Lou Holtz is widely considered one of the greatest college football coaches of all time, having won over 200 games and notably being the first National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) coach to lead six different programs to bowl games. In addition to being a legendary and inspirational coach, Lou Holtz is also a pipe smoker and has been for nearly 60 years, often smoking pipes while planning for major games and contemplating important, life-altering decisions. He's lived a long, fascinating life and experienced his fair share of memorable victories and crushing losses while serving as a role model to his players, fellow coaches, and passionate football fans around the world.
Life and Career
Born in 1937, Louis Leo Holtz grew up in rural West Virginia during the Great Depression and though his family struggled like countless others around the United States, they always found a way to survive, with his father often picking up any odd jobs he could to put food on the table. In his autobiography, Wins, Losses, and Lessons, Holtz described his family's economic struggles: "We needed a raise to be considered poor. Every day we awoke to hardship, and every night we fell asleep thankful for one more day of sustenance" (pg. 5).
In high school, Holtz maintained a core group of close friends but had little time for socializing outside of school and sports. Holtz noted, "I was not a good student, but I received a good education, not only academically but also in the intangibles everyone must have to succeed. Doing the right thing was ingrained into my thinking by the nuns and by my family" (pg. 16). Though he admittedly wasn't a particularly gifted athlete, Holtz was a reliable teammate and developed a deep interest in how coaches ensured their team was ready and the importance of having everyone know their assignments on the field. Holtz's head coach, Wade Watts, recognized his potential and encouraged Holtz's parents to send him to college in the hopes that he would one day become a coach himself.
"Doing the right thing was ingrained into my thinking by the nuns and by my family"
Holtz attended Kent State and became a history major after being inspired by one of his favorite college professors, who he also learned valuable skills from that translated seamlessly into coaching. It was during his freshman year Holtz realized "that to be a good teacher you had to know your subject inside and out, be able to present what you know in a cohesive and interesting way so that your audience understands what you're talking about, and have enthusiasm for teaching" (pg. 29).
Holtz was given the opportunity to test those traits when one of his high school coaches offered him the opportunity to help coach a freshmen team a few miles away from Kent State. It was an excellent chance for Holtz to gain valuable coaching experience, but it was a daunting task for an 18 year old with a speech impediment to coach players who were only a few years younger than him. Fortunately, the young players cooperated and Holtz learned a great deal about communication, focus, and motivation, and also developed one of his signature quotes that persisted throughout his coaching career, often telling players "If you're going to do something, do it to the best of your ability. If not, don't waste your time or mine."
Though Holtz played some football in college, his playing career ended after suffering torn knee cartilage in his fourth year. However, he made the best of a bad situation by helping coach Kent State's freshman team during his last few months in school and impressed the coaching staff by helping lead the team to a 7-2 record. After graduating, Holtz joined the Army for a six-month stint due to his collegiate Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) service and learned invaluable coaching skills such as leadership, discipline, and an unwavering commitment to accomplishing a mission no matter the cost. After being discharged, Holtz returned to his hometown and worked at a hospital scrubbing operating room floors where he would meet his future wife, Beth, who also purchased his first pipe.
During this time Holtz attempted to launch his teaching and coaching career, sending his resume to several schools around the Midwest and Northeast. Holtz stayed in touch with his former college coaches and was able to land a coaching position at the University of Iowa under coach Forest Evashevski thanks to his former head coach Trevor Rees, who vouched for Holtz and spoke highly of his coaching abilities.
As a graduate assistant at the University of Iowa, Holtz performed a variety of duties, which typically included grunt work but for Holtz it didn't matter; as long as he was around football he was satisfied. His hard work and dedication paid off as the team finished the season with a 9-1 record and were ranked second overall in the nation. Following coach Evashevki's retirement, Holtz spent the next few years as an assistant coach at various schools such as The College of William & Mary, University of Connecticut, University of South Carolina, and Ohio State, where Holtz was part of the 1968 team that captured the national championship.
...as long as he was around football he was satisfied
In 1969 Holtz accepted the head coaching position at William & Mary. His first year got off to a rocky start, as he realized the immense pressure that goes with being a head coach and struggled to maintain a healthy life-work balance. After implementing changes and taking time for self-examination, the team improved the following year, winning the Southern Conference title and earning a spot in the Tangerine Bowl.
Holtz spent another year at William & Mary before being approached by North Carolina State University to be their next head coach in 1972. Though he loved coaching at William & Mary, NC State would be able to provide greater opportunities for him and his family. After several discussions with his wife and self-reflection, Holtz accepted the offer and became NC State's coach. At NC State Holtz's success continued, with the team earning a winning record each season and four consecutive trips to bowl games.
Leon Hess, oil magnate and owner of the National Football League's (NFL) New York Jets took notice of Holtz's accomplishments and wanted him to be their next head coach after several disappointing seasons following their upset win in Super Bowl III against the heavily favored Baltimore Colts. After meeting with Hess and being persuaded by his powerful charisma, Holtz reluctantly accepted the offer to coach the Jets for the 1976 season.
