Coaching great Lou Holtz feels humbled to receive honor at Dick Vitale Gala

Lou Holtz has received enough honors to open up a college football museum. His personal treasure chest includes a national championship he won at Notre Dame in 1988, and that's just a small dot on his resume.

He is the only coach in NCAA history to lead six different programs to bowl games and four different programs to the final top-20 rankings. He is in the College Football Hall of Fame and has become to college football what Dick Vitale is to college basketball -- a living icon.

But Holtz says none of those achievements can match the tribute he will receive Friday when he joins Villanova head basketball coach Jay Wright and former Maryland coach Gary Williams as the honored guests at the Dick Vitale Gala to fight pediatric cancer.

"I don't know if I am deserving of it," says Holtz. "I graduated in the lower half of my high school class and have been very blessed. I am honored, but I also understand this is about more than Lou Holtz. It's about cancer and its victims."

Holtz has been on the front lines of the cancer war. His wife, Beth, has been battling the disease for more than 12 years and at times he thought the fourth quarter was going to run out of time.

"Her weight went from 129 pounds to 89, and they gave her a 10 percent chance to live," Holtz says. "She is still here, and it's absolutely amazing. She is such a courageous woman. We've been married for more than 50 years, and you can't imagine how it feels to think you are going to lose a person so close to you. There is not a family in America that is not affected by cancer, and I want to do everything to help."

Holtz says he feels blessed that his family has been in good health, for the most part, and at 75 he is healthy and brimming with all kinds of energy that might even rival Vitale.

"I am at the age where my birthday candles cost more than my cake, and I feel great," he says.

Holtz is known for his magic tricks and some of the football programs he turned around looked to be the work of a magician. He wishes he could find a magical cure for cancer. But in Vitale, he sees a person who has a kind of supernatural powers in this cause.

"Think of all the lives he has saved with his presence and staying in this fight. He has helped raise millions of dollars and got other people involved," Holtz says.

Both of Holtz's sons will be at the gala, including Skip the University of South Florida head football coach who struggled through a 5-7 record last season.

Lou says he talks to Skip after every game but rarely offers advice unless asked and instead tells him what he would do in similar situations.

"He lost four games on the last play of the game last year, and to lose to West Virginia and Cincinnati, which won the Big East, on the last play of the game means you can't be far away," Holtz says. "He is an excellent coach and handles players well. The thing that impressed me the most last year was that despite all those tough losses, his team came out and played hard. He is smarter than I am and will figure it out."

Lou calls his son after every game and always gives him an honest answer.

"Advice is something you should follow, an opinion is what I think. ... A lot of coaches call me. I talk to Charlie Strong a lot, but just give them my opinion," he says.

Holtz's advice is not something people take lightly. A lot of his inspirational sayings have taken on a life of their own.

One of his best: "Coaching is nothing more than eliminating mistakes before you get fired."

When it comes to college football, Holtz likes the idea of a four-team playoff, but he wants to keep the bowl system as long as the games are over by New Year's Day.

"After the bowls on Jan. 1, let's take the four best teams and have a playoff," Holtz says. "The way it is now, when you decide who is going to play for the national championship after the season, the other bowls don't have the same significance. When you say you are going to pick the four best teams after the bowl games, all of a sudden most of those bowl games become very important."

Alan Dell, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 941-745-7080, ext. 2112.

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