Man-to-Man with Lou Holtz

ESPN analyst and legendary college football coach Lou Holtz talks good men and good works—and why he blew his one NFL coaching gig.

These days, if you’re reading about college football players’ off-the-field exploits, chances are you’re reading about guys in trouble. According to Jeff Benedict, a Sports Illustrated contributor and English professor at Southern Virginia University who tracks arrests among athletes, at least 70 college football players have been arrested on serious charges this year.

But that doesn’t mean plenty of college football players aren’t doing great things off the field. For 19 years, the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) has been honoring college football players who give back to their communities, by naming them to the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team. Former Good Works Team members include NFL stars Peyton and Eli Manning, Daunte Culpepper, and Ricky Williams.

This is the first year that the AFCA will be naming a Good Works Team captain. Fans can vote online, and the winner will be recognized during the ESPNU College Football Awards on December 9.

Lou Holtz, an ESPN analyst and legendary ex–college football coach, is the National Ambassador of the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team and a member of the selection committee. He recently spoke with the Good Men Project Magazine about good works and good men.


Why did you get involved with the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team, and why is it so important to highlight service among college football players?

All we read about are the negative things—we never hear much about the positive things. For 19 years, this program has honored college football players doing so many good things for other people. I would rather have my son make the All-Good Works team than make an All-American or all-conference team, because when you [make All-American], you’re doing it for yourself. These players on the Good Works team have done so many wonderful things for other people.

When you look at the caliber of athletes—we’ve had Eli and Peyton manning, Tim Tebow, and Colt McCoy—these are excellent football players. You think about the options they have to do different things—go to dinner, go on dates, go to parties—and yet they choose to be involved in helping other people. I’ve spent my life involved in college coaching. I know there are a lot of good things that people do, but all we ever hear about are the few negative things.

What’s one story from this year’s class that left an impression on you?

The one that really jumps out to me is Sam Acho, the defensive end from the University of Texas. He’s a great football player. He went with his family on several medical mission trips to his parents’ native town in Nigeria—but you don’t hear about that.

Who taught you about manhood?

That would be my uncle Lou—he was like my brother, he was like my father, he was like my best friend. He was ten years older than me, and he took me in like a little brother—he’d take me down on the corner to hang with the big guys, and he became my very best friend. He taught me about how you behave, how you do things, how you treat women, etc. It was him, because of those formative years we spent together. And my whole time at Notre Dame he missed one football game—in eleven years, both home and away.

What two words describe your dad?

Hard-working. My dad only went to the third grade—he was born in the Depression—[but] after third grade, he had to drop out of school to go to work. After that he went into the Navy. He was at Iwo Jima and all the big battles, but he never talked about it.

But I say “hard-working” because he was always working different jobs trying to provide for the family. He was a good person. He was always so busy providing for the family, he never had much time to spend with the children. He drove a bus during the day and worked as a janitor at night. He was a very good man, but he was busy providing.

What was the best advice your dad ever gave you?

The best advice he ever gave me was, don’t let other people do something for you that you can do for yourself. If you can do it yourself, do it, and if you can’t do it yourself, ask for help. Don’t take help from someone if you can do it yourself—that’s not what life’s all about.

How are you most unlike him?

I’m most unlike him in that I don’t aspire to impress other people. He always wanted to own the big car—it wasn’t because he wasn’t a good person. He’d only gone through the third grade, and he had an inferiority complex deep down inside, so he always wanted the big car, even though it was an older car, and even though it didn’t work so great—material things were important to him, and they aren’t to me.

What was your biggest mistake, and what did you learn from it?

Oh, I made so many mistakes … I think it’s that you don’t do anything without making a total commitment to it. Don’t do anything halfway. And I’m referring to the New York Jets. I went there without a commitment: let’s go see what it’s like; if we don’t like it, we can come back to collegiate athletics. If you make a commitment to do something and you don’t give it your undivided attention, you’re being unfair to everybody. If you want to fail, you have the right to fail, but nobody has the right to cause other people to fail.

Who is the best man you know, and how does he earn that distinction?

My uncle Lou was probably as good a person as I’ve ever known. And why? He worked hard, he was great father and a great husband, he was a religious individual, he was fun to be around, and I never heard him say a bad thing about anybody. I think the real heroes in this world are people like my uncle Lou.

What advice would you give teenage boys trying to figure out what it means to be a good man?

I have three rules: do the right thing, do the best you can, and show people you care. Because everyone has three questions: Can I trust ya, are you committed to excellence, and do you care about me?

This is something I’ve tried to live by. I was low in my high school class, I’m not very smart, so I just follow those three rules.

Have you been more successful in your public or private life?

By far my private life. I’ve got a great wife (we’ll be married 50 years this summer); four children, all graduated from college, all of whom married college graduates; and nine grandchildren. We get together every summer for a week, mandatory; we have a family meeting at 9 o’clock every night that week, where we talk about our foundation, about our businesses: one night on religious progress, one night on problems they might have, and one night on goals for the future.

We have a policy that we will educate our grandchildren, but from age 15 until the time they get out of college, they have to come spend a week with us alone, without their parents, where we tell them about my parents and grandparents, my wife’s parents and grandparents, what we believe, and why we believe it. This has maintained a wonderful relationship. So, by far, my private life has been far more successful.

What is the your most cherished ritual as a guy?

Having dinner with my wife. We go out to dinner far more than we eat at home, and the reason I do that, I tell my wife, “Hey, I cooked what you want, I prepared it the way you want it, I cleaned up the kitchen, and I did the dishes, so don’t tell me about your girlfriends whose husbands cook for them.” But that’s where we talk, and predominantly, that’s when I get the chance to listen to my wife. Having dinner with my wife—when it’s possible—is by far the highlight of my day.

When was the last time you cried?

At my mother’s death, when my parents passed away. I’m an emotional person, but I don’t cry much. When I cry, it’s when I’ve had a loss. See, a loss is when you can’t replace something. If you can replace something, it’s really not a loss. You can replace a house, you can replace a car, but it’s when I’ve had a loss that I really get sad.

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  1. I have been an ND Football fan for a long time, and a lot of that has been because of Lou Holtz. He was the football genius in my mind long before Bill Belichick graced New England with his prowess and winning ways.

    I have always regarded Holtz as not only one of the best college coaches, but one of the best all-round men in sports during his time.

    To learn more about Holtz read his book, ‘Wins, Losses, and Lessons.” It’s amazing.

    Thanks for the great read Good Men. Keep up the ‘Good’ work as it were.

    Nate Snow

  2. Tom Matlack says:

    I love what he says about his grandkids coming to stay with him alone and paying for their education. My grandmother did the same thing for us. It had an enormous impact on all of us. There are some things your grandparents can say that your parents can’t. I have to admit as a sports fan i was never a very big Lou supporter. But this shows me that he really is a class act and I under estimated him greatly.


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