Nick Holt '81 Returns Home

Posted: January 5, 2018

Stacy Clardie

SAN FRANCISCO — Walt Arnold remembers the moment vividly. He was sitting in his office at Bellarmine College Preparatory, the boarding school in San Jose, Calif., on a day about 40 years ago when a knock got his attention.

He looked up to see four fellas near the door, including a good-looking, well-built, dark-haired eighth-grader. That kid’s dad spoke up, and Walt Arnold had a good idea what the elder Nick Holt was going to say.

“Hey, Walt, I want to introduce to my son,” said Nick Holt V, who’d known Arnold from Cal-Berkeley. “He’s going to be coming to Bellarmine as a freshman next year.”

Arnold didn’t quite know then what he was going to get with the younger Nick Holt, but it didn’t take long for him to find out. Arnold was Bellarmine’s varsity football coach, so he doesn’t remember much about Nick Holt as a freshman — other than he already was making an impression as a physical, sound, talented linebacker. But by Holt’s sophomore year, Arnold heard much more. And not all good: Holt was getting in fights during games, sometimes getting kicked out. Perhaps it was a reaction to Holt being admittedly homesick early on — he was one of the full-time boarders at the school.

When Arnold finally got Holt to himself on varsity, he immediately made Holt a starter and was eager to fine-tune talents. But, in Holt’s first varsity game against the Branham Bruins, Holt got in another fight and, again, got kicked out.

“So we had a talk,” Arnold said. “I handed him my clipboard and said, ‘Hey, if you’re not going to be in the game, you might as well help me coach.’ And that was the end of that. He straightened up and managed to finish all the rest of his games.”

Holt did more than just finish.

He'd set the tone for the kind of player, the kind of coach, the kind of man he’d become.

He became one of Arnold’s most productive and best players over the next two seasons, ending his career as a team captain and, ultimately, ending up in the school’s Hall of Fame. And, looking back now, the coach of 30-plus years can say Holt is one of his favorites.

Because the Nick Holt fans see pacing, laser-focused and intense on Purdue’s sidelines as the Boilermakers’ linebackers coach and defensive play caller is, basically, the same Nick Holt from back then.

"Nick Holt, believe me, what you see on the sidelines, that’s Nick," said Walt Arnold, Holt's high school coach at Bellarmine Prep. Though toned down a bit. Maybe.

“I don’t know that Nick ever matured. I don’t know that he’s matured to this day,” Arnold said with a laugh in a recent phone interview. “He was a real good player, 100 percent on the field at all times. We used to laugh at Nick, in a way, because he actually liked to practice football. How many guys like to practice? I played football and I hated practice. So what you’re talking about is an unusual kid who was a very good player. He was just a total pleasure to coach.”

Holt, certainly, has been thinking about those Bellarmine Prep days recently. Probably as soon as Purdue found out its bowl destination: The Boilermakers play Arizona in the Foster Farms Bowl on Wednesday in Santa Clara, Calif., at Levi’s Stadium, which is 8.1 miles from Bellarmine. Holt’s hometown of Lafayette is about 12 miles northeast of Oakland, where Purdue spent its bowl practices at Laney College.

That’s in the East Bay vicinity of Stockton, Calif., where Holt played his college ball at the University of the Pacific and then, soon after, had his first coaching job at St. Mary’s High School.

So many memories in the Bay Area for Holt. If he gets a chance to drive past Berkeley, he’ll surely remember all the Saturdays spent in the stadium with his dad, watching football. Though the 49ers are in a new stadium now — they played in Candlestick Park then — seeing those familiar red-and-gold color patterns flecked across Levi’s Stadium surely will remind him of all those Niners’ games from when he was a kid, too. Not that he also didn’t attend his fair share of Raiders’ games with his dad and his two sisters.

“This is exciting. It’s a good experience, getting back to California,” Holt said before Purdue arrived in the Bay Area. “I haven’t been there for a little while. So it’s pretty cool. My dad lived in San Francisco for many years. He’s now deceased. But I’ve still got a lot of friends and family there.

“I still have a lot of connections through my high school buddies and my college buddies and a lot of them still live in the Bay Area or California. A lot of my dad’s friends. Lot of cousins and aunts and uncles who still live in San Francisco. My wife has a sister who lives in San Francisco, so we get to see her, too.” That hefty contingent of family and friends mostly will be in the stands Wednesday, including the guy who gave him his coaching start, Tony Franks. Who just also happened to actually coach Holt for a brief period at Pacific.

Franks was a volunteer assistant outside linebacker coach at UoP, so he got to know inside linebacker Holt over the spring session he was a coach. Franks wasn’t at Pacific long, though, because a local high school, St. Mary’s, offered him a head coaching job for the football program.

