The Era of Ara
By John Ventola
Ara Parseghian, the beloved former coach who restored Notre Dame football to prominence by winning two national championships during his 11-year coaching career (’64-’74) in South Bend, died earlier this month.
Parseghian, 94, who walked away from coaching at age 51, got into healthcare issues
after a short career as a college football analyst. He was eulogized, and remembered by many individuals with Notre Dame ties, during his emotional funeral services in the university’s Basilica of the Sacred Heart four days after his death.
He was past national chairman for Multiple Sclerosis, a devastating disease that his daughter Karan Burke suffered from for four decades before she died in 2014. Additionally, Parseghian started a foundation that has resulted in $45 million for research to fight and find a cure for Niemann-Pick disease, type C, a mutation disease that usually strikes youngsters around ten years old. Parseghian lost three grandchildren between the ages of 9 and 16 from 1997 and 2005 to Niemann-Pick disease, type C. The man was more than a coach, he was a humanitarian.
The Presbyterian of Armenian descent put his mark on the Catholic university in a big way—and he did it quickly. Hired by then school president, Father Theodore Hesburgh, to take over a program that had been struggling to reach the national level of Frank Leahy teams from the late ‘40s, Parseghian replaced coach Hugh Devore after the Fighting Irish finished the 1963 season with a 2-7 record.
Hesburgh’s main interview question was “will you adhere to the standards of integrity we expect here at Notre Dame?” Parseghian’s affirmative verbal answer sealed the
Irish job, and Hesburgh (school president ’52-’87), who would go on to become President Emeritus at the university, later said it was one of the smartest things he had ever done.
Parseghian had just completed an eight-year run at Northwestern with an overall record of 36-35-1, finishing 5-4 in his last season. The Miami of Ohio graduate had forged a reputation as a disciplinarian and innovator during his time at Northwestern, and that appealed to Father Hesburgh. The Oxford, Ohio university takes pride in being labeled the Cradle of Coaches, putting out numerous graduates who went on to become successful coaches at the college and professional levels. Parseghian would join that distinguished group of Miami graduates based on his Notre Dame coaching career.
Other esteemed Miami of Ohio grads include Earl ‘Red”Blaik, the former Army coach; Paul Brown of the original Cleveland Browns; Weeb Eubank, professional championship coach of the Baltimore Colts; Sid Gillman, the innovative former Chargers coach; and Bo Schembechler, who went on to cause Ohioans a lot of heartache while pacing the Michigan Wolverines sideline for 21 seasons.
Parseghian himself finished Miami in 1949, one year after Paul Dietzel and a few years ahead of Bill Arnsparger (so LSU benefitted quite handsomely from having a couple of the M of O educated on their sideline). Recent coaches to finish there include former
State boss Jim Tressel, and current Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh. While current Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethilisberger.is a notable former Redhawks athlete (Nick Saban’s 2002 LSU team soundly whipped Big Ben and his mates 33-7 in Tiger Stadium), the university’s reputation remains in former students doing well in the coaching profession.
A couple of Parseghian comments later in his career gave insight into the mental makeup of Parseghian as a coach. “A good coach will make his players see what they can be rather than what they are”. At no time was that more obvious than when Parseghian trotted out seldom used senior quarterback John Huarte to start the ND season opener in 1964. Huarte, he of the unorthodox, awkward, partially-sidearm, throwing motion, went on to win the 1964 Heisman Trophy as the Irish came within one minute and 43 seconds of beating USC at the Los Angeles Coliseum to finish the season undefeated. Coach John McKay called a risky over the middle 15-yard pass to end the magical season of the Irish, 20-17.
Huarte became a confident quarterback, throwing an impressive 16 touchdown passes, nine to sure-handed Jack Snow, who had played sparingly under Devore in his first two
seasons. Snow was a consensus All-American receiver as a senior, and Huarte, well, he won the Heisman Trophy before he even lettered at Notre Dame (the school athletic banquet was held after the Heisman presentation).
Parseghian’s first Irish contingent had set the tone for the 1966 national championship that followed two years later when the only blemish on the slate was the infamous 10-10 tie with Michigan State.
An LSU alumnus who grew up attending Tiger games with my dad starting in 1954 (yeah, the Ventola family is now in our 64th year of having LSU football season tickets), I will be making my sixteenth flight to South Bend next month to attend a Notre Dame football game. The opponent? Fittingly, Miami of Ohio!
It never gets old, the beautiful campus, the sites (The Grotto of the Lady of Lourdes, Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Administration building (The Golden Dome), Touchdown Jesus (Hesburgh Library), Fortune Student Center, the Purcell Pavilion at the Joyce Center (all lettermen names carved in wood by decade), Notre Dame Stadium itself (from the historical locker room which had I the honor of visiting one Friday night a few years back—and the “Play Like A Champion” sign at the bottom of the stairway leading to the tunnel used by players to enter the Stadium), the Hammes Notre Dame Bookstore, the Eck’s Visitor’s Center, the Guglielino Athletics Complex (Four Horseman Statue and Heisman Trophy winners).
