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With NFL beckoning, will Holtz leave life under Irish microscope?


SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- A big door will slam shut on the millennium just nine years from now, troops are massing in the Middle East and the population of street-side prophets predicting the falling of the sky doubles daily. An uneasiness fills the air. The signs are everywhere. You turn on the TV, and Lou Holtz's hat is crunched down around his ears.

What is it the book says about the meek inheriting the earth when it all comes down? In the testosterone-fueled world of college football, the inheriting already has come and gone.

God's coach speaks with a lisp, freely admits he is weak and small, says things like "I'm such an unimpressive individual." And on this day, Holtz is looking even more meek than usual. His shoulders sag. He is rubbing his hands all over the lines in his face.

Doesn't matter. He is the name of the game now, the sport's little big man, magnet to the highest praise and the most damning criticism. He is at Notre Dame and he wins, and that means no coach in the United States can be more famous. Or more scrutinized.

That is why, even in these dire times, what's discussed under the Golden Dome these days has less to do with apocalypse now and more with the end of a smaller kind, the close of an era and nothing more. Holtz, some say, will coach just one more game at Notre Dame; he'll lead the fifth-ranked Irish into the Orange Bowl to meet No. 1 Colorado on New Year's Day. And then he will be gone.

Where to? Some say to coach the Minnesota Vikings, others say the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Holtz denies all this very gently. But he also admits it has been the toughest of years, the kind where -- compared to everything else -- rumors of his imminent departure have been almost a relief. In a rarity in his 21-year college coaching career, Holtz has seen his name dirtied.

Even before this bizarre college season even had a chance to begin, Holtz was portrayed by a former player in Sports Illustrated as indifferent to injuries, obsessed by winning and blind to rampant steroid use in the Notre Dame program. Two days later, it was reported that Holtz had told NCAA investigators he had committed rules violations while at Minnesota.

Critics, tired of both a perceived Irish arrogance and hearing Holtz say things like the school is "blessed," howled in delight. He tried not to, but Holtz heard the noise.

"I can't worry about what everybody thinks," he says, the words whistling through his teeth. "Sure, it bothers you. I tell you right now: You cut me and I bleed -- and it hurts. I hit my head on the door and it hurts, the same as everybody else. But you can't worry about what everybody thinks. What you better worry about is what you think of yourself and your situation."

His situation is this: The 1990 Orange Bowl represents Holtz's last game under the five-year agreement he made with the Notre Dame administration when he took the job in 1986. In 1988, he achieved one of the many goals on his infamous wish list when the Irish went 12-0 and won the national championship. His teams have gone 33-3 in the past three years and might win another title by beating Colorado.

So, the thinking goes, Holtz has done what he set out to do when he came to Indiana. The Irish are back atop the football world. Good friend Carl Pohlad, part-owner of the Vikings, has said he doesn't care that Holtz went 3-10 with the 1976 New York Jets in his only stint as an NFL coach; he thinks he can be a success in the pros. Last year, Holtz reportedly put out feelers for the Atlanta Falcons' vacancy. This year, word has it that he might head north.

"Yeah, I think you can go to places where you're appreciated, places where life is easier," Holtz says. "But I don't think you can go any place, actually, and be associated with something like Notre Dame.

"You really and truly are more than a football coach when you're at Notre Dame. I just like the big games, I like the excitement, I like Mass . . . On Sunday I mean there's Mass like every hour for 20 hours. There's a peace and a tranquility here. And there's the exposure. I like being involved in games that are important. It's so much more than football."

He says he suspects opposing recruiters are planting the job rumors to undermine him. He says he does not want to leave. He does not say he won't be leaving.

He is not a fighter. He intimidates with his wit and his sarcasm and his suprisingly booming voice. The last time he came to blow with someone was his freshman year of high school in East Liverpool, Ohio. He was in a basketball game and there was a slap or a trip or something no one even remembers now, and punching each other.

"The only thing that I really remember was I won," Holtz says now. He is tried. He forgets for a moment. "No...I did not win. They broke it up while I was winning. And thank goodness they broke it up."

Maybe all the money they can dangle and the challenge of winning in the NFL -the one thing as a coach he has yet to prove -maybe with all that they make it too good to ignore and they break things up for Lou Holtz even though he;s winning. And maybe, after a year like one past, Holtz says thanks goodness they did.

Notre Dame is happy with Holtz, 53. Despite the school's insistence on behavior above reproach, athletic director Dick Rosenthal dismisses the charges in Sports Illustrated as "baseless."

As for Holtz's future, Rosenthal says, "He's been very direct and open with us. He's a very happy guy at Notre Dame and we're happy with him. My honest opinion is that Lou Holtz will retire from coaching as head coach at Notre Dame."

But how happy is Holtz? There's no question that Notre Dame is scrutinized as much, if not more, than any school in the country, and Holtz's position in South Bend has certainly put more attention on him than ever before. This year, he says, "inside was the easy part . . . All our problems have come from the outside.

"It gets pretty disturbing, not for me but for the University of Notre Dame," Holtz says. "That's the thing that absolutely destroys you. And if it reaches a point where you're not together, moving forward, well, then you lose your value to the university. It's very, very distracting. It bothers your family, it bothers you. There's no doubt about that.

"But you know what gets you through? The lady on the dome, the grotto, the church, the administration of Notre Dame and the athletic department. You can go over [to the church] and be why me-ing, and something happens to your thinking when you get on your knees."

Holtz says he is not an aggressive man. He has been described as harsh, warm, funny, considerate, selfish, overbearing, a hypocrite, a phony, a saint. He is small -- 5 feet 10, 150 pounds -- and he says one of the hardest things to be in this world is what he is: Slight and unimposing, and full of the ambition to tell big men what to do.

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