Lou Holtz's Life Lessons
The ESPN analyst and former Notre Dame football coach on what we can do to achieve our goals.
BY: Interview by Dena Ross
Lou Holtz is considered one of the best college football coaches in history, working with teams at The College of William and Mary, North Carolina State, University of Arkansas, University of Minnesota, University of South Carolina, and, most notably, Notre Dame, where he led the team to nine post-season bowl games and a national championship over his 11 seasons there. For a brief stint, he was also the head coach of the New York Jets. Currently an ESPN analyst, author, and motivational speaker, Holtz's latest book, the best-selling "Wins, Losses, and Lessons," tells the story of his life and faith, and how the success and struggles he's had both on the field and in his personal life have made him the person he is today.
One of your favorite quotes is "The ladder of success is best climbed by stepping on the rungs of opportunity. "What would you tell someone who says he's never had any opportunities and uses that as an excuse for his poor station in life?
I think that we have opportunities all around us--sometimes we just don’t recognize them. That was never more obvious to me when I [accepted a job as head coach] with the New York Jets, which was maybe one of the best jobs in America. But because of the attitude that I approached it with, I didn't see the great opportunities that I had. All you see are problems and difficulties and obstacles. We get discouraged far too easily.
You aren’t going to find anybody that’s going to be successful without making a sacrifice and without perseverance. Things don’t always work out easily, but those are the things that are the most gratifying once you achieve them.
What's your philosophy of life?
I think that everybody needs four things in life. Everybody needs something to do regardless of age. Everybody needs someone to love. Everybody needs something to hope for, and, of course, everybody needs someone to believe in. My philosophy in life is, Decide what you want to do. You have to have something to hope for.
How can we use that philosophy to be sucessful?
Remember my "WIN" strategy or "What’s Important Now?"--to evaluate the past, focus on the future, and tell you what you have to do in the present. But, the most important three rules [to remember] if an individual wants to have success and meaningful relationships with people is: Just do the right thing; two, do everything to the best of your ability not because somebody is looking or somebody is going to applaud you; and three, always show people you genuinely care about them. If you follow those three rules, life is not complicated.
When you were coaching, was prayer part of your pre-game rituals with your team?
It’s always been part of the pre-game ritual. We always said the "Our Father" before the game and said a prayer after. Usually I had a teammate lead it, sometimes I did. But when I went to the University of Notre Dame, you could express your faith, and that was one of the great things about it. You could practice your faith. You could talk to your players about their spiritual life, about the direction they’re going without having the ACLU call the press and complain and that you’re trying to promote a religion.
I believe that having a spiritual life is so important in everybody’s life. I think it was St. Francis of Assisi who made the comment, You ought to preach the gospel 24 hours a day, and when absolutely necessary, resort to using words. I think there’s a lot of truth in that.
When you were able to pray at Notre Dame games, what did you typically pray for?
Usually you pray for togetherness, for overcoming problems, and for each other. We never, ever prayed for victory. I felt that that had to do with preparation and doing the things you needed to do, but we were just thankful.
I think that when we prayed, we acknowledged greatness. We confessed the things we’ve done wrong. We give thanksgiving for the things we’ve had, the opportunity to play the game, the opportunity to be at this school and the opportunity to be associated with the various people. We’re thankful for our family. And then, of course, what we hope for is to help us realize the potential we have and to be able to live up to the talents that [were] given to us.
The thing you have to worry about when you talk about your faith publicly is that people think you’re going to be a hypocrite. Now, we all make mistakes. We all make dumb decisions. We all do stupid things that we wish we hadn’t done, but if you have a faith, then you ought to be willing to acknowledge it.
You credit getting your dream job at Notre Dame to your hard work and your faith in God. Why is faith in God so important to achieving goals rather than simply faith in oneself?
I was raised in a religious environment, and my wife is one of the more religious people that I have ever known. Let me give you a prime example. When [I was asked to coach] at the University of Minnesota, we could not agree [on whether we, as a family, should go]. I said, "We’re going each go into a different room where we’re going to spend a half-hour and pray and think about it." After we came out of those individual rooms, we came together as a family once again. There was a peace and tranquility among the family that going to Minnesota was the right thing. However, I was not comfortable unless the Notre Dame clause was put in there--that if we accepted Minnesota and Notre Dame contacted me, I would be free to go to the University of Notre Dame.
Everybody gets along in different ways, but I say if you put your faith in God, he’ll direct your ways. Just do the best that you possibly can. People are going to criticize you, and when you have a faith and when you express your faith, people oftentimes are going to take opposition to that and feel offended by it and become anti-you. But that’s just a price you pay, and you just move on with your life along that way.
I think having a faith in God, in my case, is exceptionally strong. It was never more obvious than when my wife was diagnosed with stage IV cancer. They gave her a 10 percent chance to live, and she’s still with us today and doing amazingly well. We credit three things with it. Number one is her attitude. Number two, good doctors. And number three, the number of prayers that were put forth, not by our family alone, but by the Notre Dame family that knew us.
You say you became a better Catholic while at Notre Dame and that your faith had helped you cope with the responsibilities of your job while there. Can you explain how it helped you?
The fact that they have Mass so many times during the day--even during the week. You can practice your faith when you leave the office at night, and if you’re depressed you can go by the Grotto, you can go into Sacred Heart Church. [It's] just the atmosphere. With so many priests, you just feel like you’re at the center at Catholicism for the United States. Just being around the priests and the various people that serve at the University of Notre Dame, you just knew it was just a very, very special place.