The Lou Holtz-Jesse Helms saga is more complicated than you think
Forty years before Shemy Schembechler, another football coach was fired for supporting segregationist policies. Sort of. Not really. It's complicated.
Last week, Michigan fired football assistant Glenn “Shemy” Schembechler after a review of his Twitter profile strongly pointed toward his interest in ideas such as “actually, slavery and Jim Crow were good.” To their credit, Michigan moved swiftly in terminating Schembechler’s employment — only three days after they’d hired him — despite his being the son of Wolverines legend Bo Schembechler.
The incident called to mind another situation I’ve been looking for an excuse to write about: the time, in 1983, when Lou Holtz got fired from Arkansas for recording a TV advertisement supporting the re-election of segregationist U.S. Senator Jesse Helms.
Today, Helms is most remembered for the infamous “Hands” ad he ran during his 1990 campaign against Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt. In the ad, the camera shows a pair of white hands crumpling up rejection letters while the narrator reads, over foreboding music:
You needed that job, and you were the best qualified, but they had to give it to a minority, because of a racial quota. Is that really fair?
The 30-second spot is widely considered among the most racially inflammatory ads that’s ever run on television.1 To be fair, this ad didn’t run until seven years after Arkansas fired Holtz. In 1983, Helms was known merely for being a steadfast opponent of integration and the Civil Rights Act.
It’s not accurate to say (as some now do) that the University of Arkansas simply could not countenance Holtz publicly supporting a candidate with Helms’ views. After all, Holtz had been attending, with UA’s knowledge, events in support of Helms at least as early as 1977.
Which is not to say that Holtz’ political activities went wholly uncriticized. When Holtz announced that he would speak at a Dec. 1977 fundraiser for Helms, the Arkansas Gazette publicly excoriated the Razorbacks head coach.
Arkansas has had its share of successful athletic coaches and has enjoyed knowing them. Certainly the relationship Arkansans have had this fall with Lou Holtz has been in the mainstream of our tradition, especially since Holtz has had a dazzling first year, shepherding his young charges at Fayetteville into an invitation to the Orange Bowl.
In this state, however, we have not had much if any experience with our name coaches going into commercial and political testimonials. So it is especially regrettable that Lou Holtz, insensitive to his almost unique place as a public figure everybody can root for, is now doing direct advertising for at least one business product and is plunging into campaign politics as well.
In Saturday’s paper the Gazette’s Ginger Shiras reported that Holtz is going to North Carolina Dec. 1 to make a speech at a big dinner for Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, who is coming up for reelection next year. Lou Holtz has become quite a folk hero in a few short months in Arkansas but he will be less of a hero on the record of his political activity for Helms, as well as on the record of his commercial endorsements. It happens that Jesse Helms is a senator situated philosophically somewhere between Louis the Sun King and Attila the Hun: Helms is so far right that he threatens to displace Old Strom Thurmond as the most troglodytic figure in the U.S. Senate.
Holtz insisted that he didn’t agree with Helms on every issue but was endorsing him because of his personal character, an analysis that fails to account for the fact that a major component of Helms’ personal character was his belief that the United States should continue having government-sanctioned racial segregation.
Holtz apologized for the TV commercial he recorded supporting a local business (though not for supporting Helms), vowing, “I can assure the people of Arkansas that I will not get involved in any commercials in the future. Appropriate action has been taken to eliminate the one that had been made.”
As for Holtz’s participation in the Helms fundraiser, the University of Arkansas offered nothing but support, backing Holtz’s claim that he was acting not with the imprimatur of the Razorbacks’ football program but in his capacity as a taxpaying citizen. Again, the Gazette was skeptical.
[The school president and board of trustees] have defended Holtz’ political involvement in Helms’ re-election campaign. They cite University policy declaring that employees may take part in political activity if they do not involve the University’s name, or its symbols, or its property or supplies. This is not a policy that Lou Holtz can easily adapt to eve if he should be introduced in Raleigh, N.C. on Dec. 1 as Mr. Lou Whatshisname, a former North Carolinian now serving in a sports capacity with a nameless state university in the American Southwest.
N.C. State basketball coach Norman Sloan went even further than Holtz in supporting the Dec. ‘77 Helms fundraiser. Sloan used his access to the mailing list of Wolfpack boosters to solicit donations to Helms’ campaign. In response, the NCSU chancellor said, “A person’s political ideas are his own. It shouldn’t affect his coaching.”