He took it and, probably, figured he wouldn’t see Holt again. Or at least not as quickly as he did. After Holt finished at Pacific where he was a four-year letterwinner, a team MVP, a captain and earned honorable mention All-America in 1985, he signed to play in the USFL with the Orlando Renegades. But only a week before he was scheduled to head to training camp, the league folded.

And Holt was left wondering what was next. He insists he didn’t know he wanted to be a coach while he was in college, but it seemed like the right next step.

So he approached Franks and asked if he could help at St. Mary’s. Franks didn’t hesitate, even though he knew Holt “didn’t have a lick of coaching experience.” Really, it didn’t matter. Franks figured Holt would — and could — do whatever he was asked. That brief time at Pacific told him that. Then, he saw not only an intense player, but an incredibly dedicated one. Franks remembers a time when the team was in a “hot, dirty gym” doing conditioning drills — he jokingly exaggerated it as a million up-downs — and everyone was dripping sweat, just having it pool under them, and Holt was unfazed. “Nick is like, ‘This is nothing for me. You can’t beat me. I’m going to raise up everybody around me.’

Not only would he do it himself, he would encourage everybody around him,” Franks said. “He was just driven. He was just high energy. He was into it. That’s what he wanted to do, and he was on his way.” So, naturally, knowing Holt’s makeup and personality, Franks said, “Yes.”

It’s unclear entirely which positions Holt coached: Franks said he tasked Holt with the defense, but Holt said he was asked to coach the linebackers and the offensive line before, eventually, taking over the defense later after a coach had to leave the staff. Still, whatever Holt did, he did it well. “In knowing him as a player, he was just an intelligent, dominant, making-the-checks, getting-to-the-right-spot, just a super-confident player that you knew understood what he was doing. Whether he could teach it or not, you just don’t know until you put somebody in that position.

But, at that point, we were glad to have another warm body on the staff,” Franks said, laughing. “Nick was clearly way more than a warm body. He was like five or six warm bodies. “He was really, really good. The players loved him because he was kind of one of them. He was young. Everybody knew he loved the game. Just loved it.

He had a really high football intelligence level and really understood the game of football.

Not only did he understand it, he could teach it to a young person. He could teach it to a young boy who maybe had never played before and really didn’t understand. If he had to, he could throttle it down a little bit and help a young kid understand how to play the game.” Just like he did as a player, Holt loved practices even as a coach. His day job, though? That was a bit different. While he was teaching football, Holt also was teaching as a substitute in the Stockton Unified School District, one Holt called a “tough, tough” district that required him to deal with some “characters” and form some disciplinarian tendencies. But that time also helped Holt develop as a speaker, addressing larger groups each day, and helped him learn how to be prepared for anything.

One day, he could be filling in for a history teacher. Another, science. Another, English. He always read up on the lesson plan, but he joked, mostly, he didn’t know much on the subjects. “I thought I was a good teacher. I was entertaining,” Holt said. “I might not have known the material very well, but I could go up there and adlib for 45 minutes until the next class.” Holt’s personality seemed to be a perfect fit for working with young people, whether it was in the classroom or on the football field. And it still is.

Purdue’s players say they love the passion Holt brings every day, and, though he expects much, he also balances that standard with a willingness to teach and an obvious compassion for their personal growth. Those were traits Arnold and Franks saw in a young Holt. He was a leader from a young age, and he also clearly wanted to do well because he respected the game. But he knew he had to work incredibly hard for the latter and Arnold said Holt achieved that with “mind over matter” because he wasn’t the most athletically gifted or physically gifted kid.

“There’s a lot of people who have the passion for the game, but there’s just a few who stand out at the very top, and Nick is one of those guys,” Arnold said.

“I know he played for me and all that and I’m partial to him, but I’ve been around football for a long time. I played and coached. I knew tons of college coaches, and Nick is a rare bird when it comes to the passion for the game, and he displayed that as a player and as a coach.”

Looking back, Franks jokes how Holt owes all of his coaching successes to him. How he could have said “no” back then in the mid-1980s, how he could have had three coaches on his staff instead of four that year. Franks laughed. He’s not being serious. Really.

Though Holt does offer up Franks’ name at every opportunity when talking about his coaching mentors and coaching roots, roots that are firmly planted in the Bay Area where he’ll coach another time Wednesday. “We could see what he was all about,” Franks said, referencing that long-ago time, “his drive, his determination, his competitiveness, his understanding of the game, his love of the game, his enjoyment of just being around it, being around football players and football coaches and being that guy. “He is clearly that guy.”

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