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For USF Bulls coach Skip Holtz and father Lou, Notre Dame holds special memories

It is a story of faith, of family and of football, and it started with a father and his sons taking a trip north from Arkansas in the summer of 1982.

Lou Holtz had a speaking engagement in Chicago, and his oldest son, Skip, hoped to drive over to South Bend, Ind., to visit Notre Dame before his senior year of high school.

"We drove down, went through campus and just fell in love with it," said USF's second-year coach, who will return to South Bend on Sept. 3 for the season opener. "I had 450 in my graduating class, and about four of us were Catholic. There was an emotional attachment there for me."

Before that trip, Lou had believed his son might go to North Carolina, where his friend, Dean Smith, had offered him a spot as a walk-on on his basketball team, which had just won a national championship with the help of a freshman named Michael Jordan.

But Skip wanted to go to Notre Dame, and it didn't even stop him when he didn't get into the school, lacking the two years of foreign language the university required. Digger Phelps and Gerry Faust, then the basketball and football coach, respectively, suggested he go across the street to Holy Cross College and transfer to Notre Dame two years later.

"It played such a prominent role in his life," said his father, who became Notre Dame's coach in 1986. "It taught him an awful lot."

Lou grew up in Ohio listening to Notre Dame football on the radio with his uncle and grandfather and started liking sports in the late 1940s, when the Fighting Irish won three national titles in four years and Johnny Lujack was "a national hero, a Tim Tebow of the day."

But as a young coach, the 1959 Kent State graduate resented that only Notre Dame alums had been hired as head coaches in South Bend.

"My goal when I got into coaching was to beat Notre Dame because they never hired anybody but alums," the 74-year-old said from his home in Orlando last week. "I was not smart enough to get into Notre Dame."

It didn't take him long to accomplish his goal. In 1960, Iowa, with him as a graduate assistant, went into South Bend and beat Notre Dame 28-0.

"I'm thinking, 'This is the epitome of my coaching career. It will not get any better than this,' " he said. "Three years later, they hired Ara Parseghian, who wasn't an alum. That opened the door. It changed everything."

After Lou came to South Bend in 1986, three of his four children graduated from Notre Dame. It started with Skip, who played one season for his father as a walk-on receiver, the first step toward following in his father's career path.

"He said, 'I want to be a coach,' and I said, 'We didn't send you to Notre Dame to be a coach,' " Lou recalled. "We could have sent you to Kent State. Good gracious, we're paying $25,000 a year, and you want to be a coach. He convinced me, and I asked him if he'd told his mom. I said, 'Make sure she's unarmed.' "

Notre Dame opened the 1986 season 1-4, and Lou decided to change his blockers in front of return specialist Tim Brown, with his son among the replacements. The next game, against Air Force, Brown returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, and Notre Dame went 4-2 the rest of the way.

Notre Dame went on to win a national title under Lou in 1988, and Skip returned to coach on his father's staff from 1990 to 1993. The last time he was in Notre Dame Stadium was 1996, for his father's last game as coach.

"It'll be an emotional day, but I have to make sure we maintain our focus," said Skip, 47. "It's a bigger day for South Florida than it is for Skip Holtz."

The two coaches have different demeanors on the sideline. Lou is remembered for his intensity and emotion while Skip is known for keeping an even keel with players, even in moments of adversity. Skip also is more of a gambler than his father was, something Lou noticed last season when USF, leading Florida 7-0 late in the first half, threw an interception on third and 6. (Florida tied it on the ensuing possession and went on to win 38-14.)

"He knows my philosophy on that. You don't risk 6 yards vs. six points, and he had a young quarterback (B.J. Daniels)," said Lou, who along with his son will speak at USF's Kickoff Dinner on Monday.

"I've also seen him take that same situation, and I say, 'Sit on the ball,' and he's gone down and scored. I think we agree on a lot of things, but he's also of the younger generation."

In a family of 67 BCS schools, this game pits one of the oldest against easily the youngest sibling. Notre Dame is celebrating its 120th season. USF last year celebrated its 100th win. In 1956, when USF was founded, Notre Dame already had seven national championships.

The Holtz family will have a strong showing in South Bend. Skip's mother, Beth, his wife, Jennifer, his three children, his brother and sisters and their families will watch from a suite provided by former Notre Dame athletic director Dick Rosenthal. Lou was offered the day off from his duties at ESPN. But he declined, citing the helplessness he feels watching his son's games.

"When you're coaching, you help control the outcome," he said. "What's difficult is when you care so much about the outcome of the game but you can't do a thing."

Lou hopes USF gets to enter the stadium through Gate D, where Notre Dame erected a statue of him in 2008. Look closely at the players on each side of the bronze coach, and you'll see Brown, wearing No. 81, and a player behind Lou wearing No. 9, the same man who will lead USF onto the field to face his old team.

And while Skip's father won't be in South Bend next week, the best illustration of how much Notre Dame means to Lou and his wife, who celebrated their 50th anniversary last month, won't come until they're gone. Their burial plots are on Notre Dame's campus, another reason for their children and grandchildren to return to South Bend.

"That is the one place they will always go back to, later in their life," Lou said.

Greg Auman can be reached at auman@sptimes.com.

For USF Bulls coach Skip Holtz and father Lou, Notre Dame holds special memories 08/20/11 [Last modified: Sunday, August 21, 2011 12:01am]

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