Other sports figures publicly supporting Helms during that election cycle were Gaylord Perry (fresh off winning his second Cy Young), Catfish Hunter, and Richard Petty. In other words, as recently as 1977, public figures paid little, if any, price for supporting Helms. Though Helms’ views are abhorrent by the light of 2023, his constituents mostly supported them, helping him win five statewide elections from 1972 to 1996 — his run in the U.S. Senate continuing for 20 years after Arkansas fired Holtz.
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The facts on the ground were a little bit different in 1983 than they were in 1977 — but only a little. Helms had made himself more notorious than he already was in Oct. 1983 by conducting a 16-day filibuster in his crusade to block the passage of a law that would create a federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. But in 1983, MLK did not have the 90 percent favorability rating that he does today. In fact, a 1983 ABC News/Washington Post poll found that the proposed holiday was slightly underwater with the American public, with only 47 percent supporting compared to 48 opposed.
Like it or not — and to be perfectly clear, I do not like it — opposition to MLK Day was a mainstream position in 1983. So it doesn’t really track that the UA brass would suddenly have an issue with Holtz publicly backing Helms because of Helms’ position on an issue that was evenly dividing the national electorate (and very likely even more unpopular in the state of Arkansas).
On Dec. 12, 1983, Arkansas President James Martin responded to reports of Holtz’s involvement in recording two television commercials supporting Helms:
Our faculty and staff and certainly citizens and can express their opinions as citizens …
We do have a policy prohibiting the use of university facilities and symbols in expressing those opinions, but I haven't seen the commercials, and I don't know anything about them other than what I have read in the newspaper.
The commercials, which never aired, were taped in Holtz’s university office. He was clearly violating a rule that he had already been caught violating. And he had the audacity to do it during a 6-5 season.
It’s true that Holtz’s support of Helms angered some Arkansas fans, but they were even more angered by the diminishing returns the Razorbacks had seen since Holtz’s glorious run to the Orange Bowl in ‘77. And here was Holtz, handing Arkansas all the leverage they would possibly need to get out of his contract on terms favorable to the school.
A week later, Holtz was out, apologizing vaguely to anyone he might have offended.
Subsequently, both Holtz and Arkansas did their part to muddy the waters as to the exact reason he’d been fired. As a matter of fact, no one seemed to agree on whether he had been fired or if he’d resigned or if he’d resigned under duress.
But by the end of the month, Holtz had a new job at the University of Minnesota, promising not to get involved in politics. Soon after, a more complete picture emerged of Holtz’s acrimonious last days in Fayetteville.
From the UPI:
University of Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles fired head Coach Lou Holtz earlier this month after getting tired of Holtz's repeated threats to resign, a newspaper reported today.
The Dallas Times Herald quoted unnamed sources as saying Broyles fired Holtz by telephone Dec. 18 -- the day Broyles announced Holtz was resigning because he was 'tired and burned out.'
The newspaper said Holtz had threatened at least four times in the past 14 months to resign and that Broyles essentially told him to go ahead and do it.
Broyles insists, however, that Holtz resigned, 'regardless of what anybody says.'
Holtz, interviewed by the Times Herald in Minneapolis, where he has been hired to revive the University of Minnesota football program, avoided a direct answer on the situation.
'One answer leads to another question and pretty soon you're into some things that are better off unsaid,' Holtz said. 'Forget about Lou Holtz ever being at Arkansas. That's in the past. Here I am.'
A source quoted by the newspaper said Holtz had suffered from bouts of depression, self-pity and erratic behavior in recent months, culminating in the firings of two defensive assistants.
Defensive backfield coach Rich Olson and backfield end coach Harvey Hampton were dismissed Nov. 30 without the prior knowledge of defensive coordinator Don Lindsey, who then resigned in protest.
'What a mess,' said Lindsey. 'It's just a shame that it has come to all this because so many people are involved in this thing.'
An unidentified former member of Holtz's staff said the coach had 'extreme levels of depression' as the Razorbacks struggled through a poor 1983 season. Holtz denied he fought depression.
My best guess: Holtz was giving Arkansas a lot of headaches, and the Helms incident finally gave them a good excuse to be done with him.
Helms eventually repaid the favor, writing a blurb for Holtz’s 1998 book, Winning Every Day, the paperback edition of which featured Holtz in a Carolina pullover and Block-C hat.
“I’ve known Lou Holtz for a long time as a man of unflinching, unyielding character and integrity,” Helms wrote. “It shows in this remarkable book.”
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