Looking back in his autobiography, Holtz said "One mistake that continues to bother me to this day was when I took the job with, and then abruptly left, the New York Jets." (pg. 128). He wasn't fully committed to the role, struggled to adapt to New York's fast-paced lifestyle, and was worn down from intense media scrutiny involved with leading an NFL team in a major city. Holtz coached the Jets for 13 games, leading them to a 3-10 record before resigning in December and accepting the head-coaching position at the University of Arkansas. After stepping down from the Jets, Holtz lamented his unsuccessful tenure in the NFL, saying, "God did not put Lou Holtz on this earth to coach pro football."
After returning to college football in 1977, Holtz picked up where he left off and led the University of Arkansas to seven consecutive winning seasons and six bowl game appearances, including a convincing 31-6 victory at the 1978 Orange Bowl against their rival, the University of Oklahoma. In 1983, after a disappointing 6-5 season, Holtz was asked by the school's athletic director to resign, feeling that it would be best for the program. Despite having one less than stellar season, Holtz was shocked by the request as he had the best win-loss record in the school's history.
Holtz picked up where he left off and led the University of Arkansas to seven consecutive winning seasons and six bowl game appearances
Holtz wasn't unemployed for long as the University of Minnesota reached out and asked him to be their new head coach. Before accepting the offer, Holtz included a clause in his hiring contract that became informally called the "Notre Dame Clause" that stipulated if Minnesota plays in a bowl game during his tenure and Notre Dame contacts Holtz and offers him the head coaching position, he would be free to terminate his contract with Minnesota.
As a devout Catholic, Holtz was particularly drawn to the prospect of coaching at Notre Dame as it's a Catholic-affiliated college and as he noted in his autobiography, "I was taught by the sisters of Notre Dame, and every day at recess, noon, and dismissal, we marched out to the Notre Dame victory march. Every time the job opened up at Notre Dame (which wasn't very often), I wished somebody from the university would call me." He also mentions the high regard he had for the position, writing, "I considered the head-coaching position at Notre Dame to be the best job in the world because of what it stood for in terms of values and ethics." (pg. 166).
At the University of Minnesota, Holtz immediately turned the struggling team around, instilling them with the discipline and organization needed to be successful on the football field. Though the team won only four games in 1984, they improved significantly compared to previous years and won two of the three rivalry games that season. They continued their success the next season and earned a spot in the Independence Bowl against Clemson University.
Making it to a bowl game also meant that Holtz's Notre Dame Clause went into effect and the timing could not have worked out better as Notre Dame was searching for a new head coach. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity for Holtz and his ultimate coaching dream, so he accepted Notre Dame's offer. Holtz was particularly impressed with the school's high standards for both students and staff, explaining, "Notre Dame was not a place you attended to learn to learn to do something; it was a place you learned to be somebody. The rules reflected that. I couldn't wait to get there." (pg. 200).
Holtz wasted no time getting to work when he arrived to speak to the team, at one point saying: "I ask each of you to follow three basic rules: Do what is right. Do your very best. Treat others like you'd like to be treated. Those rules answer the three basic questions I'm going to ask of each of you, and I expect you to ask me and the other coaches. The questions are: Can I trust you? Are you committed? And do you care about me? This is what I believe and what I practice."
President Reagan with Notre Dame Football Team, 1989
As Notre Dame's coach, Holtz was strict but fair to players and the team responded positively to the policies he implemented during his tenure at the school from 1986 until 1996 when he retired. Holtz would go on to lead the team to nine bowl games, including an undefeated season in 1988 where they upset the No. 1 ranked University of Miami and went on to secure the national championship that same year. Holtz amassed an impressive 100 wins while coaching Notre Dame, second only to beloved Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne, and retired before possibly breaking Rockne's school record of 105 wins. Holtz didn't feel comfortable breaking such a sacred Notre Dame record, explaining in his autobiography, "Some records should never be broken, and in my mind, Rockne's was one of them. I probably wouldn't have come close if Rockne had not been killed in an airplane crash in the prime of his career. It didn't seem right that I hang around to break a record just because I coached more games than Rockne." (pg. 275).
Holtz amassed an impressive 100 wins while coaching Notre Dame
After retiring from coaching, Holtz remained busy throughout the late '90s, working as an analyst for CBS Sports, a highly sought after motivational speaker, and providing support for his wife who was diagnosed with stage-four throat cancer. However, the desire to return to coaching was undeniable and in 1999 Holtz became the head coach for the University of South Carolina, inheriting a football program that was in shambles and had lost more than double the games it won since joining the Southeastern Conference (SEC). Holtz was not discouraged and felt he could turn things around, having led other disheveled and dysfunctional teams to success previously.
His first year didn't go as planned with the team going winless for the first time since 1897, with Holtz discovering later that summer that many of the team issues stemmed from immense distrust among players. To work through team turmoil, Holtz gave an impassioned speech and handed out sheets of paper to the players, instructing them to write down everything they didn't like about themselves and to be as honest as possible, assuring them their responses would remain confidential. The following morning, the team met at the practice field and put their papers in a freshly dug hole so they could all be burned and their ashes covered. Holtz told his players, "From this moment forward, everything you wrote down on your list, the things that you don't like about yourself, and the things that kept us apart as a team, are history. They are buried, and they will never be brought up again. We have a new covenant starting today." (pg. 293).
