He ranks eighth on the all-time Division I career win list (249), is third among active coaches and will lead a team into his 388th game Saturday. His career has included 22 bowl trips with an NCAA-record six different schools, nine straight New Year's Day games (1987-95) and a national championship with Notre Dame in 1988.
But Holtz admitted Wednesday he wasn't very confident in his abilities after his first year as a head coach in 1969. Holtz led William & Mary to a shaky 3-7 season and said he had to re-evaluate himself at the end of the year.
"That first year was a disaster," Holtz said. "I didn't know anything. I thought I knew everything. I know little now, but I knew even less then."
So Holtz understands most of the experiences Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom is enduring during his first season in Starkville, where the Bulldogs have embarked on a rebuilding project. Croom, who spent 27 years as an assistant coach, was hired last December to re-energize a crumbling program and has been through his share of difficulties during his inaugural 3-6 season.
It hasn't been the easiest transition for Croom during a season that has included an embarrassing loss against Division I-AA Maine and an enormous win against then-No. 20 Florida. But the Hogs, who play Mississippi State at Scott Field on Saturday, will see a first-year coach confident the Bulldogs can crawl out of the Southeastern Conference gutter behind his blueprint for success.
"I spend very little time worrying about what people think," said Croom, who got letters from disgruntled fans during a 1-5 start. "We do have a plan. I am going to do it the way I want to do it. I made that clear when I interviewed for the job.
"We're going to stick with the plan and do things the way that our staff has decided to do it. Our players are buying into what we're doing and we're going to continue to get better."
Laying the Foundation
That was the best advice the 50-year-old received from close friends when he first took the job. Croom said veterans like former San Diego Chargers and current Army coach Bobby Ross and former Alabama coach Bill Curry told him it was important to know his plan, stick to it and believe in it even through difficult times.
That's advice Arkansas coach Houston Nutt said is vital to any first-year coach.
"If you don't have strong beliefs or you're not a strong person, you're like the wind," Nutt said. "You'll go change every week. You've got to have unbelievable perseverance and belief in things you believe in.
"The players have got to know you believe in this plan or it'll falter."
Croom's first step in convincing his players that his plan would work was eliminating the lack of discipline that crept into the program during Sherrill's tenure. Players that showed up late to his first team meeting were turned away. He chewed out another that didn't sit up straight and got onto one more for writing while Croom spoke.
It is an early move Kentucky coach Rich Brooks, whose first stint as a head coach came at Oregon from 1977-94, believes is important.
"I think that you have to impose your own will on the program," Brooks said. "When you're the head coach, you have to make everybody understand that whatever you've done before maybe isn't the way we're going to do it now.
"Some of those things may include discipline, which obviously it has with (Croom)."
Croom also had to realize some of the things he did in the past weren't possible because of his new job description.
He brought an extensive offensive background to Mississippi State after NFL stops in Tampa Bay, Indianapolis, San Diego and Green Bay. Croom also was the Detroit Lions' offensive coordinator (1997-2000), but relinquished those responsibilities this season when he realized it would detract from other duties as head coach.
"I don't have the time to be as involved in all the little details of running the offense," Croom said. "I always thought I would call the plays offensively. But there's just no way to do everything that I needed to get done."
Not Enough Time
There are other time constraints Nutt learned about during his first season with the Hogs. His experiences at Murray State and Boise State prepared him for a new job, but Nutt wasn't used to the added demands at a major university.
Managing 120 players, studying opponents and drawing up game plans is just one side of the job for head coaches. Nutt said more media requests, speaking engagements and numerous off-the-field issues went along with the title.
"You're not ready for all the time that people are puling at you," Nutt said. "That's the biggest thing. It all looks easy. But it's not as easy as you think. You add the time constraints, player personal problems, it all can build up on you."
Georgia's Mark Richt watched his former employer, Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, handle those things during his 11 seasons as an assistant with the Seminoles. Richt thought most of the extra attention was because he was Bobby Bowden, a Hall of Fame coach, but was surprised to discover he would have to deal with them, too.
"I figured, shoot, old coach Richt will roll in and no one's going to care much," Richt said. "But the Georgia people care about the Georgia coach. They don't care who the heck he is. I realized it came with the title of head coach maybe more so than who you are and what you might have accomplished."
Alabama coach Mike Shula, who had never been a head coach until the Crimson Tide hired him before the 2003 season, learned valuable lessons about time management. Shula can't count how many times he wished there were more hours in a day, but has learned to prioritize things as he tries to revive the Crimson Tide.
"There's just more people coming at you from different directions," Shula said about his job as a head coach. "One coach told me before I got this job, you start the day proactive. You go into the office with a proactive mindset and that may last for maybe five minutes and the rest of the day it's all reactive.'"
Suggestions to Decisions
Holtz, who worked under former Ohio State coach Woody Hayes the year before he was hired at William & Mary, used his first offseason to re-evaluate his performance. His attempt to implement Ohio State's schemes into his own program ran into roadblocks his rookie season. So he decided to make changes.
Holtz said it took a little while, but it became his program.
William & Mary made improvements the next two seasons, helping him land his first big break at North Carolina State in 1972. From there, he moved on to more success at Arkansas, Minnesota, Notre Dame and South Carolina.
"It was just, coming to the realization that I had to look at that situation and the situation I was in was completely foreign to any other I had been in," Holtz said of his first season as a head coach. "And now, all of a sudden, instead of making a suggestion, you're making decisions."
Croom has embraced the learning process during his first season, saying "once you quit learning, you quit getting better." Understandably, his biggest adjustment has been finding ways to get results from his players, which isn't easy with a program that has gotten used to floundering at the bottom of the SEC.
But Croom isn't leaving any stone unturned.
"You constantly learn different ways to try to get results from your players, on the field and off the field," Croom said. "Learning them better, just learning people more than anything else. Scheme-wise, not a whole lot changes. There's not a whole lot I haven't seen in 28 years from a scheme standpoint.
"But it's about dealing with a multitude of problems and so many different people is where my learning has come this year."
Croom and the Bulldogs are hoping to see results in the long run, but that's not easy against teams like LSU and Auburn. He has stressed the rebuilding process will take time, but Nutt said Croom already "put his stamp on the program" with the 38-31 win against Florida.
Nutt, Holtz and the rest of the SEC are already noticing the improvement under Mississippi State's first-year coach.
"I think in view of everything, Sylvester Croom has done an incredible job," Holtz said. "He has done a marvelous job there with that football program."
Stick to the Plan
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