Hansen: USC rivalry literally put Notre Dame to the test during Lou Holtz Era

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

One of Lou Holtz’s favorite memories of USC week was the written test he gave the freshmen on his first Notre Dame football team back in 1986.

“I wanted them to understand how fortunate they were to participate in this rivalry that had been around since 1926,” Holtz said this week in a phone interview. “How special it was, what it was all about. And if they didn’t pass, they weren’t going to get to dress for the game. And I was serious about that.

“I’ll never forget, one of the questions was: ‘Name four great coaches that have participated in this game.’

“And one young man wrote, ‘I think, Rockne, Leahy, McKay — and I can’t think of a fourth.’

“I said, ‘How ’bout me?’”

Holtz, whose ’86 Irish passed the in-game test the next day, upending a 17th-ranked Trojan team 38-37 in Los Angeles, went 9-1-1 against ND’s intersectional rival in his 11-year run as the Irish head football coach.

That season-ending upset was the first win overall in a 35-5 surge by Notre Dame under Holtz that included the 1988 national title run, all after a 4-6 start to his regime.

The 82-year-old Orlando, Fla., resident’s overstuffed schedule will require him to take in the 91st rendition of the rivalry, Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium (7:30 p.m.; NBC-TV), from a distance.

“I thought I retired,” Holtz said of his seemingly endless stream of commitments.

One of those commitments will have him back in this part of the world nine days after current ND coach Brian Kelly’s ninth-ranked Irish (4-1) host USC (3-2), seeking the first Notre Dame three-game winning streak in the series since the last three seasons of the Bob Davie Era (1999-2001).

Holtz will be the guest speaker for the Kalamazoo United in Purpose event held Oct. 21 at Miller Auditorium in Kalamazoo, Mich., beginning at 7:30 p.m. EDT.

The partnership seeks to raise funds for student scholarships and tuition assistance, highlight private education opportunities in southwest Michigan, and unify the community through a shared love of college football.

Tickets are on sale for $25 at Miller Auditorium, or online at

“The thing I’ll talk about is making good choices in life and how you go about making good choices,” Holtz said. “I don’t care if you’re talking about on the football field, in the classroom, in your social life. Whatever happens, it happens because of choices we make.

“I’m looking forward to it. I’m hoping I can bring some insight and wisdom to it. The stories I share are things I’ve actually done. I don’t talk about things I’ve read about or heard about.”

Holtz didn’t even get to so much as say hi to Kelly during a late September visit to South Bend because of a full agenda, but he did talk to him and the 2019 Irish back in August during training camp.

“I was very impressed with the team,” Holtz said. “I watched practice. I was impressed with Ian Book’s quickness. I was also impressed with the backup quarterback’s (Phil Jurkovec’s) arm strength. I talked to them all about the love on a team.

“All great championship teams have a feeling for one another. And the great teams won’t let one another down. And you win because of the love. You don’t love because you won.

“With all the great teams I’ve been around, that’s where it all starts. You go around making bed check on Friday night, not to check if they’re in, but just to get the feel of where they are mentally.

“And the players usually say, ‘Yeah, I just don’t want to let my teammates down. I know they’re going to play great. I just want to make sure I do my part.’ When you have that kind of respect and trust in your teammates, that’s when you feel good about going into a big game.”

Holtz’s game these days still includes doing lots of traveling and speaking engagements, working with the Lou’s Lads charitable foundation, serving as vice president for development for ZoTec Partners in Carmel, Ind., doing a podcast (The Crowd’s Line College Football Show) with former ESPN partner Mark May, and occasionally playing a little golf.

“My wife (Beth) is No. 1,” Holtz said. “She has been on a feeding tube for the past year, will be for the rest of her life. She can’t travel or anything else — so taking care of her.”

Beth Holtz had 83 radiation treatments to help stave off throat cancer, but the aftermath of those was that the lining of her throat and esophagus were destroyed. Then last fall she was hospitalized with a very serious bout of pneumonia.

And yet she still is active in causes close to her heart. On Oct. 19, Beth Holtz will be honored at the Lake Nona Country Club in Orlando as the Ladies Leaving Legacies Award recipient. Proceeds from the event ( benefit pediatric ear, nose, throat and audiology work at Nemours Children’s Hospital.

“They put eardrums into children who can’t hear,” Lou Holtz said. “And if you can’t hear, you can’t speak. They’re making miraculous things happen.”

Holtz’s prediction for what will happen in Notre Dame Stadium Saturday night is an Irish victory, despite USC’s prolific passing attack. He believes turnovers will make the difference.

“I did my research,” he said with a chuckle.

The irony in the little test he gave his freshmen on a Friday night more than three decades ago is that Holtz admits he wouldn’t have been able to pass the pop quiz himself had he not done some extensive research first.

“I admired Notre Dame for a long time before I got there, and you think you know a lot about this history, but really you don’t,” he said. “One of the things I did the first week I’m at Notre Dame, I went to the library and I got out all the books on Notre Dame football that they had in the library.

“I tried to read up on the background, and I wanted to learn everything I could but I also wanted to see what (Frank) Leahy had to say about coaching there and all the books on (Knute) Rockne, etc. It’s when I was going through that book, I noticed a picture of “Play Like A Champion Today” sign. I asked about it. Nobody had heard anything about it.

“So I said, ‘We’re going to get that sign painted. We’re going to put it back up right where it was. We’re going to go out and think about all the great players that went before us. We’re going to think about all the great people that helped us get to Notre Dame, and we’re going to think about our obligation to remember that tradition is always under construction.”

Today the sign hangs on the wall of a narrow staircase from the Irish locker room leading to the tunnel that leads to the field at Notre Dame Stadium.

“It was from going to look at the books in the library, learning about the history about Southern Cal,” Holtz said, “but also that’s how Play Like A Champion Today came about.

“I didn’t make it. All I did was bring it back out of Notre Dame’s history.”

Former Notre Dame head coach Lou Holtz, here at the 2017 Irish Invasion camp, will be keeping his eye from afar on Saturday night’s ND-USC clash.

“All great championship teams have a feeling for one another. And the great teams won’t let one another down. And you win because of the love. You don’t love because you won.''

Former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz

WHO: No. 9 Notre Dame (4-1) vs. USC  (3-2).

WHEN: Saturday at 7:30 p.m. EDT

WHERE: Notre Dame Stadium


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