Legendary Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian died early Wednesday morning, the University announced. He had been battling a hip infection at his home in Granger, Ind., just outside of South Bend. He was 94.
“Ara was a remarkable man,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said in a statement. “We come across thousands and thousands of people throughout our life, and most of the time, they come and go, but there are certain people from the moment you meet them, you realize they’re truly unique. That’s Ara.”
Most notably, Parseghian led Notre Dame to two national championships in 1966 and 1973, part of his 95-17-4 record in 11 seasons with the Irish. Including his seasons coaching at his alma mater Miami (Ohio) and Northwestern, Parseghian’s career record was 170-58-6 across 24 seasons.
Despite spending his first 13 years of coaching elsewhere in the Midwest, Notre Dame may have always been on Parseghian’s mind. At least, it had been since two months before his eighth birthday.
“I remember vividly, back in those days we didn’t have a television and we had sparse radio compared to what we have today,” Parseghian told this writer during a 2012 interview. “The newspapers would print extras and they’d be coming down the street in the middle of the day when an incident occurred.
“I remember the paperboy coming down the street, ‘EXTRA EXTRA EXTRA. Rockne killed in air crash.’ That has been in my mind and vivid through all these years. That tells you the kind of impact that he had on the school and college football, and certainly when I went to Notre Dame I played on that part of the tradition. … You use the spirit and tradition of what had happened in the past as a positive note.”
Parseghian arrived at Notre Dame from Northwestern, having added four losses to the struggling Irish seasons following Frank Leahy’s retirement. From 1959 to 1962, Northwestern beat the school 113 miles eastward each year. University President Fr. Ted Hesburgh watched. Executive Vice President Fr. Edmund Joyce watched. Notre Dame quarterback John Huarte watched.
Thus, when Parseghian reached out to Joyce to inquire about the opening following the 1963 season, neither Hesburgh nor Joyce worried about hiring the first non-alum and first non-Catholic since Jesse Harper handed the team over to Knute Rockne. (1944 interim coach Edward McKeever was not Catholic, as well.) They worried about securing the coach who had made besting the Irish a routine.
“Ara said to us, ‘I’ve gone as far as I can … I’m a believer in emotionalism in athletics, and I know they have it at Notre Dame, and I know I can do better there,” Hesburgh wrote in his memoirs “God, Country, Notre Dame.” “Ara was right, of course, and he proved it many, many times.”
“The opportunities at Notre Dame far exceeded those at Northwestern,” Parseghian said. “They both have strong academic reputations and admissions requirements, but Notre Dame with the religious affiliation, the academic reputation and the great tradition of football was an opportunity to recruit on a national basis. … At Notre Dame, the whole country was open to us.”
Parseghian nearly proved his fit with at the University from the outset, despite taking over a team which had posted a 2-7 record in 1963. Then again, when he arrived, the Irish already knew who he was. They undoubtedly remembered the 35-6 rout Northwestern had delivered to Notre Dame in 1962.
Huarte and receiver Jack Snow felt they could run Parseghian’s offense. Not only could they, but they could run it well. Huarte threw for more than 2,000 yards in 1964 with more than half those yards courtesy of Snow’s hands, and Huarte received the Heisman Trophy a week before the season finale against USC.
“Ara said to me, ‘John, if you make a mistake, don’t worry about it. You’re my quarterback. I’m going with you,” Huarte said of the coach’s conversation before the season-opener at Wisconsin. “I think that was really smart as I look back on it. It made me kind of relax and go on to have a big year.”
Entering the matchup in California at 9-0, a final-minutes, 20-17 defeat to USC cost the Irish a national championship. Parseghian got his first title two seasons later, going 9-0-1 in 1966. Naturally, it is the tie that is best remembered, a 10-10 knot with undefeated, second-ranked Michigan State. Never mind the 51-0 victory over No. 10 USC a week later.
“There was only the national championship as the only thing we could strive for,” Parseghian said. “The circumstances we were facing when we started our season … all we were fighting for, the only thing open to us, was a national championship, and that’s pretty hard to get when you’re going against 120 schools.”
Another close call in 1970, again robbed by USC in the regular season finale, made the 1973 championship even sweeter, a 11-0 season punctuated by a Sugar Bowl victory over then-No. 1 Alabama.
“When you least expect it, you might have [a title]. When times are predictable that you are chosen to be, things can happen that you don’t even come close.”
After considering retirement following the 1973 title, Parseghian called it a career a year later following a 10-2 record. But he never really left South Bend. When three of his grandchildren were diagnosed with the rare neurological condition Niemann-Pick Type C, Parseghian’s literal and figurative closeness to the University led to the creation of the Ara Parseghian Medical Research Foundation. Parseghian’s three grandchildren all died from the disease, but it has raised millions of dollars to further progress combatting the disease.
“We have lost one of the most remarkable men I have ever known,” former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz said. “He was a role model for me in every facet of his life, as a husband, father, coach, businessman and genuine friend. People will remember Ara for his great success as a football coach or the valiant battle he and his family have waged in order to find a cure for Niemann-Pick Type C disease and rightfully so. I will remember him as a true friend, a great golfing partner and a person willing to help anyone in need.”
In 2007, the University unveiled a statue of Parseghian outside Notre Dame Stadium.
Parseghian was born May 21, 1923 in Akron, Ohio, and is survived by his wife, Katie, whom he married in 1948, as well as his daughter, Kris Humbert, and son, Michael. In addition to his three grandchildren, Parseghian was preceded in death by his daughter Karan.
To donate to the Ara Parseghian Medical Research Fund, visit parseghianfund.nd.edu.