Ara Parseghian put Notre Dame back on the map in 1964

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Credit them with illuminating The Dark Ages of Notre Dame football.

Five years (1959-63) of frustration. Five seasons without a winning record (19-30).

Doubt was rampant. Has Notre Dame de-emphasized football? Does its focus on academics drain the potential talent pool too shallow? Is a schedule as an independent too tough for the Irish to compete?

Sound familiar? Every time the Notre Dame football program cycles into a dormant period, the refrain begins.

Then, along came salvation.

In 1964, it arrived in the form of a guy who was already well-versed in chiseling success out of trying circumstances.

Ara Parseghian forged a living out of making lemonade out of lemons.

The 41-year-old Parseghian was brought in from Northwestern to rescue a program wallowing in insecurity after a 2-7 season, but brimming with untapped potential.

Parseghian worked his magic, tinkered with cards he was dealt, and molded an amazing team that came within 30 minutes of winning one of the most unlikely national championships college football had ever seen.

Though finishing third in the polls after a stunning 20-17 loss at Southern Cal in the season’s final game, those fellows who made 1964 so special established the foundation for the Era of Ara, a glorious time in Notre Dame lore.

They will be honored Saturday when Notre Dame takes on Stanford.

Special recognition is usually reserved for champions. The fact that Notre Dame is marking the 50-year anniversary of that revival confirms the significance of the turnaround and its place in the modern-day progress of the program.

“It took a team that resurrected the name, the quality of football,” Parseghian said. “(It proved) we could win in the field we were in — high academic standards, playing a tough schedule. We heard the same rumors (in 1964 that surface whenever Notre Dame struggles). (Notre Dame) couldn’t be dominant again because of all those handicap factors.

“To be able to turn it around immediately, and get Notre Dame back to the top of the heap again; that we could win with the schedule we had (and) with the players you couldn’t get into school (was critical).”

“That really put Notre Dame back on track,” said Irish quarterback and 1964 Heisman Trophy winner John Huarte. “Before (1964), there was a lot of talk in the papers about de-emphasizing football at Notre Dame; Notre Dame couldn’t play with Michigan State and the other schools.

“I looked around, I thought the talent looked pretty good. We had a few big guys; a few fast guys; we could throw the ball and had some receivers. Ara proved everybody wrong. Notre Dame had the talent. We just didn’t have the leadership and the coaching.”

“We thought the world was coming to an end after the 2-7 season,” said linebacker and team captain Jim Carroll. “I guess it puts the perspective on Ara Parseghian. He’s gotta be one class guy. He took the same players and turned it all around.

“God bless Ara. “I’d like to take credit (for keeping things from crumbling during the transition), but I’m not the one. You’ve really gotta put it on Ara.

“We got to the point where we had so much confidence in the coaches coming in that it kind of saved us. We thought we were going down the tubes.”

Parseghian was confident enough in his own abilities as a coach to make some pretty significant position switches before the season ever started. Jack Snow was moved from fullback to wide receiver. The “Elephant Backfield” from 1963 was dispersed. Jim Snowden was sent to the offensive line, and Paul Costa and Pete Duranko to defense.

“It was the same thing I had done for 14 years,” said Parseghian. “I had coached in college for 14 years (at Miami of Ohio and Northwestern). I was an experienced football coach, relatively speaking. We had to make do with what we had when I was at Northwestern. In a state (school)-oriented conference (Big Ten), they could bring in any big number (of recruits) they wanted to. We were limited because of cost and academics.

“As a result of that, you were very examining of the talent you had available. That’s one of the ‘x-factors’ in coaching that you talk about in clinics. You wind up telling (the clinic audience), ‘Hey, we’ve got 50 guys out there. How are we going to make the best team?’

“You evaluate their skills. Don’t force things on them. They will tell you what they do best, then you refine them. That’s basically what coaching is all about.”

During spring practice, Parseghian liked what he saw of Huarte, a rising senior who hadn’t yet played very much for the Irish.

However, Huarte came within a second opinion of never playing a down that season.

“Right at the tail end of our spring practice, there’s no question (Huarte) had been our dominant quarterback,” Parseghian said. “He injured his (right) shoulder, his throwing arm. The diagnosis (by a local doctor) was surgery. I decided to seek another opinion. We brought his mother and father in and we sent him to Chicago. (That doctor’s) recommendation was, ‘You don’t need surgery. It’ll heal up. It’ll just take a little time.

“We gave that information to John and his family and let them make the decision. That’s how close we came to losing the Heisman Trophy winner.”

“I got my shoulder pinched, it was a common injury,” said Huarte. “I got my shoulder driven into the ground. There’s a separation where the collarbone comes in. A couple doctors wanted to pin it together with surgery. Ara sent me to a doctor who knew better. (That doctor) said, ‘Just leave it alone, in six weeks it will be better.’ That’s what happened.

