The summer before Skip Holtz's freshman year of college in South Bend, Ind., a roommate changed plans at the last minute. Holtz wound up being taken in by the Hickey family.
Of all the loyal sons and daughters of Notre Dame, you would be hard-pressed to find someone more ingrained in the tradition and culture of South Bend than Joe Hickey, now 83, whose great-grandfather moved to the area long before college football came to town.
Hickey was the youngest of six siblings to graduate from Notre Dame, and four of his seven children followed suit with the Fighting Irish as his grandchildren did after that. Growing up in South Bend, Hickey's next-door neighbor was none other than Knute Rockne, and when the legendary coach converted to Catholicism, his godparents were Hickey's mother and father.
Despite all of that history, eight decades of heartfelt allegiance to Notre Dame will be put on hold today, when Hickey and his family proudly cheer for the man they consider an adopted son.
"We'll all be going to the South Florida game, rooting for South Florida," said Hickey, who still gets calls from Skip on Father's Day and his birthday.
"It'll be the only time I can recall that we've ever not been fans of Notre Dame. We love that guy."
Holtz spent eight years of his life in South Bend, four years in college then four years on his father Lou's coaching staff at Notre Dame from 1990-93. But there's a strong impression left by those who knew him in that time.
"How can you not like him? He's the nicest guy in the world," said former Notre Dame athletic director Gene Corrigan, 84, who helped place Holtz with the Hickey family 28 years ago and later brought his father in as coach.
"That was just as good for the Hickeys as it was for Skip. They were delighted to have him. He enriched their lives. You can't help but like Skip. He was always very easy to get along with in every way."
Today, Holtz returns to South Bend and will be in Notre Dame Stadium for the first time in 15 years as his Bulls open their season against his alma mater. The last time a Notre Dame graduate came into South Bend and beat the Fighting Irish was 1940 (Iowa's Eddie Anderson). But Hickey isn't the only Notre Dame graduate whose bond to Holtz is stronger than that of a diploma.
"I tell people when I'm running out of that tunnel, I'm turning left," said former Notre Dame basketball player Tim Kempton, a roommate of Holtz's and a 6-foot-10 center who played for eight NBA teams. "I'm wearing green and white the whole week leading up to it.
"Notre Dame is a great place, and I love it. It's probably the only time that I will (root against it). I just want to see Skip do well. That's where my loyalties lie on Sept. 3. You want good people to be successful, and Skip's one of the good guys."
Kempton planned to bring his teenage sons with him to South Bend this weekend and take them to USF's walk-through "to see what big-time college football is all about."
The Holtzes are a Notre Dame family. After Skip graduated in 1987, his brother, Kevin, and younger sister, Liz Messaglia, followed. Messaglia finished high school in South Bend.
Her husband did the same and earned his law degree from Notre Dame. They were married in the university's Basilica of the Sacred Heart, and like Skip, two of her three children were baptized at Notre Dame's Log Chapel. Of course, she's rooting against her alma mater.
"I'm not torn in any way, shape or form," Messaglia said. "Every other Saturday, I would cheer for Notre Dame, but this one, there was never a doubt in my mind."
Kevin, who works for the public defender's office in Daytona Beach and roomed with his brother when he was in law school at Notre Dame, has the same family loyalty. And Lou Holtz, now known to a generation of football fans as an ESPN analyst, has made it clear which side he'll be pulling for today.
"I cheer for my son. It'll be the first time I've ever picked against Notre Dame," he said while in Tampa last week. "I have an honorary doctor's degree and a statue there. Somebody said you're picking an upset. That's not an upset. Upset is what his mother would be if I picked against her son.
"There's no way in this world I would ever cheer against my son. Make no mistake. I want the world to know: I am for the South Florida Bulls."
Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com and at (813) 226-3346.