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There was none finer than ND’s Ara Parseghian

The animated Ara Parseghian was always into the game. Photo courtesy Chicago Tribune

Early in the morning on August 2, 94-year-old collegiate coaching icon Ara Parseghian passed away at his home in Granger, Indiana after a recent illness. To say that his death has left a void of enormous proportions doesn’t even begin to paint the picture.

To begin with, the University of Notre Dame has lost one its most revered and beloved representatives. At a time when the Irish football program was perhaps at its lowest ebb and was trending towards life- support, in came a dashing, raven-haired Armenian who immediately changed the culture with not only his astute football acumen but with a charisma that was simply off the charts. By the time his tenure in South Bend was done, Parseghian had assumed his rightful place among the greatest coaching trinity that any school has ever produced.

It all started with the true patriarch of ND football, the iconic Knute Rockne, who turned his Irish into a national phenomenon. Later on, there came one of Rockne’s protégés, the accomplished Frank Leahy, who took the Golden Domers to dizzying heights and further burnished the brand. And finally, with the arrival of Parseghian, the Irish roared back into relevance and would return to their accustomed place of being a football heavyweight. The fact that someone like Lou Holtz, another Irish coaching standout who captured one national championship and barely missed out on two others, can’t be considered to be among the top three all-time ND coaches doesn’t speak to any shortcomings on his part but rather it attests to the greatness of those that preceded him in the pecking order.

It was no secret that in the early 1960s, the Notre Dame football program was in the doldrums. And that’s putting it mildly. It had become moribund, a shell of its former greatness, a disorganized mess. From 1956 through ’63, the Irish put up a dismal 34-45 record, dispensed with three coaches and had experienced only two winning seasons during this disheartening period in the wilderness.

Candidly, much of the blame for this stunning deterioration could be laid at the feet of a school administration that had slashed scholarships, sought to deemphasize football and had made some highly questionable hires. At that moment in time, the program was truly at a crossroads and some were even speculating that it might be too far gone to fully resuscitate.

Into this morass and utter state of disrepair walked the 40-year-old Parseghian, who would become the first Irish coach since Jess Harper (1913-17) not to have any Notre Dame ties. Already a highly successful mentor who had demonstrated his chops during notable stops at Miami of Ohio and then Northwestern, Ara was to quickly prove he was the right man at the right time.

Immediately altering the environment with his fire, X’s and O’s canniness, remarkable organizational skills and powerful presence, he was about to author the greatest single-season turnaround in the annals of Irish history. From the abyss of a 2-7 ledger the year before, Parseghian would tack on seven more wins in 1964 and come within a whisker of garnering a unanimous national championship.

A superb talent evaluator whose eye was as keen as a hawk’s, Parseghian and his staff would have 17 players change positions during his inaugural season in order to maximize their potential. Moreover, Ara would unearth and turn loose the likes of quarterback John Huarte, receiver Jack Snow and defensive back/punt returner Nick Rassas, all of whom had basically languished on the bench prior to Parseghian’s arrival.

And so the stage was set for a stunning revival. In their much anticipated opener versus Wisconsin, the Irish behind Huarte’s 270 yards of passing and a pair of TD strikes to Snow, dominated the well-regarded Badgers 31-7. This game was of monumental importance because it established a foundation, set the tone for the rest of the season and gave an unmistakable signal that the Irish had awakened from their lengthy slumber. The players were so euphoric about the change that Parseghian had engendered in them that they jubilantly carried him off the field on that memorable day.

From there, the Irish went on a mighty roll, capturing their next eight games, seven of which were one-sided affairs decided by 19 points or more. Now poised to win a national title that would have been considered unthinkable at the season’s outset, the Irish were to have their hearts ripped from them when a late pass from USC’s Craig Fertig to wide receiver Rod Sherman spelled the difference in a dramatic 21-17 Trojan victory.

But the entire story of that heart-wrenching loss can’t be told unless some egregious officiating is taken into account. Three highly questionable second-half calls in that contest went a long way into deciding the ultimate outcome. A detailed account of these blatant errors of judgment is effectively and persuasively presented in Jim Dent’s book entitled Resurrection. But for the sake of brevity, I shall concentrate on the most damaging.

With the Irish up by a count of 17-7 early in the fourth quarter and positioned at the Trojan 1-inch line, fullback Joe Kantor powered into the end zone behind a pair of great blocks. Understandably, the Irish fans in attendance at the Coliseum whooped it up at the prospect of a seemingly insurmountable 23-7 lead. But wait, because from virtually out of nowhere umpire David Queen, some 12 yards away, tossed a flag on tackle Bob Meeker for holding. Two officials who had a much better vantage point saw and called nothing.

Close scrutiny of the game film reveals that Queen totally embarrassed himself with this phantom and highly-suspicious call. Meeker barely brushed tackle Denis Moore before falling flat on his face and his hands never released from his jersey, making it an impossibility for him to have grabbed ahold of anyone. To make matters worse, Queen was completely out of position to make such a game-changing determination and his view of Meeker was obscured by several Notre Dame and USC linemen. It’s hard to imagine a flag being any more bogus.

