South Bend Stories: Lou Holtz on Skip's playing days
Usually if you ask Lou Holtz about what his son Skip was like as a walk-on football player at Notre Dame, the story he tells is about how "my wife's son" was flagged for roughing the punter in the fourth quarter against Southern Cal. (Skip, reminded of his, smiles and jumps ahead to his father's punchline, "Now I know why some species devour their young.")
But Lou was able to share a little more insight about how the addition of his son to Notre Dame's return units helped spark a turnaround in the Fighting Irish in Holtz's first season in South Bend, going from a 1-4 start to a 4-2 finish, with momentum that would escalate to a national championship two years later in 1988. Skip was only a small part of that, but his father explained how little things added up for Notre Dame in 1986. It starts with Holtz's fourth game, a 28-10 loss at No. 2 Alabama.
"About the third game, we're playing Alabama. Alabama had never beaten Notre Dame," Holtz remembers. "We take the second-half kickoff, and Tim Brown doesn't even catch the kickoff, gets hit by about five guys, and we lose the game pretty decisively. ... We came back and said 'I'm going to put people on the field that really care, and we're going to start with special teams.' I took people like Tom Galloway and Skip. I took about eight guys like that and made them our special teams. (After a loss to Pittsburgh) we played Air Force, and Tim Brown took the opening kickoff for a touchdown.
"Here's the amazing thing. When I put that team together, Tim Brown went into (receivers coach) George Stewart's office and said 'Does Coach has something against me?' George says 'Have faith.' Later in the year, we taught Tim Brown how to catch punts. I taught him. You see that finger? (Holds up hand) Broke that in four places. I had never caught them with bifocals on. Caught one and splattered it. But Tim Brown wanted the same guys blocking on his punt returns.
"From that (point) on, we became a pretty good team. We played a brutal schedule. We played LSU down there. They're No. 5 in the country. We lose by two in a heartbreaker. We kick a field goal, it's good and they said it wasn't. We played Penn State, they win the national championship. They beat us by four (actually five, 24-19). They had a couple of their touchdowns set up by pass interference penalties. That's when it was the point of infraction. Tim Brown had over 150 yards in punt returns called back. We had a couple of fumbles, and Joel Williams dropped a touchdown pass in the end zone with 30 seconds to go from the 15. But we're getting better and you can see it coming. I think those special teams that it isn't about talent, it's about desire."
Now, Holtz details his son's roughing-the-punter penalty, late in a game at No. 17 Southern Cal. Notre Dame trailed 30-12 in the third quarter, rallied back and won 38-37 on a field goal by John Carney with two seconds left.
"It's 30-20, 11 minutes left in the game," Lou says. "We put on a punt rush. We felt we could block the punt. Southern Cal always blocked out, so we put our fastest guys in the middle. We felt we could block it. I said 'We're convinced they're going to block out?' 'Oh, yeah, Coach, every time.' I didn't want Skip involved, so we put him on the outside. Well, they block down, and here comes Skip, free as a bird. He missed the punt and roughs the punter. They get a first down. But just getting into the huddle after that, we're down 37-20, nine minutes to go. The whole attitude of the team on the sideline became one of 'This is ridiculous. Enough's enough.' Tim Brown ran back a kickoff to set up a touchdown, then ran back a punt return to their 15 to set up a field goal. That (return) was Skip's experience. The reason he played, they helped turn that around with the attitude. Our kicking team became outstanding."
(Thanks to Notre Dame and John Heisler for the archive photo.)