The White House recently announced Lou Holtz, retired football coach and former ESPN analyst.will be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Lou Holtz, That move raises several questions, from “Will the President give anyone a medal if they say mean things about his opponent?” to “Is Mark May going to be nominated as Secretary of Homeland Security?” But beyond the political implications, there’s another important inquiry that demands examination: Is Lou Holtz the least accomplished sports figure to ever receive the Medal of Freedom?
President Kennedy established the Medal of Freedom in 1963, to serve as one of the nation’s two highest civilian awards (the other being the Congressional Gold Medal). The medal is given to those with “especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” One of the first recipients selected by Kennedy was Robert Kiphuth, who coached the Yale men’s swimming team for 41 years, winning four NCAA titles and modernizing the sport of swimming. Almost every president since has given at least one Medal of Freedom to an athlete or coach, and George W. Bush and Barack Obama each honored several members of the sports community.
Holtz will be the 37th athlete or coach to be given this distinguished award. How can we judge his career against the other 36? Let’s start with a very simple measurement: championships won. For purposes of this exercise, championships are defined as professional or college team sport titles, Olympic gold medals, series cups in auto racing, major titles in golf/tennis, NCAA track and field titles, and both wins and defenses in professional boxing.
Scroll down a bit to find Holtz on this list.
Medal of Freedom Recipients, ranked by championships won
|Billie Jean King||39|
|Paul "Bear" Bryant||6|
|Robert J. H. Kiphuth||4|
Not great, though you may be thinking there are some qualifiers that render this list not entirely fair. Golfers and tennis players, for instance, can win multiple championships in a year, while a football coach can only win one. And maybe Holtz would have triumphantly hoisted several Coupes des Mousquetaires at Roland-Garros! We’ll never know, because he chose to coach football instead.
Besides, he’s getting lapped by other winners subject to the same limitations. Bear Bryant has Holtz tripled up, while John Wooden and Pat Summitt would have found two championships to be a cute start.
And then there are the college football coaches who haven’t won the Medal of Freedom. Nick Saban’s tied with Bryant for the most titles by a single coach. Steve Spurrier won two championships (if you count swindling Dan Snyder out of ten million dollars as the second, as you should). Tom Osborne won three and served in the House of Representatives for six years. Hell, Barry Switzer’s got three college titles, a Super Bowl ring, and his own wine label! Where’s his award?
Still, Holtz is ahead of some Medal of Freedom recipients in championships won. Most of them played baseball in the era where the World Series was the only round of the playoffs, and many of them played critical roles in the integration of sports:
- Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line; his jersey number is retired by every MLB club.
- Hank Aaron held the career home run record for 33 years, and still holds the record for most runs batted in (2,297), total bases (6,856), extra-base hits (1,477), and All-Star Game selections (25).
- Buck O’Neil was the first Black coach in Major League Baseball, and helped establish the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.
- Willie Mays won two MVPs, a batting title, the 1951 Rookie of the Year award, and retired as perhaps the greatest five-tool player in baseball history.
- Ted Williams won baseball’s Triple Crown twice, holds the MLB record for career on-base percentage, and remains the last major leaguer to bat over .400 in a season.
- Ernie Banks was the first Chicago Cub to have his number retired (and the franchise’s first Black player), and the ninth player in MLB history to hit 500 home runs.
- Charles Sifford won the United Golf Association’s National Negro Open six times before becoming the first Black member of the PGA Tour, where he went on to win two official Tour events.
But hey, Lou Holtz had to endure working for the Jets for almost a whole season! (He quit with one game left.)
Perhaps you still think championships isn’t a fair measure. Holtz wasn’t the one playing, after all, and college football didn’t have a playoff, or even a well-organized system for deciding champions, during most of his career. What if we use win-loss percentage instead, and just compare Holtz to his coaching peers on the Medal of Freedom list?
Medal of Freedom Recipients, ranked by coaching W-L percentage
|Robert J. H. Kiphuth||.977|
|Paul "Bear" Bryant||.780|
Russell, Berra, Cousy, and Robinson are largely known for their accomplishments as players, not coaches or managers. That leaves Jerry West, who coached the Lakers for three seasons before becoming the team’s general manager and building eight championship-winning teams in Los Angeles. He’s also the literal logo of the NBA.
If most Medal of Freedom recipients have won far more titles than Holtz, and all of those known primarily as coaches have better career winning percentages, the numbers don’t leave us with much wiggle room. Like it or not, Lou Holtz is the least accomplished member of the sports community to receive this prestigious honor.
That doesn’t have to be the case forever, though. The President might decide to give the award to another Indiana football legend, one with fewer titles than Holtz and a significantly worse lifetime winning percentage.