To have a call of such dubious merit play a huge role in determining the eventual winner was tough to stomach for both the ND coaches and players alike. Because of an incompetence that bordered on the breathtaking, Queen had gone a long way in depriving a fiercely-determined and deserving Irish team of what would have been considered the greatest comeback campaign in collegiate football history. To any observer who looks at the play in question with any degree of objectivity, it’s abundantly clear that the Irish got hosed.

Nonetheless, the ’64 team with its nine wins had set a standard of excellence that was truly worthy of being emulated.

And like the program he was overseeing, Parseghian was just getting started. During his sensational 11-year tenure at South Bend, Ara would post a 95-17-4 record and an impressive .836 winning percentage. His teams would never lose consecutive regular-season games. In the AP poll, the Irish finished in the Top 6 eight times and never landed lower than in the 14th spot.

He would be on the sidelines when ND ended its self-imposed bowl ban and experienced its first success in the postseason since the 1925 Rose Bowl when the Irish snapped Texas’ 30-game win streak during an historic 24-11 victory in the 1971 Cotton Bowl.

And then of course, there were the two signature national championships of 1966 and ’73 that helped cement Parseghian’s greatness and define his legacy.

The former involved a squad that is perhaps best remembered for its participation in the so-called “Game of the Century” that ended in a controversial tie against a magnificent Michigan State team.

After mounting a courageous comeback from a 10-0 deficit to knot things up, the Irish had possession of the ball at their own 30-yard line with just over a minute to play. Faced with a hostile crowd, without his starting halfback, center and right tackle due to injury, and having to go with a diabetic backup quarterback in Coley O’Brien who was physically wearing down, Parseghian elected to keep things on the ground and not engage in any type of unwarranted risk-taking. Though this was a sound strategy because O’Brien had misfired on his last several passes and forcing the issue through the air seemed ill-advised, Parseghian was nonetheless excoriated by many in the media for playing it safe. But ND’s coach wasn’t about to give away anything cheap after his team had so gamely battled back.

And ultimately Parseghian’s decision paid off handsomely the following week when the Irish traveled to Los Angeles and destroyed SC by such a massive margin (51-0) that it proved to be was more than enough to convince a majority of those voting in the polls that the Irish were indeed the top team in the land.

The 1973 season culminated when the Irish nipped Alabama 24-23 in the greatest of all Sugar Bowl games. Backed up against their own goal line late in the fourth quarter, Parseghian had the Irish shoot the works on a gutsy 3rd-and-8 call. After bootlegging and throwing from his own end zone, resourceful quarterback Tommy Clements unleashed a deep and accurate throw to seldom-used tight end Robin Weber who made a clutch grab that went for 36 yards to give ND the ample breathing room it needed to run out the clock and secure one of the school’s sweetest wins. As a result, Ara had now brought a pair of championships back home to the Golden Dome.

But to the shock of many, he would coach for only one more season. The wear and tear, the attrition and the emotional toll of working the sidelines for 24 seasons finally got the better of him. Taking pills for high blood pressure and feeling the sting of losses perhaps more acutely than ever, Parseghian wisely reasoned that he was putting his health at risk. And so after another notable season in which his Irish finished with a splendid 10-2 record that was highlighted by a 13-11 conquest of the Crimson Tide in the Orange Bowl, this commanding man called it a day at age 51.

There was speculation for a time that after a brief sabbatical, Ara would jump back into coaching but he never did despite repeated offers from the pros to do so. He would go on to serve as a color commentator for both ABC and CBS for a number of years.

Later in his life, the competitive Parseghian was forced to take on a foe who he would have gladly avoided. Tragically, three of his grandchildren, Michael, Marcia and Christa would suffer from Niemann-Pick Type C, a rare genetic disease that affects the central nervous system and invariably causes death. None of his afflicted grandkids would live to see their 17th birthdays. Adding to his immense heartache was the pain of watching his daughter Karan lose her decades long battle with multiple sclerosis.

But in keeping with his motto of never reaching a breaking point that he continually espoused to his players, Ara starting going toe-to-toe with the disease that had deprived him of three of his precious loved ones. And out of this terrible agony, he ferociously fought back and with the incalculable help of his wife Katie, son Michael and daughter-in-law Cindy, the Ara Parseghian Medical Research Foundation was established to take on Niemann-Pick. Since its creation, millions of dollars have been raised to combat this insidious illness. And though a cure still hasn’t been found, significant  headway and progress has been made in the treatment and understanding of N-P.

When reflecting on Ara Parseghian so many things rush to mind. First, there was the magnetic smile that just captivated. There was the manner in which he could first grab the attention and then ignite the imagination of all those around him. The sense of loyalty that he instilled in his players spoke of the immense regard in which he was held.

Moreover, you couldn’t help but marvel at his boundless energy and indomitable will. He was also grace, dignity and class personified, whether in victory or defeat. And it’s hardly sacrilege to claim that when it came to motivation, Parseghian could hang with anyone, including the exalted Rockne. And as for being a genuine role model, very few will ever surpass Parseghian when it comes to being a leader, teacher and caring human being.

The news of Parseghian’s death struck a deep chord in all that knew him as well the countless sports fans and Americans who had admired him from afar. And his impact, both on and off the field, still resonates profoundly. By any measure, he was an exceptional and extraordinary individual. In truth, they don’t come any finer!

The Notre Dame family deeply mourns his loss but does so knowing how blessed it was to have had him. It goes without saying that the Era of Ara won’t ever be forgotten.

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