They can't get Holtz's Irish down He plays his way, but not by the book

November 12, 1993|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Staff Writer

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Long before he arrived at Notre Dame, long before the most ardent college football fans had ever heard of him, Lou Holtz taught his players that they should expect three crises to occur every season.

And, long before Holtz came here in 1986, he developed his strategy for dealing with distractions and controversies. Then again, he had plenty of chance to practice what he preached. They seemed to follow him throughout what is now a 24-year coaching career.

"When you have problems," Holtz said yesterday, "you either become frustrated, intimidated or motivated. My initial reaction is to get frustrated, but after that wears off, we become motivated."

It worked during his first year at Arkansas in 1977, when Holtz suspended three starters before the Orange Bowl against second-ranked Oklahoma. The sixth-ranked Razorbacks beat the heavily favored Sooners, 31-6.

It worked during his national championship season here in 1988, when Holtz suspended Tony Brooks, the team's leading rusher, and Ricky Watters, its leading receiver, on the eve of then-top-ranked Notre Dame's game against No. 2 Southern Cal in Los Angeles. The Irish won, 27-10.

And it has worked again this season, when a book painting a negative picture of Holtz in particular and Notre Dame in general became the focus of the national media before the Sept. 11 game between the Irish and Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich. Ranked 11th at the time, Notre Dame upset the then-No. 3 Wolverines, 27-23.

"We just used it as fuel to our fire," sophomore free safety Bobby Taylor said yesterday.

The controversy has quieted in the past couple of months, seemingly extinguished by Notre Dame's 9-0 record. But the flame is still lighted for the No. 2 Irish going into tomorrow's matchup against top-ranked Florida State (9-0).

Having survived the publicity surrounding "Under The Tarnished Dome," Holtz's hospitalization for chest pains, and injuries to several key players, Notre Dame is in a position to win a national championship.

"I think he does a great job of circling the wagons and bringing the team together around a centerpiece that they can stand against," said Skip Holtz, the coach's son and the team's offensive coordinator.

Charges of verbal abuse by Holtz of his players and assistant coaches, steroid abuse by the players themselves and preferential treatment academically of athletes by the university have been largely denied or dismissed in a counterattack by school officials, and the coach continues to defend his integrity.

"It's been a very difficult year for my family for a variety of reasons," said Holtz, 56. "But I know who I am, and that's all I can do. In dealing with the media, I've always tried to be honest. I've always shown the media respect. I've always tried to be a professional."

Though the constant scrutiny he and his teams face apparently has taken its toll on Holtz, that comes with the territory of coaching the most storied college football team in the country. Yet his ability to deflect the negative attention on himself, while maintaining his focus on the team's next game, is perceived as a positive trait by his players.

"I'm sure he doesn't like negative things being written about him or the team, but when you have the kind of tradition we have here, everyone wants to pull you down," Taylor said. "He responds well to any adversity, and we draw strength from him."

Holtz said: "This team has handled things better than I have. My assistant coaches have done a tremendous job with this team. We seem to have distractions every year, but this bothers me more than I let on. The other thing is, if you have a strong faith in God, you can look in the mirror. Every time there's a charge, you look at it and say, 'Is it accurate?' If it is, then you work to correct it. If it isn't, you can't. You just have to move on."

Since bringing Notre Dame back to the national rankings, Holtz has had his share of off-field problems with prominent players. Among the most publicized:

* In 1989, All-America linebacker Michael Stonebreaker was suspended for the season after an alcohol-related car accident, and another defensive starter, George Williams, was suspended for the year for academic and disciplinary troubles.

* In 1990, former Notre Dame player Steve Huffmann charged in Sports Illustrated that players were using steroids and that coaches had encouraged players to play with injuries. Holtz denied both charges.

* In 1991, quarterback Rick Mirer and linebacker Demetrius DuBose were arrested after an altercation at an off-campus party. DuBose was charged with underage drinking, and no charges were made against Mirer. Also, Luther Darville, an administrative aide to Holtz while he was at Minnesota, was found by the NCAA to have paid small amounts of money to 28 players. Holtz admitted having knowledge of the payments, but there were discrepancies with the amounts alleged by the NCAA.

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