“I came back and could throw without pain. By the time the season came, I was fine.”

A healthy Huarte was phenomenal in leading the Irish through nine straight victories before a season-ending trip to the West Coast.

“I don’t think you’ll ever see anything more dramatic during the course of a football season as a senior, a non-player in the previous years, to go from that to the Heisman Trophy,” Parseghian said. “I didn’t want a senior (quarterback). I wanted a sophomore or junior, so I could have him back for another year or two.

“John earned the right to be where he was. He proved it as the season went on.

“He had a little bit of a sidearm motion with his throw. We work with results. He’s a little bit different (thrower) than the others. The ball still was ending up in the receivers’ hands. There was no question he was well-qualified, and by far the best we had on that squad.

“We didn’t have any idea (the Heisman Trophy) was going to happen. It wasn’t until midseason, when we were undefeated, ranked (No. 1) and getting a lot of publicity, that’s when they started to point out players that might be qualified for the Heisman.

“At the time, it was totally unexpected.”

“For me, it was just a case of right place at the right time,” Huarte said. “Ara was way ahead (of his time as a coach). He came in with what was like a management group (of assistant coaches).

“In the springtime, they analyzed what they had. They told us players that everyone was going to get a shot, and that’s what happened. He switched guys around.

“To go from an unknown to getting a shot to go into the pro game — even though I had a backup career, that’s 10 years of paychecks — when you’re a young guy, that worked out pretty good, really.

“That wouldn’t have happened if Ara wouldn’t have come there. He was dramatic for me and a lot of others.”

The ultimate turnaround came down to the final 30 minutes of the final game of the season. Notre Dame took a 17-0 lead over Southern Cal into the halftime locker room. Neither Parseghian nor his staff sensed any reason for panic or concern. Things seemed to be going well.

That’s the point where, even 50 years later, Parseghian’s blood pressure spikes.

Southern Cal came roaring back — with some help, according to the coach, who can still vividly recall down, distance and situation of every crucial play. The Trojans scored 20 unanswered points and ruined the storybook season.

“(The loss to Southern Cal) was really a tough thing to handle,” Parseghian said. “We had that game in hand, (leading) 17-0 at halftime.

“In the fourth quarter, there were four calls (by the officials) that influenced the outcome of that game. We scored another touchdown they called back. They called (a penalty) on a guy who never touched the opponent. There was a 15-yard penalty on a punt situation that dramatically changed the field position.

“There was a time when (Irish defensive end) Alan Page was throwing the quarterback down. (Page) had (the quarterback’s) arms strapped to his side. (The quarterback) makes a motion to try to get the ball out… It’s either going to be (intentional) grounding, and we’re going to sack them for about 17 yards, or a fumble. What do they call? Incomplete pass.

“Then there was the one (on the USC 1-yard line) where (left tackle) Bob Meeker fired out and the man he was supposed to block veered away from him. He never made any contact. The official back in the end zone, several seconds had expired before the flag comes out. We had scored. The toughest penalty in college football is going back 15 yards after you had scored from the 1.”

A half-century later, the hurt is still obvious.

“I’m not over it yet,” Parseghian said. “I remember walking in the locker room and talking to the kids: ‘Look, we’ve won like men, we will lose like men.

“There were a lot of things that happened out there. You’ve gotta be proud of what you’ve accomplished this year.’

“About 10 years after that game, I was out there (in Los Angeles) with one of Southern Cal’s radio and TV guys. We were doing (a television show) on that game. He looked over at me and he said, ‘You got screwed.’ I said, ‘It took you 10 years to figure that out?’”

“That happens,” Huarte said. “We all go on with our lives. I don’t think much about that anymore.

“Sometimes you get some strange things in life. You just have to live with them.

“Notre Dame was very lucky they hired Ara Parseghian; and he was a guy who knew how to put things together.”

Nothing that happened in the Coliseum that day took away from what had already been accomplished.

“To go from one extreme to the other is very memorable and rewarding for all these guys,” Parseghian said. “We were so close, and yet, so far. That era, we turned our program around and were recognized as being able to compete with anyone in the country.”

“(The season taught me) that anything is possible,” Carroll said. “Never stop working. Never stop trying.

“The coaches took a bunch of guys who were down and out and built us back up again and made us winners. If you could do that in football, you could do that in life.”

It’s something truly worth celebrating.

(574) 235-6318

John Huarte (7) stood out among Notre Dame’s quarterbacks during spring practice in 1964 before a shoulder injury threatened to sideline him for the year. Instead, he took the advice of coach Ara Parseghian, right, sought a second opinion and went on to lead the Irish to a 9-1 record and one of the unlikeliest Heisman Trophy campaigns in history. (SBT File Photo)