Holtz recently spoke to Beliefnet about how his "dream job" at Notre Dame made him a better Catholic, the role of prayer in pre-game rituals, and the four things everyone needs in life.
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.
I was raised a Catholic on both sides of the family. I went to a Catholic grade school and thought everybody in the country was Catholic, because that’s all I ever was associated with. When I went into public high school and found out that not everybody was Catholic, I found out that not necessarily everybody understood it exactly the way that I did. God answers prayers, but he doesn’t always answer it your way.
If you want to make God laugh, tell him what your plans are for the future. I used to pray when I was growing up that I would be a good athlete... and I was a poor athlete. I was two years ahead of my class, so consequently I was very immature academically, socially, and athletically. But I used to pray, "Oh, God, make me a good athlete," and I wasn’t. Yet he led me into a coaching profession that allowed me to be able to compete and be involved with all the great things about intercollegiate athletics for 30-plus years. When you’re growing up [you say], "God didn’t answer my prayers," and yet, he put you in a special place.
The greatest thing about being a Catholic is the faith. I have some difficulties with some of the changes. I was an altar boy when the Mass was in Latin. I believe in the Bible. I believe in Catholicism. I believe in the religious way. I believe in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. There isn’t anything the church teaches that I do not believe in.
In your book you said, “Everyone has a god. It might be a cause like environmentalism... or it might be a search for peace, but everyone has a god." Why do you prefer the term "god" over "belief"?
I believe in God, but I do believe that everybody has something that they worship—sometimes it’s materialistic things. Sometimes people worship money. Sometimes they worship power. [Everybody] has something that they are willing to put above everything else. My personal belief is our priorities ought to be our faith, our family, our profession. [For] athletes it should be their faith--whatever it may be. I didn’t try to convert anybody to Catholicism or anything. I just tried to get athletes to practice the faith that they were raised in. If an individual was raised as a Baptist, when he came to college, he should practice that Baptist faith, because if he did not, he’s going to replace that with something else. The second thing should be their family. The third thing should be their academics. The fourth thing should be football, and the fifth priority they should have should be social.
You’ve been such a significant person in the lives of so many of your players and fans. Can you tell us a couple of the most significant people in your life and the ones who’ve inspired you the most?
You would have to start with my wife. We’ve been married 45 years, and if you want some great advice, listen to your spouse because there’s nobody who knows you any better or loves you any more, wants to see you succeed any more, be any more honest with you. My wife has had the greatest influence on my life. The second one, of course, would be my mother. That’s why everybody gets on TV and says, “Hi, Mom,” because love is nothing more than sacrifice, and nobody makes more sacrifices than their mothers do. The third one would be my Uncle Lou, who was like a big brother that I never had, just a wonderful individual. We lost him about 10 years ago. He missed one game at Notre Dame in the 11 years I coached, either home or away or a bowl game.
Woody Hayes [football coach at Ohio State University from 1951-1978] had a tremendous influence on my life. He was tough. He was demanding. We were fortunate enough to win the national championship there, but the thing about Coach Hayes was that he had standards. He didn’t worry about being popular. He felt if you’re in a leadership role, your job is not to be popular. Your job is not to be well liked. Your job is to make people as good as they possibly can be, and to do that as a leader means you have to have high standards and not comprise it and be wiling to take the criticism that goes along with demanding greatness out of people.
Father Hesburgh [president of Notre Dame from 1952-1987] was one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met. I remember asking him one time at dinner why he made Notre Dame co-educational, and he said, "I wanted Notre Dame to become a great academic institution. I didn’t believe we could become a great academic institution if we eliminated one half of the most talented people in this country." I thought that was just great insight.
The only thing that’s going to change you from where you are now to where you’ll be five years from now are the books you read, the people you meet, and the dreams you dream. When you’re around different individuals on a continuous basis, such as when you are in coaching, there are going to be people who are really going to affect your life in all different respects—whether it be individuals who come down with cancer during the course of their playing career and be able to cope with that, individuals who lose parents, just all the different things and how people react to it. So, to pinpoint just a couple people would be unfair because everybody you meet and come in contact with is going to influence you in one way or another, either good or bad. I’ve been fortunate. Most of my contacts have helped me.
What was the best piece of advice someone has ever given you?
As far as I’m concerned, it would just be to try to achieve greatness--just go do things and be around successful people. Successful people will always tell you you can do something. It’s the people who have never accomplished anything who will always discourage you from trying to achieve excellent things.
One of my favorite sayings is, everyday somebody does something great. Today make that someone be you. Go ask different people who have done something, and those are the ones who will encourage you.