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The University of Notre Dame Meets Remote Learning Challenges—Lou Holtz Style

Eric Kelleher
Eric Kelleher
Senior Vice President, Customer First

Turning a struggling University of Notre Dame football program into a national powerhouse, was no easy feat. Taking six different NCAA football programs to bowl games, even harder. Legendary football coach Lou Holtz is an inspiration, not only in his accomplishments but more importantly, in the way that he carries himself, puts the individual above the scoreboard, and cherishes his wife of 59 years. I had the distinct pleasure of sitting down with Lou Holtz and a few members of the University of Notre Dame’s IT team to discuss leadership tactics through these challenging times. 

Holtz credits his success to three simple rules that have carried his career and personal life. Those rules, as he outlined in Okta’s virtual fireside chat last week, apply equally well to fast-paced, modern companies—especially in times of uncertainty. 

Here’s a quick run-down of Holtz’s rules for building strong teams and even stronger relationships:

1. Do what’s right.

In an age of “alternative” facts, when figuring out the difference between right and wrong can take you down a rabbit hole of conflicting opinions and competing realities, Holtz clarifies everything with a simple question: 

Can I trust you? 

For him, “Do what’s right,” is about building trust between everyone on the team. “We need each other,” says Holtz. “We have a goal, and each person has a role in achieving it. Trust is about living up to the obligations and responsibilities that you’ve agreed to, as a member of the team.” 

2. Do everything to the best of your ability.

Holtz views leadership as an awesome responsibility. “We’re born to be the best we can possibly be and to make a difference in people’s lives,” he says. 

Rule #2 is about a commitment to excellence that starts with oneself. “You can’t fool yourself,” he says. “When you put your head down on the pillow at night, you alone know whether you did everything to the best of your ability.” 

Excellence is also about attitude. “The most important choice a leader has to make every single day is the attitude they have,” he says. “Your employees have a better chance of catching your attitude than they have of catching COVID-19 from you.” 

For Holtz, a positive attitude is about looking for solutions rather than excuses. In the face of adversity, he looks for large and small changes that make success inevitable. “I never inherited a winner,” he says, “and I never failed to go to a bowl game by the second year—at the latest.” 

3. Show people you care.

“As a leader, you have an obligation to lift people up,” says Holtz. “If you build love in an organization, you’ll be unbeatable as long as you adhere to the fundamentals.” 

By fundamentals, he means the basic skills required to win—like blocking and tackling for a football team, coding and project management for a technology development team, or reading and writing for anyone who needs to communicate well. 

While Holtz always held his players to a high standard and held them accountable when they failed to do their best, he also recognized that everyone has different levels of talent and expertise. Still, everyone had a role to fill as a member of the team.

He tells the story of Bobby Satterfield, the Notre Dame third-team, walk-on defensive back who died suddenly of a congenital heart defect in 1989—the same day he met President Ronald Reagan as a member of that year’s champion team. 

When Holtz called a team meeting the next morning to share the news, they were all devastated. “One player passed out. Almost every player wept real tears,” he says. “They didn’t love him because he was a great athlete—they loved him because he was part of the family.

“That’s what I’m talking about,” he says. “You build love, trust, and commitment with these three rules, and great things happen.”

Facing the challenge of remote learning 

As Holtz spoke during our fireside chat, the other members of our panel listened with admiration. 

After hearing Holtz’s rules for success, I turned the conversation to Scott Kirner, senior director of university enabling services, and Michele Decker, manager of identity and access management at the University of Notre Dame to learn how they approached the latest challenge at Notre Dame—moving the residential campus entirely to remote learning. Basically overnight.

“Early in 2020, we activated a broad emergency operation center to deal with the response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Kirner. “We had an advantage in that we practice this on a regular basis. Just as a football team practices for plays, we practice our emergency operations.”

The goal was to make the transition as seamless as possible, using technology to empower learning and to ensure academic and business continuity in remote learning and working environments. They proceeded using technologies that faculty, staff, and students were already familiar with, making incremental changes and prioritizing the most pressing needs.

“We assembled a group of 15 IT people and assigned them to ‘Teaching Triage,’ helping faculty learn how to use new tools and create great online experiences for their students,” says Kirner. “We also nearly doubled our help desk to assist anyone with any kind of problem working, teaching, or learning remotely.”

Taking the positives from Notre Dame’s COVID-19 response

From a technology perspective, the university was positioned well, with the flexibility to adapt quickly, says Decker. “We had completed our Cloud First initiative, a four-year endeavor to migrate our data center and 90% of our applications to the cloud, including our HR and student information systems. We also went live with Okta last July, enabling access to nearly 300 software-as-a-service and custom-built applications.”

The biggest challenge the IT team faced was providing access to the specialized, resource-intensive applications available in on-campus labs. To meet the need, they assembled a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) team of engineers, architects, and end-point computing support staff. “In less than three weeks, the VDI team created seven different virtual lab environments,” says Decker. “They hosted 134 applications that were immediately accessed by more than 1,000 users from all over the U.S. and 15 different countries.”

While neither Decker nor Kirner see Notre Dame moving away from its traditional focus on residential learning in a post-COVID-19 world, they do recognize some positives that have come out of the experience. 

“We’re definitely going to continue our efforts on those VDI environments,” says Decker. “They enhance the student experience and increase the availability of resources for students all around the world. They also bring us new opportunities for research collaboration.”

Kirner says working from home will likely become even more common than it was before the crisis. “People are really on time for meetings, now that there’s no travel time,” he says. 

UND staff has had to consciously work on maintaining unity and social connection, however. “One thing that’s helped is having online coffee breaks throughout the day where people can drop in and socialize,” says Kirner.

To stay focused while meeting the needs of thousands of users in ways they hadn’t anticipated, Kirner says IT staff has a ‘Keep it Simple’ motto. “Okta helped us keep it simple, giving us a standard way to quickly enable access to any new services we needed as part of the pandemic response,” he says.

At the root: Strong teams that care about each other

Lou Holtz is a legendary figure around the world, but at UND there’s even a statue of him. “I guess they needed a place for the pigeons to land,” he says. “If you ever go there, don’t look at the statue—look at the pedestal. There are three words: ‘Trust. Commitment. Love.’ That was our culture. That’s what we built on.”

Even in this short, virtual event, you can tell how much influence Holtz’s rules for life have had on the university. Kirner points to another motto that the staff has embraced during the pandemic: 

Take care of yourselves so you can take care of your loved ones. Take care of your loved ones so you can take care of work. Take care of work so you can take care of yourself and your loved ones.

For Holtz and the UND IT staff, winning means building a solid team that really cares about each other and that constantly learns from adversity. “The greater the challenge, the more you have to work together,” says Holtz. “I’ve had a lot of adversity in my life, but I’ve never faced anything that didn’t turn out to be a positive if I reacted favorably to it.”

Interested in how to securely enable your own remote workforce with Okta? Check out our Securely Enable Remote Work page and read the full story on how the University of Notre Dame utilizes Okta to streamline identity for students, faculty and staff. 

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Eric Kelleher
Senior Vice President, Customer First

In his role as Senior Vice President, Customer First for Okta, Eric is responsible for leading and accelerating teams and programs that deliver on Okta’s corporate value Love Our Customers. Eric has spent the last 25+ years leading software companies through growth. He’s served over 20 years in various customer-centric leadership roles at SaaS companies, including 11 years with Salesforce.com, where he learned from and helped shape their playbook for cultivating a wildly successful enterprise subscriber base. 

Eric earned a B.S. in Economics and Computer Science from Georgetown University, and an M.S. in Computer Science from Stanford.

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