Spend an hour listening to an address on leadership from the man sometimes referred to as “Dr. Lou” – as about 400 business executives did at Friday morning’s Lipscomb & Pitts Breakfast Club – and it’s not hard to imagine his locker room pep talks.
Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz, left, autographs a football for David Pickler, Shelby County Schools board chairman, at a private reception at the Peabody Hotel hosted by CB Richard Ellis Memphis. The autograph said, “David, play like a champion today.” (Photo: Lance Murphey)
Retired college football coach Lou Holtz, who’s also a motivational speaker with a quick wit and who sprinkles his talks with a magic trick involving a shredded newspaper, was in town to share life lessons. And, of course, to talk football.
Holtz addressed the University of Memphis football team and coaching staff Thursday. He also spoke at The Peabody hotel, where he helped raise $1 million for the Chickasaw Council of the Boy Scouts of America.
After Friday’s breakfast session at the Memphis Botanic Garden, Holtz, who for three decades was one of college football’s most successful coaches, received the AutoZone Liberty Bowl’s Distinguished Citizen Award.
Holtz attributed his coaching success, which includes leading Notre Dame to the national championship in 1988 and retiring after the 2004 season being ranked sixth all-time in victories, to several things.
He’s always demanded excellence. And he always kept a sense of humor.
Holtz told a story Friday about a team practice after a disappointing game. Holtz said he told his players if he was murdered that night, the police wouldn’t investigate it.
“Because you’d all be suspects,” said the former coach, who then presumably set about whipping his team back into shape.
Holtz once told one of his quarterbacks what he thought about his running ability.
When the quarterback asked how fast Holtz thought he was, Holtz quipped, “If you got in a race with a pregnant woman, you’d finish third.”
Shifting effortlessly between football and business, Holtz told his Friday morning audience they only had two mandates as business professionals. Satisfy the needs of customers, and turn a profit.
And getting there involves mastering some of the same lessons Holtz has imparted to generations of players on the gridiron.
Have a vision, be a dreamer and don’t let the usual speed bumps of life generate long-term negativity, Holtz said.
“You’re going to get knocked down. That’s part of it,” Holtz said. “But it’s your choice whether you get back up.”
As an example, he recounted having dinner one night with his wife when he was still coaching at Notre Dame.
A waiter came to his table and asked, “You’re Lou Holtz?”
The coach reached for a pen, thinking a request for an autograph was forthcoming. Holtz got something else, instead.
The waiter asked him a question that took a jab at Notre Dame.
“What’s the difference between Notre Dame and Cheerios?” the waiter asked, before telling Holtz that Cheerios belong in a bowl, and Norte Dame doesn’t.
Holtz’s wife encouraged him to not lose his cool. So he took her advice.
Holtz later asked the waiter a question of his own – What’s the difference between Lou Holtz and a golf pro?
“Golf pros give tips,” Holtz said, generating a hearty laugh from the Memphis business leaders.
By way of introducing Holtz, sports broadcaster Dave Woloshin told the crowd Holtz “can make those who are down believe.”
Holtz does that by stressing the importance of good attitudes, inspirational leadership and the contagious nature of dreamers.
“Everything starts with a dream,” Holtz said.
He added Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous speech wouldn’t have had the same magic quality had King proclaimed “I have a strategic plan” instead of “I have a dream.”
Holtz’s recipe for life has four elements: everyone needs something to do, someone to love, someone to believe in and something to hope for.
As he wrapped up his motivational talk to the breakfast audience, Holtz unfolded the main section of a USA Today newspaper. He ripped it into sections, which he then balled up in his fists.
The legendary coach, motivational guru – and amateur magician – then unfurled the newspaper, which magically appeared whole again.
“Someone asked, ‘How’d you do that?’” Holtz said. “Perfectly, I thought.”