously where God wanted me."
Well, what God wants God gets—and so, apparently, does His pal, Lou Holtz. Minnesota coaches never had it so good. Whereas Salem was paid $55,000 a year, Holtz is getting $225,000—$100,000 from the school, $70,000 for doing radio and television programs, $55,000 from the local business community. Until now, football facilities at Minnesota have bordered on the scandalous. Cal Stoll, 60, a former Bierman player (1947-49) who coached the Golden Gophers from '72 to '78, recalls, "We had the worst facilities in the Big Ten. The team didn't have a weight room. I remember my kids sitting on the floor in the hallway of the athletic department, while we showed game films on the wall because there was no room anywhere else."
Holtz says bluntly, "The thing that shocked me most in Minnesota wasn't the weather; it was the fact that nowhere in all the athletic facilities was there a room big enough for the whole football team to meet." A $4.5 million football building that will solve all those problems is currently under construction.
The public is giving the Gophers surprisingly solid support. In May, 27,000 fans attended the intrasquad spring game, previously a non-event at which players and coaches pretty much outnumbered the spectators. By September the university had sold 33,166 season tickets, the most since 1966. In five home dates, the Gophers have played before an average crowd of 49,453. When Holtz accepted the job, the Gophers' list of 1984 recruits contained just 13 names, and all were from Minnesota. Further, not one of those prospects was planning to attend the university. By the time Holtz and his staff had given them a taste of their hybrid brand of persuasion and enthusiasm, 12 had made abrupt about-faces and signed with the Gophers.
"It's nice to keep local stars from straying out of the home galaxy," says Holtz, "but there's one cruel truth about Minnesota football: It will never be great again if it must rely primarily on Minnesota players. The body and soul of this team will come from Minnesota, but for arms and legs we will have to go elsewhere." For the Gophers to return to glory, they'll have to land players from the nation's high school hotbeds in Florida, Ohio, California, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Texas. Needless to say, this causes a certain grief and queasiness in old Gopher worshipers. It seems all wrong, like bringing in Pecos Bill to substitute for Paul Bunyan. Uffda!
However, there's no point in avoiding the truth: On the best day of his life, Paul Bunyan couldn't streak 40 yards downfield in 4.4 seconds, run a Z pattern and then catch a pass in full stride as the ball falls over his left shoulder. No one knows this better than Murray Warmath, 70, who coached the Gophers from 1954 to '71. He may have been the first to tell Minnesotans the truth about their football players. In 1958, after he'd suffered through a 1-8 season, Warmath said that he would have to start recruiting heavily outside of Minnesota. This caused a predictable storm of wrath among old 'M' Club men, who ranted and roared that Bernie had never recruited outsiders. That was true, but Bierman's brand of football was designed to make brilliant use of players who tended to be big and thick and slow and stoic.
Recently, Warmath summarized what has happened to the Golden Gophers since Bierman's years of glory. "In the old days, the game meshed perfectly with Minnesota talent," he said. "Fifteen, 18 people played both ways. Teams threw maybe five passes. Then there was a radical change in the late '40s, right after the war—unlimited substitution, specialists. The game moved away from strength and endurance to speed, an open game on a wide field of play. It demanded quickness and athletic skill, the kind of attributes you don't find in Minnesota-born players as a rule. Also, you don't have that kind of player in any of the states surrounding Minnesota, either—Iowa, Wisconsin, the Dakotas. At every point of the compass, there's a comparative wasteland."