As the college football season begins, preseason polls are unanimous on one point: Notre Dame's Fighting Irish are back in the football spotlight. In a way it is fitting that the resurgence of Notre Dame football coincides with the publication of WINS, LOSSES, AND LESSONS by Lou Holtz, a well-traveled football coach who listed Notre Dame on his extensive coaching resume. It was Holtz who led the Fighting Irish to their last national championship nearly 20 years ago and Notre Dame fanatics are ecstatic to be back in the championship hunt. Now, pictured on the cover of his autobiography in complete Notre Dame regalia, Holtz provides football fans with a full account of a coaching career that found the author both venerated and excoriated by fans from several college football powerhouses.
Holtz's nomadic football coaching career serves as a reminder of how many successful collegiate coaches share one common trait --- they were in the right place at the right time. After an undistinguished college football career at Kent State and a brief stint in the military, Holtz secured his first coaching position at the University of Iowa as a graduate assistant. As he recounts the details of the next years of his life, readers will be reminded of the song immortalized by Johnny Cash, "I've Been Everywhere." From Iowa in 1960 Holtz traveled to William & Mary, Connecticut, South Carolina and Ohio State. He reached the low point of his coaching life when his new boss at South Carolina, Paul Dietzal, fired him one hour after meeting him. As Holtz was leaving the office Dietzal said to him, "Lou, just one more thing."
"Yes?" replied Holtz.
"Have you ever thought about going into a different profession?"
As fate would have it, Holtz did think about a career change. But while he was pondering his fate, an unexpected vacancy arose at South Carolina and Dietzal brought Holtz back as a scout and academic advisor. By 1969, he was the head coach at William & Mary, leading them in 1970 to the only bowl game in their football history.
As a head coach Holtz still was the darling of travel and real estate agents. From William & Mary, he moved to North Carolina State and then spent an unsuccessful season as head coach of the New York Jets. In 1977, Holtz returned to the college ranks and led the University of Arkansas to 60 wins during seven seasons. While preparing for an Orange Bowl battle against national champion contender Oklahoma, Holtz became part of a major controversy when several of his players were arrested shortly before the game. A national uproar ensued and Holtz seemed to be battling by himself against a media onslaught. The only person who publicly was willing to assist Holtz was the young Arkansas Attorney General. His name was Bill Clinton, and to this day Holtz numbers him as a friend. Holtz and his wife Beth eventually would spend an evening at the White House and sleep in the Lincoln bedroom.
From Arkansas it was on to the University of Minnesota. His contract at Minnesota contained a clause that allowed him to leave the school if offered one other position, head coach at Notre Dame. In 1986 Holtz received and accepted that offer.
WINS, LOSSES, AND LESSONS makes no bones about Holtz's love for Notre Dame. He is a devout Catholic, and he --- like many other Catholics --- views Notre Dame football as more than a game. As he remarked at his initial press conference, "My mother is extremely happy these days. She believes that once you go to Notre Dame, you're in heaven." Whether it was heaven or South Bend did not seem to matter because Holtz returned the Fighting Irish to national prominence and the national championship in the 1988 season.
As most successful head coaches, Holtz is an inspiring and motivating leader. He has worked alongside a roster of men who occupy a wing of the college football hall of fame. WINS, LOSSES, AND LESSONS is a stirring account of what it takes to become an outstanding football coach. It is a mixture of luck, skill, grace under pressure, humility, and as Holtz would readily admit, occasional divine intervention. Football fans across the land will find the life of Lou Holtz to be an enjoyable tale to read while preparing for another exciting college season.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on January 24, 2011