Aging Before a Live Audience
“You know you want to write something about Lou HOLTZSCH,” this was a text I received from my editor and co-founder of TwH, Rory Masterson. It was on Monday morning, a day after the announcement that the erstwhile head coach and longtime college football analyst, Lou Holtz, was officially retiring. And yes, I’d like to write something.
Holtz joined the ranks of former-coaches-turned-analysts at ESPN after resigning from the head coaching position at South Carolina in 2004. He mostly filled in the blanks on the secondary coverage during Saturdays in the fall. His eventual recurring post would be on College Football Final with Mark May and Rece Davis. The show would break down the top scores of the day with commentary from May and Holtz, moderated by Davis. Eventually, the show pit May and Holtz against each other in a rivalry that was completely staged and theatrical. Davis would dress up in a judge’s robe while May and Holtz would deliver their takes as “cases” to be argued. The execution of the lines fed to the two was excruciating, but Davis’ announcement of the winner led to some hilariously candid moments.
Whether or not they knew it, ESPN helped turn him into a meme by his final season. That’s not to say that this was hard to do. Out of all the former coaches turned analysts, Holtz was one of the only ones who cannot be spoken about without inflecting his denture-induced ephasia along with the heart-on-his-sleeve love for Notre Dame. The nature of a sport who owes a bit of its vitality to the Internet-addled students on whose campuses it is played was bound to help this transformation along. No one wanted to watch the canned Dr. Lou segments, in which Holtz offered written analysis alongside morality. They just wanted to see him do it for the Vine.
There’s a small sadness to the end that Holtz’s only celebrated moments as an analyst were when he didn’t perform any analysis at all. I’m sure he takes it very seriously, as much as any other analyst, and maybe that’s the sad part. Sports journalism is just regurgitation of statistics with personalities to add meaning and narrative. The point is to create a story line – a reason for casual fans to pay attention, to have a rooting interest. Sometimes the personalities outshine the sports they cover due to their cynical self-awareness. In the case of Holtz, he became a blooper reel from “Made for TV” ad spots almost unknowingly. People laughed at him, and not with him.
Holtz was a willing participant though and, if he wanted to, could have said no to any number of segments. Instead, he waved a cowbell at Mark May’s face and danced like an old man at a young folks party. He would lose his cool with May, though the tension was forced and fabricated. He bumbled through a panel discussion as if he was called on in class after being caught sleeping. Holtz went from living coaching legend to someone’s scatter-brained Pop Pop, mostly due to factors he could control.
The retirement of Holtz brings to mind another, more headlining personality within college football currently in his twilight: Lee Corso.
Corso has been known for his enthusiastic personality. He’s always ready for anything, and at his age, that’s a feat. He’s bumbled lines and notes increasingly, in part due to a terrible stroke he had in 2013. Yet, there’s a self-assuredness that’s still there while Kirk Herbstreit and Chris Fowler snicker at a cutesy mistake. Even the goodwill among the viewing audience after years of putting on the headgear is starting to erode, however, as the jokes are being played at his expense. It makes me wonder what his final year will look like once he’s ready to pack it in.
In sports, especially within football, there’s a premium placed on the ability to look inhuman. This has transcended athletes to the sportscasters themselves. How can you have any credibility as an announcer when you always whine about your limitations? Holtz’s on-air aging knocked him out of his God-like stature as coach, which helped breathe some humanity into his mythology. Yet, his limitations also had a way of dictating his image. For an entire generation, he is not a national championship winning coach; he’s just someone who wandered onto a live set at ESPN.