SPRINGDALE — Lou Holtz had to go without a tie while at a speaking engagement for the first time Monday.
The former Arkansas coach and current ESPN personality was also forced to sport white tennis shoes with his sports coat and slacks for his appearance as a guest speaker at the Northwest Arkansas Touchdown Club in Springdale thanks to an airline mishap.
“I checked my suitcase,” Holtz said. “I get here and they said there was too much weight on the plane. I didn’t get my suitcase off. … So I feel embarrassed about it. Whatever goodwill I established in Arkansas in my seven years, I ruined with the Delta people and the Northwest airlines in five minutes.”
But the mix-up was worth it for the College Football Hall of Fame coach when he found out members of Arkansas’ 1978 team showed up to see their old coach.
The group spent some time rehashing old memories, including the Razorbacks’ 31-6 Orange Bowl win over No. 2 Oklahoma that secured a No. 3 national finish.
“I want to tell the athletes and great coaches … how much that meant to me,” Holtz said. “I had no idea. I was surprised. But just like it was yesterday and we were still in the locker room, you people haven’t changed a bit.”
Holtz could tell Northwest Arkansas was different than he remembered it when driving in from the airport, noting Springdale’s population was around 20,000 during his tenure at Arkansas, just a fraction of the more than 70,000 it is now.
And Arkansas is playing in a different conference than when Holtz coached the Razorbacks to a 60-21-2 overall record and four top-10 finishes while playing in the Southwest Conference.
Arkansas has yet to win a Southeastern Conference title since it joined the league in 1992. And while the SEC has elevated itself to the clear-cut top football conference in the nation thanks to seven straight national titles, Holtz doesn’t think it’s far fetched for the Hogs to again compete for conference titles like his teams did back in the SWC.
“I know the SEC is difficult, but let’s count some of the teams that were in the Southwest Conference when I was here,” Holtz said. “Texas was pretty good. A&M was outstanding. SMU was the best money could buy. Houston annually was a top 10 team, and Baylor was very good under Grant Teaff. I just named five teams that we had to play each and every year. … Absolutely, I think Arkansas can definitely win here. As I say, I don’t see much difference between this conference and (the old SWC).”
Arkansas hopes to make a push for its first SEC title in the near future while competing in the ultra-competitive Western Division under new coach Bret Bielema, someone who Holtz thinks highly of.
“I knew Bret when he was an assistant coach under Barry Alvarez,” Holtz said. “Barry was my defensive coordinator at Notre Dame and when he left and went to Wisconsin as head coach. Barry spoke very highly of Bret as an assistant and told me when he was going to elevate him. He had some older coaches that had been with him 15 years, but he elevated Bret and they had great success at Wisconsin.
“I see nothing on his resume, nothing on his background that would cause you to believe he would not enjoy great success here once he gets everything established.”