More than 35 years later, Harvey Mackay talks about it like it happened yesterday

Mackay, of course, is a Minnesota legend. Businessman, Gophers booster, author, inspirational speaker, close personal friend of Sid Hartman.

And the man who played matchmaker between Lou Holtz and Gophers football fans, kick-starting a two-year whirlwind romance that took the state from elated to enchanted to, ultimately, eviscerated.

Holtz came here from Arkansas in December of 1983. He was a skinny coach with glasses, an impressive résumé and a fountain of one-liners.

Examples:

• Holtz, who hated the cold, on his impression of Minnesota winter: “Everyone has blond hair and blue ears.”

• Holtz, on how he came to love the state: “It’s the kind of place where your wife cries twice. Once when you tell her you’re moving there, and again when you’re telling her you’re leaving there.”

He inherited a team that, under coach Joe Salem, had lost 18 of its past 19 games, including a 1983 season that ended with 10 straight losses, beginning with that legendary 84-13 drubbing at the hands of top-ranked Nebraska in the Metrodome. Mackay was in a Metrodome suite with then athletic director Paul Giel.

“I looked at him,” Mackay said last week. “I said, ‘Well, in some ways Paul, this takes the pressure off you. You don’t have to make a decision. It’s just been made for you.’ ”

Mackay recalled the process of getting Holtz here.

“I got very lucky,” he said.

The story is Salem was gone and the U was looking. Giel was out because of a medical issue and University of Minnesota President C. Peter Magrath was getting one turndown after another. Mackey said Magrath gave him authority to go get a coach: “I was a committee of one. And, within 48 hours, I had Lou.”

He had Holtz and his family fly in. He met them at the airport, whisked them to the downtown Marriott and, he recalled, “never let him go outside once.”

Then Holtz went out and charmed a state.

“It was the biggest hire in the recent history of the program,” said Dave Mona who hosts “The Sports Huddle” with Hartman on WCCO Radio. “Especially in terms of getting a name. I remember the shock value of it. When the news broke, people were like, ‘No way.’ They’d never seen anyone like it. Magic tricks, enthusiasm, name-dropping. He was a national sports coach. ”

Season ticket sales passed 50,000, with 25,000-plus watching the spring game.

Holtz got to work, getting a South Carolina quarterback named Rickey Foggie to come north to play. In 1984, a team that had lost 18 of its past 19 went 4-7. The Gophers won Big Ten games over Indiana, Wisconsin and Iowa.

And then, 1985: The Gophers started 2-0, then hosted No. 2-ranked Oklahoma, losing just 13-7. The Gophers then beat Purdue, Northwestern and Indiana, rising to No. 20 in the polls, before losing 23-19 to ninth-ranked Ohio State. The Gophers ended up 6-5 and got a bid to the Independence Bowl.

But by the time that game was played, Holtz was gone to Notre Dame. It was a difficult divorce, at least on this end.

But what if it hadn’t happened?

“Minnesota would have been a Big Ten power," Mona said. “If he could have maintained it for five years, the likelihood of it lingering longer would have been better. I think he would have been very successful.”

Mackay — still good friends with Holtz — took it a step further.

“I love my wife,’’ he said. “I love my kids. I love my business. I’d put ’em all on the line that he would have been, absolutely, year-after-year, fighting for a national championship.”

It was a bit harder back then, in the sense that in the Big Ten, other teams had to play traditional powers Michigan and Ohio State every year. Holtz’s assistant, John Gutekunst, took over and went 6-6, losing in the Liberty Bowl. By the time he left after the 1991 season he was 29-37-2. Jim Wacker took over after that and, well, we all know how that turned out.

Mona said Holtz had recruited another South Carolina QB named Tony Rice, who then followed Holtz to Notre Dame, where he led the team to the national title in 1988.

So, what if?

“It’s almost impossible not to think about it,” Mackay said.

Editor’s note: Do you have any suggestions for great “what-if” moments in Minnesota sports history? Send them to Michael Rand at mrand@startribune.com.