Holtz's hard work turned South Carolina into a competitive team, leading them to two bowl games and making them a serious contender in the SEC. When asked about the team's impressive turnaround, Holtz responded, "There's no magic touch. Hard work, discipline, and perseverance win more often than they lose."
"There's no magic touch. Hard work, discipline, and perseverance win more often than they lose."
Unfortunately, Holtz's final game before stepping down as South Carolina's coach ended on a sour note in a game against the school's long time rival Clemson University:
Sadly, my last game at South Carolina, and my last game as a head coach, ended with a loss and an ugly bench-clearing brawl. Late in the game we were losing, and a scuffle broke out during a possession change. As our defense and Clemson's offense went onto the field during the possession change, players on both teams thought the benches were clearing for a fight. They weren't, but soon both sides were engaged in a full-scale fight. In my entire career I had never had a player ejected for fighting. Now I had a whole team involved.
Following his retirement, Holtz worked for ESPN as a college football analyst and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2008. Holtz was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2020, the highest civilian award in the United States along with the Congressional Gold Medal to honor his contributions to football and charitable causes.
Holtz and Pipe Smoking
In his autobiography, Holtz recounted meeting esteemed and often hot-tempered Ohio State coach Woody Hayes and his reaction to seeing Holtz smoke a pipe:
We heard him before we saw him. The tone of his voice sounded foul. I was smoking a pipe, something I'd been doing since I was twenty-six, when Beth bought me one (I've never smoked cigarettes or cigars in my life). He looked at me, pointed, and said, "What are you doing smoking a pipe? You couldn't work for Paul Brown. He says anyone who smokes a pipe is lazy and complacent."
I knew that Coach Hayes didn't like Paul Brown. Some of the alums had said Brown should have been hired at Ohio State. So I said, "Coach, that's why you're smarter than Paul Brown. You don't believe that nonsense."
He looked at me for a few seconds without saying a word. I think my sharp comeback surprised him. Anyway, he never said anything more about my pipe. (pg. 90-91)
NFL Hall of Fame running back Jerome Bettis, who played college football under Holtz at Notre Dame in the early '90s, recounted in a speech the uneasiness he felt telling his college coach that he was leaving after three seasons and declaring early for the NFL Draft.
Parts of the speech appeared in the Herald-Star newspaper with Bettis recalling his life-changing decision:
"I'm sweaty as I'm going into his office," Bettis said. "I've gone into his office many times before, but never in a good situation. I was with my mother and my father and that made it even more scary."
He came upon Holtz smoking a pipe at his desk.
"When you smell the pipe, it was always nerve-wracking," Bettis said. "You couldn't tell if he was tense because he was smoking the pipe or if he was relaxed."
As smoke encircled the room, Bettis finally mustered up the confidence to announce his intentions. Holtz's reaction caught him off guard.
"Jerome, you have done everything I have asked of you," Bettis recalls Holtz saying. "You have been a tremendous player for this university. Now, it's time for you to move on.
"I sat there in amazement," Bettis continued. "I thought it had to be a trick. In his infinite wisdom, he knew it was time to release me to the NFL. My NFL career is a result of everything I learned through Coach.
"I go into the NFL Hall of Fame knowing that I had an incredible coach and an incredible mentor. Even when I thought it was going to be difficult, he showed me the way."
In addition to being an inspiration to players and fans, Holtz is also known for his sharp wit and sense of humor. When his hometown of Follansbee, West Virginia honored the legendary coach in 2017, Holtz mentioned pipe smoking while speaking at the event, humorously saying, "To this day, I've never smoked a cigarette or cigar, but I still smoke the pipe. My wife wants me to give it up. I say I don't abuse you verbally or physically, I don't drink, I don't gamble, I don't run around. Now which one of those vices you want me to give up to replace that? You want me to have an affair? She said the pipe's fine."
Holtz is also known for his sharp wit and sense of humor
In 2020 Holtz listed his large, six bedroom Lake Nona home in Orlando, Florida for sale for $4.5 million, with several of the house's features garnering attention. An article from the Orlando Weekly noted, "The home's most storied attraction is the smoking room, where pipe aficionado Holtz custom-built an air purification system. The coach spent most of his time in the upstairs office." That room was Holtz's favorite, saying, "I had great privacy and could smoke my pipe and make all my decisions there... some bad, but all decisions were made in there."
When reflecting on his life and the legacy he wants to leave behind, Holtz wrote, "The only thing I hope when I die, someone says, 'That Lou Holtz was significant to a lot of people.' It is the best thing that can be said of a person. I hope it will be said of me." (pg. 303). From his illustrious coaching career, work as a motivational speaker, and years on television as an insightful analyst, Lou Holtz has certainly made a significant impact on countless people. Holtz has been an endless source of inspiration to players, coaches, and fans while remaining a humble man who will be remembered for more than wins and losses.