Life-altering circumstances haven't changed former Irish coach Lou Holtz

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Same drink of choice: Diet Coke.

Same self-deprecating sense of humor: “I am now the largest financial contributor to Notre Dame by a homeless man.”

Same unbridled view of the Irish through blue and gold-colored glasses, without Mark May sitting next to him to rebut: “I do believe Notre Dame has a legitimate chance this year to be one of the final four.”

Lou Holtz, circa 2015, is a renaissance man in the process of reinventing himself under some trying circumstances.

Change is challenging the 78-year-old Holtz, who has the luxury to fall back into his role as an Irish football icon whenever his comfort zone is compromised.

Life-altering issues — one planned, one not — have forced the Hall of Fame coach to re-assess priorities and take a different look at the world around him.

The planned adjustment was his departure from his analyst role at ESPN.

“Last year was the fifth anniversary of my last year at ESPN,” Holtz said Monday, while appearing with former player Tim Brown at the Five Star Life golf outing at Notre Dame. “For five years, I’ve been telling them, ‘No more.’ But, I wanted to be there for the playoff one time.

“This is the first time since I was 9 years old that I haven’t been a player, coach, TV analyst, or an officer in the Army in the fall.

“This will give me an opportunity to go see (son) Skip (head coach at Louisiana Tech). I’m going in August to visit with Alabama, (Army), Texas, (Louisiana Tech), Oklahoma… Just to observe them in practice and make up reports. I’m going to be busy in August.”

That’s the easy part. The tough assignment will be the reconstruction of his home in Orlando, Fla., which was a complete loss to fire after being hit by lightning about a month ago.

“Losing the home in the fire was really tremendous,” Holtz said. “What was amazing, my wife (Beth) said a month before, ‘What a beautiful home we have.’ She said, ‘This belongs to God.’ When that fire was burning, I said, ‘God, you’ve gotta take better care of your things.’”

Even when they tried to get away from the awful memories, they couldn’t.

“We celebrated our 54th wedding anniversary last Wednesday,” Holtz said, drawing applause from the audience. “I take (my wife) to a resort to get away from the fire and everything else. We’re up there and there’s a lightning storm. (The resort management) call us and said, lightning just hit a car in the parking lot. I was, ‘Oh, no.’

“It was the car next to ours that caught on fire. I don’t fool with lightning.”

Everything was lost. A half-century of football memorabilia gone. Personal items gone.

“We didn’t lose anything we were going to take to heaven anyway,” Holtz said. “The only thing you can take to heaven is your children.

“All the things you lose… You go to brush your teeth, you don’t even have a toothbrush. You’ve got nothing. Everything I had was burned.”

Soon after the fire, Holtz started to put his life back in order. New driver’s license. Credit cards. Wallet.

While at an Orlando department store, he ran into Selena Nobilo, a family friend whose husband Frankie appears on the Golf Channel. Selena and a friend were on a mission.

“She said, ‘We came to shop for you and your wife,’” Holtz said. “They were buying things…They said, ‘Are you boxers or briefs?’ I said, ‘Neither.’ That shocked them.”

Vintage Holtz. While rebuilding his house as well as his purpose in life, Holtz has maintained the penchant for entertainment.

After about a decade as a TV analyst, he can still seamlessly slip into that role, especially when it concerns his favorite university.

“Obviously, (quarterback Malik Zaire) must be pretty good, because (former quarterback Everett) Golson’s not here anymore,” he said. “We’re not talking about nuclear physics, now.”

Can a young guy like Zaire, who has made just one collegiate start, handle the pressure?

“If a dog’s gonna bite you, he’ll do it as a pup,” Holtz said.

Then there were the unprovoked assessments that made Holtz such a joy to cover on a daily basis.

-- Like when he was presented with a pristine golden helmet to jump-start the renovation of his memorabilia room at home.

“Obviously, this helmet was worn by (quarterback Steve) Beuerlein, because there’s not a mark on it,” he deadpanned.

-- Without any prompting, Holtz took off into another story about the helmet.

“I went to (university vice president) Father (Edmund) Joyce and asked him if we could put ‘ND’ on the helmets,” Holtz said. “He got mad and said, ‘Our helmet reflects the dome; the golden dome is what our helmets are supposed to be like.’ I said, ‘Did you ever think about putting ‘ND’ on the dome? His comment: ‘I don’t think that’s very funny.’”

Don’t change too much, Lou.

You’re a classic, just the way you are.

Legendary Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz speaks Monday, July 27, 2015, at a news conference at the 5 Star Life charity golf outing at Warren Golf Course on the Notre Dame campus. SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