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With honor in question, Holtz loses sense of humor


MIAMI -- No jokes from Lou Holtz this time around. No magic tricks. No lopsided grins. He's either a different man or it's a different day or both. Something's changed. Maybe everything.

Once, he was your basic, self-described country boy, with just enough of the con man in him to make him irresistible. In the old West, people would have called him Doc, and he might have run a medicine show out of a wagon. In modern times, Holtz became a college football coach, which still comes down to selling a brand of snake oil.

But he seemed to be, insofar as the parameters of his profession allow, an honorable man. He was judged sufficiently honorable, in fact, that they let him coach at Notre Dame, which is where they invented the whole notion of winning with honor. He came there five years ago, when the program was a wreck, and fixed it up to where it's back to being Notre Dame again. And he's back here at the Orange Bowl with a long-shot chance at a national title, which should make him happy -- but doesn't.

That's because Holtz is in trouble.

Suddenly, people are saying that Holtz, after 20 years in the business, is a cheater. They're saying that when he coached at Minnesota, before coming to Notre Dame, he gave money to players. They're saying that he's dirty. One thing we know, you can't be dirty and be at Notre Dame, too.

He picks up the Miami Herald and reads where he ought to quit, guilty or not, because the taint of these allegations smears Notre Dame.

In a Denver paper, there was a cartoon showing two paintings in an art gallery -- one was the Mona Lisa, one was of Holtz and titled "Moaning Weasel."

And, so, there are no jokes. No magic. Just a sad, faraway look about him, the same as a man might get just before he's ready to be hanged.

"I'm having fun," he said yesterday, "when I'm in my room alone."

He didn't smile.

Holtz was sitting in the stands at the Orange Bowl, where he was surrounded by perhaps two dozen reporters who wanted to know who was going to be the starting running back and how the defense looked and whether Holtz was cracking under the strain.

"Mentally, I don't know," he said to the last question. "Physically, I think I'm all right. I feel like I'm losing my mind sometimes. But there is an inner peace that I do have. There is a personal satisfaction."

And this, he added, almost defiantly, "I like myself."

He won't talk about the allegations. He will talk, sort of, about the rumors that he might leave. He almost dismisses them. Almost.

Instead, he tried to explain what it means to be the coach at Notre Dame.

"I wish I could explain it better," he said. "Coaching at Notre Dame is different. When you start winning a few games, it's really different. The expectations are unbelievable. I never knew how poor a coach I was till the last few years.

"But the greatest pressure is to always put Notre Dame in a

favorable light -- not just on the field, but off the field. We've had a couple of incidents here in five years, but I wish you could see the hundreds of letters I've gotten about something great a kid did. But a hundred letters don't make up for one instance."

Holtz paused briefly, before getting to the essence of life at Notre Dame.

"The pressure," he said, "is to be perfect. The pressure is to do everything in the right way to represent the lady on the dome."

At Notre Dame, you have to win and you have to be perfect and you can't be dirty. And so we have rumors of Holtz's returning to the NFL, where he once spent one very unhappy season with the New York Jets.

Whether he goes may depend on a meeting he has with the NCAA infractions committee in February, when he will answer charges made against him.

The first allegation is that he gave a player $250 to pay for a correspondence course that would allow him to remain at the university. Holtz admits he gave him the money, saying he did it for "humanitarian reasons" and explaining that he knew it was impossible for the player to regain eligibility.

In a second charge, Holtz allegedly gave $200 to a recruit who had lost his wallet. Holtz says he gave him $20 -- still a violation.

Finally, it is alleged that Holtz gave $500 to an academic adviser to give to a player. Holtz has denied this charge.

Whatever happens, Notre Dame won't be affected by the charges, except that, if Holtz's reputation is impugned, he will have to go. No one has to explain that to Holtz. But even if he comes clean, he may leave. The job, the one he always wanted, the one every coach would kill for, may be too much in the end.

"I don't know how everything will shake down," he said. "As long as I think I can contribute to Notre Dame, I think I'll be there. This has been a great season. Can you imagine that in 11 games we've never had a player within even five minutes of being late for a meeting? We've never had a single discipline problem.

"Have we done a good job at Notre Dame? I'd say yes. Not just in the won-lost record, but in watching how the people who came here have turned out."

But that didn't answer the question. He was asked again: Will he stay?

"As I sit here today, from the bottom of my heart, I'd say, 'Yes. Yes.' "

That was as he sat there yesterday. Looking woebegone. Looking, for all the world, as if there is nothing he'd want more than to be somewhere else.

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