Over the years I had always put Lou Holtz in the category of living legends of college coaching, like Joe Paterno and Bobby Bowden. After all, Holtz is the only coach in college football history to lead six different teams to a bowl game. But then Lou Holtz became an ESPN commentator, and that lofty image went out the proverbial window.
Holtz was the last Notre Dame coach to lead the Irish to legitimate national prominence, and for that we can certainly understand why Lou Holtz and the University of Notre Dame will be forever intertwined. But when you make the move to sports commentator, you are expected to be as objective as you possibly can.
Lou Holtz, however, has taken sports media bias to an unprecedented level of hackery.
Sure, some of the guys at ESPN have their biases when it comes to teams like, oh...let’s say...USC. But rarely are they obvious enough to shill for their own Alma Mater. Even Ohio State fans complain that Kirk Herbstreit, a former Buckeye, is too often in the tank for Pete Carroll and everything USC.
Mark May was probably a little too pushy in getting Larry Fitzgerald into the Heisman race in 2003, but he always joked about his bias toward the young receiver from his old stomping grounds in Pittsburgh.
When Lou Holtz first joined the ESPN college football crew in 2005, I really thought that the analysis of an experienced, battle-tested coach would be a welcome perspective to the lineup. But he immediately went to work touting the new Irish coach Charlie Weis, saying that hire would be the spark that would bring Notre Dame back to the forefront of the college football world.
The Irish had recruited some talent and beat No. 3 Michigan that year, but they were far from national championship caliber. While Holtz did help start a media hype campaign that landed Notre Dame in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl, the overrated and outmatched Irish were of course routed by Ohio State.
Despite the embarrassing loss in a BCS bowl, the dawn of the 2006 season saw Notre Dame getting just as much love, and good ol' Lou Holtz was right there on board predicting an Irish national championship.
After playing a schedule that only pitted Notre Dame against three ranked teams, two of whom they lost to, the Irish were inexplicably invited to another BCS bowl. In routine fashion, they were destroyed again, this time in the Sugar Bowl by SEC West runner-up LSU.
With back-to-back BCS blowouts, college football fans assumed (more like hoped) that maybe Coach Lou would tone down the Notre Dame rhetoric and focus on the many other teams that were deserving of some hype. WRONG!
Lou Holtz looked at the camera, and with a straight face, he predicted that Notre Dame would win 11 games in 2007. Mark May almost spit out his food, and he wasn’t even eating. Holtz’s incoherent rants in defense of the fledgling Irish team earned him the unofficial nickname of "Granny Holtz."
Well, we all know that Notre Dame went on to start their 2007 campaign 0-5 and finished the season 3-9, including losses to Navy and Air Force. With the Irish giving Holtz little to talk about and a growing surge of unpopularity among EPSN viewers, the network decided to employ a new gimmick that they hoped would help reconnect Coach Lou to the fans.
Enter Coach Lou's "locker room pep talks."
Lou Holtz had somewhat of a reputation for delivering pre-game and halftime speeches that inspired his players to give their all on the field and espouse his "never say die" mantra. ESPN figured that a studio version of this talent might go a long way to repackaging Holtz’s reputation as a college football commentator.
It ended up having the opposite effect from what they had hoped.
Now, I have no doubt that if we asked anybody who played for Lou Holtz about his real life locker room speeches, the reviews would be glowing. But Holtz and ESPN should have known that there is a huge difference between preaching to a group of young men right before they go into battle and talking to a camera in a cold studio somewhere in Connecticut.
The irony is that while Holtz was fast earning a comparative reputation to John Madden with his meandering analyses that left many viewers scratching their heads, the real connection to Madden was that Holtz was about to create a football curse of his own.
Just like whichever athlete appeared on the cover of Madden’s video game ended up injured, whichever team Lou Holtz chose for his "pep talk" segments ended up losing the game. The curse became so prescient that as soon as ESPN announced which team would be receiving the "pep talk" that week, the sports books in Las Vegas would start getting pounded for the "cursed" team’s opponent.
Instead of being inspired, college football fans across the nation would kneel down in front of their TVs praying that their team wouldn’t win the death lottery and end up in Lou Holtz’s graveyard of formerly ranked college football teams.
It seems that in 2008, ESPN started to get the message and apparently told Coach Lou to tone down the Notre Dame propaganda. After all, I think Notre Dame was going to give him the statue anyway, right?
Fortunately for Holtz, the first few weeks of the 2008 season saw a spunky ECU team tear through two ranked opponents, earning an early title of possible "BCS Buster." Coach Lou was so excited on the set that ESPN had to install one of those salad bar sneeze guards next to Mark May just so he didn’t drown.
Did we mention that the Pirates were coached by none other than Skip Holtz, the eldest son of Coach Lou Holtz? Well, it looks like blood isn’t antibody enough to stave off the Lou Holtz curse, as ECU now sits at midseason with three losses. Whatever will Coach Lou talk about now?
Unfortunately, we found out last Friday what Holtz’s next nugget of wisdom would be. While attempting to make an awkward point during a discussion about Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez‘s leadership ability, Holtz said, "You know, Hitler was a good leader too."
ESPN’s legal eagles quickly wrote a retraction statement for Holtz to read on Saturday morning, where he apologized for the flop, but the damage was done.
Now, let me state emphatically that no rational person could think that Lou Holtz holds Adolf Hitler in any kind of high regard, and I absolutely believe him when he implied that when saying Hitler was a "great leader" it was strict hyperbole. Lou Holtz is absolutely not a hatemonger or a Nazi sympathizer, and the blogs need to quit suggesting otherwise.
But I do believe that the instinct to even use Hitler’s name in any kind of sports analogy reinforces the popular belief that this sport has probably passed Lou Holtz by.
Holtz deserves to be remembered for his accomplishments on the field, as they are a noteworthy chapter of college football history. Conversely, every time he appears on television as a commentator, his legacy becomes further eroded.
Firing Lou Holtz might be too harsh a penalty for a man that has contributed so much to the game, but ESPN would be doing themselves a huge favor by parting ways with Holtz in a dignified way—say if Notre Dame were to offer him the AD position and he left on his own.
We should immediately know if anything like this develops, because we’ll be able to hear Mark May shouting from the ESPN rooftops.
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