Notre Dame football: Holtz knows what Kelly goes through


South Bend Tribune

Football from sun-up until way past sun-down. Pressure. Responsibility. Expectations.

Being the head football coach at Notre Dame can be a challenging, rewarding, taxing, demanding, and quite lucrative endeavor.

But, is it any fun?

Why would Brian Kelly put himself through the weekly grind of managing expectations, as well as about 100 young men?

From 1986-96, Lou Holtz occupied the chair on which Kelly now sits. There were some highs — 100 wins, a national title in 1988 — and more than a few lows during Holtz's tenure. But most of the time he was too consumed with correcting mistakes and out-running the fear of losing to appreciate what the job was all about.

Now, 17 years after he coached his last game for the Irish, the 76-year-old Holtz pines for the opportunities he felt he missed at Notre Dame.

"The expectations were that you had to be absolutely perfect," Holtz said, recalling his experience in South Bend. "My advice would be to enjoy the trip, prepare for the game, and do your very best.

"I did an interview with (Alabama coach) Nick Saban recently. When the cameras and recorders were turned off, I told him to enjoy the trip. The one thing I truly regret is that I didn't take the time to enjoy the trip; to enjoy being part of such a great university.

"I went around with the weight of the world on my shoulders. I was so worried about everyone else's expectations, and my own. I didn't take time to enjoy the athletes I was around; to enjoy life.

"I was trying to live up to everybody's expectations, that I wasn't able to enjoy, or feel lucky, to be at a special place like Notre Dame.

"Every week of the season we were playing a Top 20 football team. That sort of difficult schedule took the focus off worrying about what just happened, if you lost, or celebrating a victory, if you won.

"If I had it to do over again, I would enjoy the trip more. I remember every game I coached at Notre Dame, but there was just something missing."

In the days leading up to Saturday's battle with Michigan State, Kelly took time to ponder Holtz's thoughts. There was a time, early in his tenure at Notre Dame, that Kelly was focused on being the ultimate front-man. This interview; that appearance. Didn't matter, Kelly was there.

Before last season, Kelly turned his attention inward, toward his players and staff. It was the right move. He didn't have to look back too far to find an opportunity in which he embraced the special nature of the university.

"Well, I think once — and I've kind of passed through that in a sense — is that once you understand why you're doing this job at Notre Dame, it's easier to enjoy it," Kelly said. "I'm doing it because I get a chance to coach incredible kids; kids that — we got home at 3 a.m. (from) for the second consecutive week. These kids are tired. They have to check in (at the football facility) at noon. Then they had study table from 2-4, and then they had dinner and then they had study groups from 7-9. That's their lifestyle, and that's how they do it here at Notre Dame. That's great.

"Once you really get your hands around the fact that it's truly college football at Notre Dame, and that's the way they handle things, then you can enjoy it. Because if you get caught up in the noise of everything else, there's no way you could enjoy it.

"I enjoy being with my guys. I'm going to defend them. I'm going to back them up. I'm also going to point out to them when they don't make the decisions that they need to make; the good decisions. But I think that's how you can enjoy it. More than anything else, you've got to understand at Notre Dame, what our mission is. We want to win a BCS Championship, no question about it. But all those other things are really important to us, as well."

Holtz said his getting caught up in expectations was a problem. But he wasn't shy about heaping some expectations of his own on the current Irish team.

"I wouldn't press the panic button," Holtz said, referring to the loss to Michigan and close call at Purdue. "There isn't anyone on the schedule (the Irish) can't beat, including Stanford. Losing to Michigan was a downer. They made some mistakes, but they'll get those things fixed.

"Notre Dame is 2-1 with Michigan State coming up. Then Oklahoma. They haven't been too impressive. I think everything will be fine.

"(Notre Dame) has the same coaches and pretty much the same players from a year ago. I've got great confidence in Brian Kelly to get it straightened out. Obviously, with the new contract (extension for Kelly), Notre Dame has confidence, too."

Holtz justified Notre Dame's close call at Purdue by saying he was 11-0 against the Boilermakers, but struggled in every trip to West Lafayette. Actually, his teams won by an average of 21 points at Ross-Ade Stadium, with a seven-point win in 1995 the only real nail-biter.

"Notre Dame is a very good football team," Holtz said. "I would not be too concerned about what happened at Purdue. I never lost to Purdue in 11 years. The five years (playing) down there, I can't recall a time when it wasn't a struggle.

"(Notre Dame) played well in the fourth quarter. They really have some impressive receivers, but I didn't realize (DaVaris) Daniels was as good as he is."

The challenge presented by Michigan State doesn't concern Holtz in the least.

"Michigan State scored two offensive touchdowns in its first two games," he said. "That shouldn't be a great challenge for the Notre Dame defense. If (the Irish) don't have success, then they need to take a look."

Even without the emergence of leaders like Manti Te'o or Kapron Lewis Moore, Holtz is convinced the Irish defense will be fine Saturday and the rest of the season.

"Leaders are made in the offseason," Holtz said. "Just because someone's not vocal doesn't mean they can't lead. A leader is a guy who has such a strong conviction that he will convince everyone to follow him.

"Just because someone is a leader on the dance floor, doesn't mean he'll be a leader on the battlefield.

"It's not essential. If a player doesn't step up, the coach can be that guy. That Notre Dame defense has a lot of talent. Every opponent is pointing to that Notre Dame defense. They can take that as a challenge."

A hectic ESPN schedule will allow Holtz to make a cameo appearance on campus Friday night to speak at the Lou's Lads Foundation benefit dinner. He will leave shortly after speaking to get back to the studio in Connecticut. He will return for the Southern Cal game, when his 1988 national championship team celebrates its 25-year anniversary.

"The most impressive legacy Lou Holtz, as far as a coach is concerned, has had is the former athletes who have formed Lou's Lads," Holtz said, seamlessly transitioning into third-person speak. "The only thing I asked of it was that it benefited the university, and not just a social thing.

"There are going to be some scholarships awarded for the children of former athletes.

"I always tried to preach the love of the university and how fortunate you are to be a part of it. The fact that they keep coming back is proof they understand."

It will be a journey Holtz can truly appreciate.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly talks with officials during an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, in Ann Arbor, Mich. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER