There are people and places that help define us, shape us and teach us, that show us who we are and what we are meant to be.
There is no overstating just how much Notre Dame has done all that for USF coach Skip Holtz. He played there. His siblings went there. His father, Lou, won a national championship there. He coached there. His son was baptized there.
And now he faces the tough task of standing on the opposite sideline in one of the biggest games his new school has ever played. Holtz has not been shy about describing how emotional he will be Saturday when the Bulls take on No. 16 Notre Dame, because of the deep and special hold the school has on everyone in his family.
“We are who we are because of the experiences we’ve had,” Holtz said. “I’ve had an incredible experience at Notre Dame as a student. Having the opportunity to play football there was a phenomenal experience for me. The opportunity to coach there with my father … I think it helps you understand when you’ve had the opportunity to play and coach at a school like Notre Dame at that elite level what big-time football is all about.
“We had some great teams while I was there and I was fortunate to coach some great players while I was at Notre Dame, but that has helped me keep things in perspective as far as what we need to do to get there. It’s impossible to understand what that level is all about if you’ve never had those experiences. It had a huge impact on me as a coach having the opportunity to be at a school like Notre Dame.”
The Notre Dame ties run long and deep. Lou Holtz grew up listening to Notre Dame games on the radio in the 1940s. His grandparents and uncles cheered for Notre Dame. When he got into coaching, he never thought he would be able to coach there because Notre Dame only hired alums.
But after the Irish hired Ara Parseghian in 1964, Lou Holtz began to think one day he might end up in South Bend. More than 20 years later, he did. Holtz coached 134 games in 11 seasons at Notre Dame and went 100-32-2. He holds the school record for most games coached and is second to Knute Rockne in total victories.
Lou Holtz won the last national championship at the school in 1988. There is a statue of him on campus in tribute to the 1988 team. When asked about Skip going back to Notre Dame, Lou joked, “I hope he remembers to turn left out of the locker room.”
But on a more serious note, Lou Holtz said, “I know the difference that school made in my children's lives. Skip played there, coached there, graduated from there. The education you get there is not just in the classroom. My daughter is 40, and she and her college roommate still get together. You can't explain what it is, but it is special. There's no place like it.”
Skip Holtz remembers the final game Lou coached there, a 62-0 win over Rutgers in 1996. The entire family got a couple of RVs, tailgated and enjoyed every moment. Skip Holtz’s son was baptized that weekend at the Notre Dame Log Chapel. The Notre Dame Glee Club sang Ave Maria. Skip Holtz still has pictures of his brother, father and himself standing on the sideline that day in big winter coats.
“It was an emotional weekend for everybody because Notre Dame has been such a huge part of all of our lives, but also knowing a job my father so dearly loved and one that he enjoyed going to every single day was coming to an end was a sad time for us,” Skip Holtz said. “But it was also an opportunity to reflect [on] the great memories and joys and success he had while he was in South Bend. … It’s a memory [I'll] always treasure.”
Both Skip and Lou were flooded with interview requests leading up to this game. Though both were happy to share their memories of Notre Dame, they each wanted to make sure everyone knew this game is not about them.
Skip Holtz’s return provides a nice storyline, but he wants the focus to be on his young Bulls and the opportunity of a lifetime his players have to play such a storied program.
“Once they put the ball on the tee, it’s about the game,” Skip Holtz said. “I can’t allow the circus that goes around college football to take away our focus. Once the game starts, it’s your obligation to give the players the best chance they have to win.”