I was in graduate studies at the University of Notre Dame in the late 1980s, when Lou Holtz could have been canonized on the spot by popular acclaim.

We adored his feisty spunk. He was all about team, even having player names taken off the backs of jerseys to prove his point. Somehow, it made us all feel like we, too, were part of Uncle Lou’s sweaty squad.

His winning ways seemed to validate our Catholic identity. The Irish had been lackluster. But in 1988, just his second year laboring under the golden dome, Holtz worked what seemed like a miracle. Notre Dame went undefeated and claimed the national championship. Even then, one could tell the university would build a statue of Holtz one day, an inkling that came true in 2008.

My most cherished memory of Holtz has less to do with football and more to do with his love for people on the margins. As a student, I volunteered at a nursing home and had frequent conversations with a bald and friendly retired pressman named Frank, who was an even bigger Holtz fan than I was. I wrote a simple note to the coach and put it in campus mail, explaining Frank’s fondness. Within days, a photo of the coach with a personal note to Frank appeared. When I handed the package to Frank, he opened his eyes to an extent that alarmed me. The signed photo went on the wall above Frank’s bed, adjacent to a crucifix.

Later that year, Frank died in his sleep, the symbol of salvation and the smiling image of Coach Holtz shining down on him.