MotherJones ND93: Lou's nuggets

Why do normally tough execs go all soft around guys with whistles?

On a sparkling July morning, I arrived at the Samoset Resort in coastal Maine to investigate a rumor that major American corporations are receiving covert advice and assistance from famous sports personalities.

The allegation, on the face of it, seemed improbable. Athletes and coaches, however manifold their glorious achievements, inhabit a realm that is famously disconnected from the complex, nuanced mayhem of commercial enterprise. No one could mistake the precise, elegant dynamics of sports competition for the dark and shifting bog of business practice.

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What, I wondered, could jock evangelists like Mike Ditka, Mary Lou Retton, or Bruce Jenner possibly have to say to such hard-nosed corporate giants as Motorola, Honda, Johnson & Johnson, MCI, and IBM? And why were they being asked--indeed, lavishly paid--to say it?

It was Notre Dame's current football coach, Lou Holtz, whom I had come to Maine to hear. Holtz was to address a gathering of senior managers of MBNA America Bank, the nation's second-largest lender through bank credit cards. MBNA would not comment on the specific reasons for hiring Holtz, but motivational speakers have traditionally been used most in businesses that sell products neither distinctive nor especially new. The professional euphemism for this is "marketing," but the less glorified term used on playing fields and on the streets is "hustling."

Strolling into Samoset's vaulted, sunlit foyer, with its luxuriant view of a manicured emerald fairway sloping into the teal brilliance of a glistening bay, I realized how weary I'd grown of scoffing and complaining. Eventually, of course, Holtz would find himself cruelly characterized as a puffed-up, fatuous, two-faced conniver and condoner of all manner of hypocritical practices in the explosive expose of Notre Dame football, Under the Tarnished Dome. But isn't that always the fate of sanctimony? To me, all that mattered was that his remarks be moving and true. Listen patiently, I told myself, and hold the doubts until later. It's the Clinton era of mutual respect and coming together. Give Holtz a chance.

The MBNA official who introduced Holtz wasted little time zeroing in on the analogy du jour. "If you think our competition is tough," observed the MBNAer, "you should see Notre Dame's schedule."

Following the obligatory welcoming of spouses, Holtz launched into the narrative core of his presentation: how he built Notre Dame into a college-football powerhouse (no, apparently it has not always been so--two losing seasons preceded his first year on the job), and why his methods are applicable even to those not considering a career in coaching.

He gazed across his audience--well-heeled, virtually all white, two- thirds male, mostly between thirty and fifty years old. "Why have you been successful?" he asked rhetorically, inviting them by inference into the select clique of achievers. "Because you have chosen to succeed. We choose whether to succeed or fail. The main thing we have going at Notre Dame is the same thing you have going: a philosophy and an attitude."

Holtz's delivery is quick-paced and couched in an appealingly modest, mush-mouth twang. His carriage is slouched and decidedly unhaughty. Still, a faint smugness seeps through--the amiable salesman who just might have a card up his sleeve. He's got the performer's knack for alternating between serious truths and amusing yarns, occasionally inserting into a predetermined slot some tidbit about his host company ("You had some difficulty two-and-a-half years ago, but you reacted favorably") to give the impression he's been thoroughly briefed.

Holtz recounted the fabled 1986 fourth-quarter comeback against the University of Southern California. Down by seventeen points with twelve minutes remaining (in his speech, he claimed eighteen points and nine minutes) . . . guess who won? Want to know why? "You have to have a faith and you have to have a belief," Holtz summarized for those unable to glean the message.

To my left, a man in a violet golf shirt was using his hotel-issue pencil to furiously scribble some notes. My God, could he actually be jotting down the above-mentioned remark for later contemplation? I was awestruck.

I couldn't help wondering about that USC squad. Surely they were inculcated with similar lessons by an equally determined coach. Believe in themselves, have faith, play their best, stand tall, and never quit. Where did it get them? They became the eternal butt end of this long-running Holtzian fable.

A sampling of the coach's other points:

  • "Do right. Avoid what's wrong. If you have any doubt, get out the Bible."
  • "If you are bitter, you are negative."
  • "Happiness is nothing more than having a poor memory."
  • "It's easier to get where you're going when you associate with people who want to go in the same direction."
This last statement was made in the context of an extended parable about the flight patterns of geese. They fly in the classic V formation, he said, to marshal the aggregate benefit of the updraft created by each bird's flapping. The geese that do all the noisy honking are in the rear of the formation. The reason they honk, Holtz explained, is to encourage the ones flying in front. "Our honkers," he wryly added, "don't do it for the same reason."

I had the disquieting sensation, born of paranoia and not a little guilt, that Holtz glanced my way. Indeed, yours truly has a checkered past as a classic honker. Many of us do. We like to think that we come by it honestly, detecting with clear-eyed precision the myriad hypocrisies and flaws that our idealistic hearts so yearn to improve. But a honker's a honker, regardless of justification.

Holtz concluded, fittingly, with a magic trick. He picked up an issue of USA Today, folded it neatly, then began methodically ripping, bantering all the while. "People can criticize you all they want," he crowed, "but if you have faith . . ." He tore off another lengthwise strip. "And if you have a strong belief . . ."

Voila! Holtz held the paper aloft, perfectly intact, not a trace of all the ripping he'd inflicted. People responded admiringly, myself included. One thing we shared was an appropriate regard for magic.

I should interject here that speakers-industry experts--agents, meeting planners, corporate sponsors--report that the era of sports personalities may be waning. "The M word [motivation] is out of vogue these days," claims Ed Larkin of Speakers Guild, "because its image is too much noise and greed. Many of the meeting planners are women. You can't assume everyone uses a Saturday-afternoon football game as a great paradigm."

After his presentations, Holtz announced that he had time to field a few questions before running off. My list was by now a long one. But I hadn't been seated among docile and admiring bankers for an hour without developing some concern for their response if I pressed Holtz to comment, say, on the old maxim that a good football coach must be smart enough to understand the game, yet dumb enough to care about it.

So I asked how he got into public speaking. He told the story of how, many years back, when he was coaching at North Carolina State, he'd been invited to give a sort of pep talk at a nearby IBM office by an alumnus who knew his reputation for passionate locker-room oratory. At the time, he had no idea that it would grow into an auxiliary career, no way of guessing that American business would become so befuddled as to repeatedly call on his services.

"Right after I gave that speech," Holtz said, visibly bemused at the total lack of causal relationship, "IBM just took off."

My follow-up should have dealt with the tarnished image of IBM today. True, this would have introduced a churlish note into an otherwise upbeat talk. Reality can have that effect. But suddenly, I was confronted by two MBNA executives demanding to know who I was and what I was doing at a private function.

Ah, the flashbacks came a-flooding-- confrontations, riot police, which side are you on? Old schisms born of old problems had not entirely vanished. I held my ground. "Is there a problem?" I asked.

The bank officials eyed each other before replying, "No."

But something disturbing had occurred, and I muttered to myself, "Don't be too sure."

Bob Katz is author of the novel Hot Air and a lecture promoter.

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