Give him a cigar – not that it would be allowed in Upper St. Clair High School’s theater, of course – and he could be George Burns.
“I think it’s so important to have fun with whatever you do. Nobody wants to be around people who are grumpy all the time,” Lou Holtz told his audience as the first speaker of the 51st season of the Town Hall South lecture series. “If you have fun doing something, people want to be around you.”
And so he injected humor worthy of a standup comic into his Oct. 1 talk while imparting the wisdom of an 82-year-old who is best known for his success as a football coach, but also has plenty to say about succeeding in life.
For instance, he told about golfing with the late Western Pennsylvania and American legend Arnold Palmer:
“He was so kind, so gracious. I was so nervous and I played so badly. I played so badly, we lost money,” Holtz recalled. “In the locker room after, I said, ‘Gee, Arnie. I’m sorry. I never played that bad before.’ He said, ‘Oh, you’ve played before, have you?’”
Audience members laughed heartily, as they did repeatedly during his hourlong presentation, which he delivered from mid-stage without any hint of referring to notes. That included acknowledging by name the people who founded Town Hall South back in 1969, plus Upper St. Clair High School’s recently retired head football coach.
“I’m delighted to be here and to be in the hometown of Jim Render’s coaching career.”
Although his own coaching career took him through nine states, most notably Indiana and the University of Notre Dame, Holtz practically qualifies as a Western Pennsylvanian, himself. He was born in Follansbee, W.Va., only about 40 miles from Upper St. Clair, and grew up a relatively short distance away in East Liverpool, Ohio.
Despite humble origins – as a child, he shared a bedroom with his parents and sister – he said he considers himself to be fortunate.
“The reason that I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth was that I was born in this country, and I was not unwanted, not unexpected, not loved,” he explained. “I was born in this country and was taught: If I didn’t make excuses, if I made good choices, good things could happen.”
At the heart of his talk was a list of three basic rules by which he has lived and which he recommends others consider following:
- Do what’s right.
- Do everything to the very best of your ability.
- Show people you care.
“I don’t know why we complicate life,” he said. “Do you realize there are only seven colors to the rainbow? Look what Michelangelo did with seven colors. There are only seven musical notes. Look what Beethoven did with seven musical notes.
“There are only 10 numbers. Look what Bernie Madoff did …”
The rest of the punchline was overwhelmed by audience laughter.
Holtz related the story of his 1983 firing by the University of Arkansas after his seven years of guiding the Razorbacks to an impressive 60–21–2 record, representing the highest winning percentage for a coach in school history. He was ready to give one heck of a press conference.
“I knew where all the bodies were buried at Arkansas.”
But his wife, Beth, had a better idea.
“She talked me out of ever saying a negative word about anybody at Arkansas.”
A few years later, athletic director Frank Broyles, the man who had fired Holtz, gave him a ringing endorsement for the head coaching job at Notre Dame.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I end up at my dream job because my wife would not allow me to be bitter over stuff that had happened,” Holtz said. “I’m not saying you don’t have a reason to be mad, to be upset. But you’ve got to forgive, and you’ve got to move on.”
Although he represented the first primarily sports-related figure in the history of Town Hall South, his sports-related anecdotes were of the sort to which people in general can relate.
One example involved his final head coaching post, at the University of South Carolina. The Gamecocks’ football program had declined to the point where the team suffered through a 1-10 season in 1998, the year before he arrived.
The next season: 0-11.
“Records can be deceiving. We really weren’t as good as our record would lead you to believe,” he quipped. “I’m at an airport after that first year, and a guy came up and said, ‘Anybody tell ya you look like Lou Holtz?’ I said, ‘Happens to me all the time.’ He said, ‘Really makes you mad, doesn’t it.’”
At that point, he said he had two choices:
“Stay down, or you pick yourself up. If you want to do something bad enough, you’ll find a way. If you don’t want to do it bad enough, you’ll find an excuse. An excuse is a lot easier to find.”
He picked up the Gamecocks to the point where they achieved one of the biggest turnarounds in college football history, going 8–4 and winning the Outback Bowl over heavily favored Ohio State.
That was far from the only time a team of his was the underdog. In 1992, Notre Dame upset third-ranked Florida in what has gone down in gridiron lore as the “Cheerio Bowl,” in reference to a wisecrack a waiter made to Holtz when he and his wife were having dinner prior to the game.
“The difference between Cheerios and Notre Dame is that Cheerios belong in a bowl.”
Beth told him not to let it ruin the occasion, and he realized that was the way to go.
“We had such a wonderful evening, and I felt so much better I called the waiter back over and said, ‘Let me ask you a question. What’s the difference between Lou Holtz and a golf pro?’
“And he said, ‘I don’t have a clue.’ I said, ‘A golf pro gives tips.’”
Fourteen years earlier, he had to suspend both of his starting running backs and top receiver for disciplinary reasons prior to playing Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.
“Arkansas became the largest underdog there’s ever been in a major bowl,” Holtz recalled. “Three days before the game, I had a complete disarray among our team. There was no interest, no enthusiasm, nothing.”
So he told his players:
“I know why we can’t win. Why don’t you tell me why we can.”
They came up with good reasons, including the fact that Arkansas had other quality receivers and the best defense in college.
“They left the room as a different team,” Holtz said. “Why? We focused on why we could do stuff rather than listen to everybody tell us why we can’t.”
His Razorbacks proceeded to demolish the Sooners, 31-6.
Holtz wrapped up his Upper St. Clair talk with this piece of advice:
“You want to be happy for a lifetime? Make sure people would miss you if you didn’t show up. The people you miss are the people who add value to other people’s lives.”