Holtz, then the Arkansas head coach, was a delightful host. He did his magic tricks for us and regaled us with his funny stories. I thought at the time that it would be fun to cover a guy like that.
Holtz, who had been at North Carolina State before moving to Arkansas, had already established a reputation as a winner and a master motivator. He would, of course, eventually win a national championship at Notre Dame.
You want a guy like Lou Holtz to be genuine. You want all his talk about caring about student-athletes and motivating people to be their best to come from the heart.
But as the years went by, a dark side of Holtz's coaching career was exposed. He moved a lot and won a lot. And when he was gone, there always was a mess for somebody else to clean up. And it always involved NCAA investigators.
Holtz won a national championship while at Notre Dame.
After his six-year tenure at South Carolina ended with the embarrassing fight between Gamecock and Clemson players last season, Holtz turned the program over to Steve Spurrier. It didn't take long for Spurrier to find out he'd inherited a bunch of trouble. He spent as much time talking about the latest arrest as he did about football.
And there was the dark shadow of an NCAA investigation, the one that prompted Holtz to lash out three years ago at reporters who dared suggest there could be problems within his program.
South Carolina admitted guilt Wednesday to 10 violations, five of them major. It also admitted to lack of institutional control. Holtz was not personally mentioned. The smart ones never are. But the facts of Holtz's career are undeniable. He left Arkansas, Minnesota and Notre Dame under clouds of NCAA investigations. Now you can add South Carolina to the list.
Was Holtz blissfully unaware of wrongdoing at all four places? To hear him talk, he was. But the circumstantial evidence says otherwise. At the very least, Holtz created an atmosphere in which his underlings walked a fine line between playing by the rules and outright cheating.
On Thursday, Holtz didn't seem to think his program being charged with lack of institutional control was a big deal.
"No coach was involved," Holtz said. "The major fallacy was that we tutored two young men – or I guess the academic people tutored two young men – before they attended the university."
Uh, OK. Whatever you say, Lou.
By the standards of most Southeastern Conference schools. Holtz didn't get a lot done at South Carolina. He was 0-11 his first season, but brought the program far enough to win back-to-back Outback Bowls. That might be special at South Carolina. It wouldn't be special at Auburn or Alabama or Georgia or Tennessee or Florida or LSU. He finished 33-37 overall and 19-29 in the SEC.
Holtz wrote a motivational book called Winning Every Day. An advertisement for the book says:
"Meet Lou Holtz, the motivational miracle worker who revitalized the Notre Dame football program by leading the legendary Fighting Irish to nine bowl games and a national championship. During his twenty-seven years as a head football coach, Holtz garnered a 216-95-7 career record. Each new assignment brought a different team with different players, but, invariably, the same result - success. How did he do it? By designing a game plan for his players that minimized obstacles while maximizing opportunities. "Now he wants to pass his game plan on to you. In Winning Every Day, you'll discover ten strategies that will drive you to the top of your professional and personal life. Coach Holtz will reveal how you can acquire the focus and commitment it takes to be a champion. It won't be easy; it takes sacrifice to be the best. But now you'll have a proven winner alongside you in the trenches. Winning Every Day demonstrates how you can elevate your performance while raising the standards of everyone around you. Follow Coach's strategies and winning becomes habitual. You will learn to welcome sacrifice as you dedicate yourself to excellence. He will show you how to clearly define your short-term and long-term goals, to develop an unwavering sense of purpose without compromising flexibility. "Through it all, Coach Holtz will help you discover the courage you need to live a life of unremitting triumph. You couldn't have a better guide. He will provide you with the strategies he has shared with Fortune 500 companies, groups, and organizations. Voted the top motivational speaker two years running by a survey of speakers' bureaus, Coach is going to present you with all the Xs and Os, the basics of his game plan for success in life and business."
That all sounds good. But, as the events of Wednesday showed yet again, it's nothing but empty words. Holtz's "game plan" was, at best, seriously flawed.