Lou Holtz

Tom Shipka

In his autobiography, entitled Wins, Losses, and Lessons, (1) Coach Lou Holtz recounts two incidents in his senior year of high school which were a turning point in his life. In the first incident, Lou's high school coach visited his parents and urged them to send him to college to earn a degree so that he could become a football coach. The coach explained to them that Lou had a special gift for learning and teaching football and that he would excel in that profession. This came as a shock to Lou's parents. On the one hand, he had been a weak student all along and, on the other, they were already struggling to make ends meet and taking on the additional burden of college expenses could be overwhelming. In the second incident, in a neighborhood grocery in East Liverpool, Lou overheard two of his mother's friends bemoan his parents' decision to enroll him at Kent State University. They agreed that it was a terrible waste of money because Lou simply wasn't college material. Holtz writes that the vote of confidence by his coach and the insult by his neighbors steeled his resolve to succeed at Kent.

And succeed he did. He declared a major in history, he joined ROTC, and he earned his degree with a 3.0 GPA. But he didn't turn into a bookworm. During his Kent years, Lou joined a fraternity, worked part-time as a janitor, coached the freshman football team at Ravenna High School to a perfect 11-0 record, fell in love with a coed named Edie, played linebacker for Kent State for two years at a scrawny 165 pounds, helped coach the Kent State freshman football team, and hitchhiked home regularly to visit his family and friends. He also formed strong views about how to coach. He decided that good teachers and good coaches have three things in common: they know their subject inside and out, they are able to present their knowledge in a cohesive and interesting way, and they have enthusiasm. (2)

Although Lou and Edie parted ways, Lou found a new love, Beth Barcus, and in summer 2011 they will celebrate their golden wedding anniversary. Lou's career took him, Beth, and their four children to twelve stops in his forty years of coaching. Among the highs was a national championship at Notre Dame in 1988; among the lows was a debacle with the New York Jets in 1976 and getting fired at Arkansas in 1983. (3) Incidentally, at Arkansas Lou was successfully represented by a young Attorney General named Bill Clinton in a lawsuit against him by three players. Now retired from coaching with a long list of career accomplishments and soon to turn 74, Lou spends his time as an ESPN college football analyst, a motivational speaker, an amateur magician, and a golfer, and he continues to practice his Catholicism.

Can one find any flaws in Lou Holtz's autobiography? I find two. The first is that he works both sides of the philosophical street. In some places he tells us that God has a plan for each of us that we cannot alter. (4) In others, he proclaims that whether a person succeeds or fails is entirely up to that person. (5) The second is that, despite his frequent emphasis on the importance of religion in his life, he ducks the strongest challenge to religion: the problem of evil. How do we explain how an all-powerful and all-good God allows so much suffering to afflict humankind, young and old?

  1. Lou Holtz, Wins, Losses, and Lessons: An Autobiography (Harper Paperback, 2007.)
  2. Wins, Losses, and Lessons, p. 29.
  3. In Wins, Losses, and Lessons, Holtz often expresses his admiration for Notre Dame and the privilege it was to coach there for eleven years, but, somewhat uncharacteristically, he criticizes Kevin Rooney, the school's Director of Admissions, during Holtz's years there. Holtz admits that he was so angry with Rooney that he didn't speak to him during his last eight years at Notre Dame. According to Holtz, Rooney hurt his recruiting by turning down many academically qualified prospects and he permitted an official scholarship offer to be made only in the spring, months after competitor football programs had already extended theirs. The Notre Dame administration supported Rooney on these matters with a single exception. See pp. 231-233.
  4. See Wins, Losses, and Lessons..., p. 45, pp. 51-52, p. 67, p. 175, p. 228, p. 284.
  5. See Wins, Losses, and Lessons..., p. 31, p. 39

© 2010 Tom Shipka