The traditions are something to behold and experience, from the Friday night pep rallies
to the game-day functions, the ND band playing on the steps of Bond Hall and the trumpet section going immediately afterward to play the Alma Mater in the Rotunda of the Golden Dome.
I tend to get a little nostalgic and sentimental when I speak, or write, about Notre Dame. However, this blog was supposed to be about Ara, and rightfully so. Parseghian, coming off a 5-4-1 won-loss ledger at Northwestern, made believers of his Irish athletes, his goals, and his philosophy. He changed offensive players to defensive players, he switched players to different positions. Basically, he got in their heads—-and made them see what they could be. Ask John Huarte! And Jack Snow!
An early day Skip Bertman (same principle, different sport) he preached envisioning success, and unity. “You know what it takes to win, just look at my fist. When I make a fist, it’s strong and you can’t tear it apart. As long as there’s unity, there’s strength. We must become so close with the bonds of loyalty and sacrifice, so deep with the conviction of the sole purpose, that no one, no group, no thing, can ever tear us apart.”
During that 1964 season I became consumed with the success of Notre Dame football. I can vividly remember sitting in my bedroom that November listening to the radio as USC scored that last-minute touchdown to defeat the Irish, crushing championship hopes of Irish fans throughout the world. Notre Dame finished third in 1964 polls.
Parseghian parlayed the surprising ’64 season into stepped up recruiting. His 1966 championship team was dominant, averaging 36.2 points a game while giving up 3.8 points a contest, both figures leading the country. A week after the 10-10 tie with Michigan State, the Irish went to the Los Angeles Coliseum and embarrassed USC
51-0, no doubt, exacting some revenge for letting the Trojans spoil their title hopes two years before on the same field.
Terry Hanratty, Jim Seymour, Larry Coniar, Rocky Bleier, Bob Gladieux, and Nick Eddy sparked the Irish offensively to their eighth national championship. A talented, swarming defense shut out six of the ten opponents.
While the ’64 and ’66 seasons were enjoyed by this blogger on radio or television, I would later get to see Notre Dame teams of Parseghian up close and personal. I was in Tiger Stadium in 1972 when Bert Jones and Andy Hamilton turned the tables on the Irish, leading LSU to a convincing 28-8 victory. Notre Dame had beaten LSU 3-0 in South Bend in November 1970. In fact, my cousin Warren Capone, then a sophomore linebacker for the Tigers, intercepted two passes to lead the LSU defensive unit that magical night in Death Valley.
Although that game was exciting, after all, it was my alma mater, it paled in comparison to the atmosphere for the Alabama versus-Notre Dame Sugar Bowl game on New Year’s Eve in 1973. Great weather, great crowd great coaches (Paul Bryant, Ara Parseghian), and GREAT SEATS (up three rows behind the Alabama bench, 40-yard-line). And, it was for all the marbles.
Two championship caliber teams battling it out. A 93-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Al Hunter and a two-point conversion gave Notre Dame some second quarter momentum (and a 14-7 halftime lead), but The Bear went with a trick play with 4:26 remaining, a pitch out and 25-yard throw-back touchdown pass to quarterback Richard Todd. Bill Davis’ missed extra point after that score proved crucial even though Bama led 23-21.
Notre Dame regrouped, went down the field and took the lead when Bob Thomas converted a 19-yard field goal for a 24-23 lead. Alabama was forced to punt and had the Irish pinned near their own goal line facing a game deciding third and long decision.
With 82,500 making noise worthy of an airport runway, Parseghiian did not blink—-after all, throughout his coaching career he had “We Have No Breaking Point” printed on the
last page of his team’s playbook. One thing to say something, quite another to believe the mantra, and live it.
Parseghian sent in his game-winning play call, but future All-Pro tight end Dave Casper got anxious on the directed cadence call. and jumped offside, pushing the Irish from just over the five-yard-line back to just past the two -and-a-half-yard line. Now Notre Dame quarterback Tom Clements had to not only concentrate on completing the game winning pass, he had to also make sure he was not dropped in his end zone for a game winning safety by Alabama.
Many sports buffs still think Casper made the 35-yard catch to bring national championship No. 9 to South Bend, but it was seldom used sophomore tight end Robin Weber who garnered in Clements perfect spiral over his left shoulder before being run out of bounds at the Irish’s 38. What a thrill, he was tackled just yards from me as I tried to grasp what I had just seen!
Remember this was before BCS, CFP celebrations. A small stage was brought out to midfield and I stood and watched as Parseghian graciously commended Alabama and Paul Bryant before saying how proud he was of his boys.
He had shown another group of young men what they could be rather than what they were. It was a special sports moment, one ingrained in this sports junkie’s memory bank!