Holtz will miss Notre Dame-Michigan series in more ways than one

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — A date with a private plane late Friday night kept Lou Holtz from taking in Saturday’s 42nd and perhaps most contentious football meeting between Michigan and 16th-ranked Notre Dame before it evolves into an unmitigated Cold War.

His final season of service for ESPN as a studio analyst pulled the former iconic coach away from a thick burst of nostalgia Friday on the Notre Dame campus.

“This is actually the fifth anniversary of my last year,” Holtz said with a laugh, then added this time he’s serious about walking away.

His unassigned trip to South Bend, the one Friday this college football season ESPN allowed him to be truant, Holtz’s agenda included meeting with 97-year-old Notre Dame president emeritus Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, speaking to the current Irish football team, spewing inspiration at the pep rally and finishing with an evening cavorting and carrying on at a Lou’s Lads reunion with scads of his former players.

... And remembering just how special the Michigan game was to Holtz during his 11-year run as head coach (1986-96).

“First of all, I loved playing Michigan when Bo (Schembechler) was there,” Holtz said of the former Michigan coaching great and fellow Woody Hayes coaching-tree product.

“I thought playing them early, the first or second game, was a plus, because all spring, all summer, all doing two-a-days, (my players) knew we couldn’t come out of the gate anything except fast. You can’t ease your way into the season.”

Holtz’s very first game as ND’s coach, in fact, with players largely left over from Gerry Faust’s 5-6 team from 1985, was against a third-ranked Michigan team. The heavily unfavored Irish fell, 24-23. The Irish won the next season, in 1987, and three more in a row for a four-game winning streak.

It’s the only point in the series in which the Irish have strung together more than two successive wins.

“Had there been replay, we would have won five in a row,” insisted Holtz, who still maintains Joel Williams’ fourth-quarter, go-ahead touchdown reception should have stood instead of being ruled out of bounds.

His view of the current Irish is scattered, but he insists not skewed.

Holtz, for instance, is a big fan of Notre Dame first-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, one of the key figures in Saturday night’s matchup, given the largely unproven and inexperienced defensive front seven he’ll pull strategic strings for and the expectation that VanGorder can create schematic headaches for the opposition anyway.

“Has a tremendous reputation, has great experience,” Holtz said. “And he knows how to line ’em up. You couldn’t asked for a more confident, experienced coordinator, who’s been there, seen it all and knows how to win.”

Holtz loves fifth-year head coach Brian Kelly’s resilience through the bumps and sometimes mountains of adversity he’s had to navigate, including the latest involving five Irish players stuck in limbo as the ongoing academic fraud investigation process reaches its 40th day.

“When something happens like that, you have to look at it and say ‘Was the criticism justified?’ ” Holtz said. “And if it is, correct what caused the problem. Just make sure that our academics are better than ever before.

“And if it’s not justified, ‘Let’s move ahead. Let’s not worry about it. Let’s not try to get even.’

Starting cornerback KeiVarae Russell, wide receiver DaVaris Daniels, defensive end Ishaq Williams and backup linebacker Kendall Moore haven’t practiced since Aug. 15 and all were held out of the season-opener with Rice last Saturday. Backup safety Eilar Hardy joined them on the sideline Aug. 28.

“I think they’re being unfair to the players,” Holtz said of those in charge of the process. “You do an investigation. You come to a conclusion, and you make a decision. The longer it lasts, the longer it goes on, the longer they hurt Notre Dame.”

Not playing Michigan won’t hurt Notre Dame, Holtz maintained, nor will it hurt Michigan.

“Michigan fans will miss it,” he said, “And Notre Dame fans will miss it. But you know who will miss this the most? The average college fan in the country.

“We’re going to play somebody else, and it will be exciting, but the fans who look forward to two great teams playing each other early in the year is a rarity. There’s four good games this week. Four! Michigan State-Oregon, Ohio State-Virginia Tech, Notre Dame-Michigan, USC-Stanford. You always knew that this game was going to be special.”

The most special ones for Holtz were those where he faced Schembechler. Holtz went 3-1 against Bo, then 2-2-1 against his successor, Gary Moeller. The Irish didn’t play Michigan in Holtz’s final two seasons, 1995 and 1996, when they had a home-and-home series with Ohio State.

Holtz’s favorite memory from the series was in 1989, the year after the Irish won the national title and the last time Holtz would face Schembechler.

It wasn’t just the game itself, a 24-19 victory in Ann Arbor, Mich., but the days leading up to it. The Irish opened that season with a 36-13 mauling of Virginia before facing the Wolverines in game 2 — a 1-vs.-2 matchup — 16 days later.

“I said to the team, ‘We’re going to play Virginia in an exhibition game, but we have Michigan up there. And I know you’re going to beat Michigan up there on Sept. (16), but that’s not when we win. When we win is what we do between now and then.’

“Well, the first couple of days they were great. Then they got tired, they got worn out and got mad at me. ‘We’re the defending national champs and you’re working us too hard.’

“So I walked out one day and I said, ‘I know you’re tired, so I called Bo today.’ I said, ‘Bo are your players tired?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘We are, too.’

“I said, ‘If you practice Michigan in shorts, I’ll practice Notre Dame in shorts.’ I said, ‘If you give the Michigan players the day off, I’ll give the Notre Dame players the day off.’

“They (the ND players) started high-fiving one another. I looked at them, and said, ‘Bo said no. He doesn’t care how tired you are. Let’s go practice two hours. We’ve got to do it. That’s what they’re doing.”

“Next day, I called Bo. ‘Bo said no.’ Four straight days. True story.

“I walked out the fifth day. Before I could say a word, one of our players said, ‘Hey coach, I called Bo today.’

“I said, ‘What did Bo say?’

"The player said, ‘He said his players eat steak and lobster.’ ”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, left, laughs with former head coach Lou Holtz, right, as Romeo Okwara looks on during the Notre Dame vs. Michigan pep rally on Friday at Notre Dame. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)