SOUTH BEND, IND., NOV. 16 -- Sometimes people forget that before Lou Holtz was known as Notre Dame's ultra-successful football coach, before he earned a reputation for complaining that his talent-laden team was not meeting expectations, before he gained notoriety for getting upset about the polls, he was something of a comedian.
Holtz performed magic tricks. He told stories about himself. His long face often cracked with a smile.
Today, on the eve of top-ranked Notre Dame's final home game of the season against surging Penn State Saturday at 4, Holtz stood before more than 1,000 of the faithful at a luncheon held in the hockey arena and laughed at what has been a most strenuous season.
"People ask me if I'm going to coach 11 years, like Frank Leahy," Holtz said at the Notre Dame Quarterback Club luncheon. "Well, you've got to remember this: After three years, he took a break from the pressure and went to war."
Holtz, who has led the Irish to an 8-1 record and a second-consecutive Orange Bowl bid, was sitting in his office a couple of hours later, reflecting on one of the most scrutinized jobs in sports: his.
"It's a very demanding job, but yet the administration is beautiful," he said. "Nobody in the administration says you've got to win. They want to win, but there are no demands. You just feel like you're supposed to win, that's the Notre Dame way. The Yankees are supposed to win. Notre Dame's supposed to win. So you've got to come to the realization you're not going to satisfy people."
Holtz, in his fifth season here, has endured a most interesting year, bouncing from a preseason steroid controversy to the No. 1 ranking, from a stunning upset at home by Stanford back to No. 1. He has perhaps the best player in the nation in flanker Raghib "Rocket" Ismail, one of the the Irish's worst defenses in recent memory (giving up an average of 406 yards per game), and a horrifying schedule that ends this way: No. 18 Penn State, at No. 19 Southern Cal, No. 2 Colorado in the Orange Bowl.
"You could go to places that are easier to win, considering the schedule or academic admissions," Holtz said. "You can go to places that are better financially, although Notre Dame has been most gracious to me. But I don't think you can go anywhere where you experience the peace and tranquility that you experience being part of the Notre Dame family.
"In some respects, Notre Dame is the most difficult place in the world to win. I cannot recall a day this year that we have had all our football team at practice because of academics, players having classes that conflict with practice. And it doesn't bother you. Then, in some respects, Notre Dame's the easiest place to win. The intelligence it takes to compete academically carries over on the football field, so does the discipline and the camaraderie with the student body. There are a lot of things here that cause players to gravitate together even though they live in different dorms. So we have tremendous advantages as well as disadvantages."
Rumors always circulate that Holtz will be leaving Notre Dame, that he might be burned out by working 14-hour days and sleeping four or five hours a night.
"I handle this stuff well," he said. "I flourish on these kind of games. I relish the critical games. I get burned up, not burned out."
As for rumors, he said he hears none.
"I don't talk to anybody," he said.
Not even his next-door neighbor?
"The only thing I know about my next-door neighbor is that he moved in the week of the Michigan game and put a huge Michigan flag up in front of his house," Holtz said. "I'm going to the opening ballgame and my neighbor has a Michigan flag on his house. But it was gone that night."
As for Penn State, it probably will have Tony Sacca throw constantly against a weak Irish secondary featuring up to six freshman reserves.
"Our magic, switcheroo, change-up secondary," is the way Irish senior cornerback Todd Lyght described it.
"Every time I look up, someone is new back there," he said. "I remember thinking early in the Tennessee game, 'God, we're going to have a great secondary . . . in three or four years.' "
Even Holtz makes jokes about his secondary. When a fan asked why he can't see Notre Dame defensive backs on his 13-inch TV screen, Holtz suggested, "If you'd get a larger TV, you'd see them way back there."