Book Excerpt: "Ara's Knights," on ND legend Ara Parseghian
Chapter 8 – Game Week
The Sunday night before the opening game of the 1971 season, the team gathered at the North Dining Hall following practice and dinner. Coach Ara Parseghian used these Sunday night meetings to review our upcoming opponent, Northwestern in this case. I was going to be the starting left guard at the University of Notre Dame as a sophomore. I felt I had taken a big step toward becoming one of Ara’s Knights. I was on cloud nine, the only sophomore starting the 1971 opener (although other classmates would also start later in the year). We had other sophs who were much better athletes than I was—such as Dave Casper, Mike Townsend, Cliff Brown, Tim Sullivan, Tom Devine, and Gary Potempa—but I was in a spot where the opportunity presented itself since last year’s starting guards had both graduated.
Ara always stressed the best qualities of the other team and warned us that if we didn’t play the way we should that we could get our ass beat. “He’d build up our opponent with all they had accomplished,” said Rocky Bleier. “By Friday, even if that opponent had a losing record, it seemed like you were playing the national champs.”
On the Sunday night before the start of the 1971 season, Ara gave us a scouting report on every player on Northwestern’s team, explaining his strengths and weaknesses. When he came to the defensive line, he said their best player was Jim Anderson. “Pomarico, you’ll be playing against him,” he said. He looked at me with those piercing eyes and said, “You will be ready.”
It was game week, and all the hard work, the weight training, the running on the Belt Parkway, playing handball…it all came down to this point in time. I kept asking myself if I was ready, and the answer I would come up with was Yes I am. Bring it on. I’m going to give the best effort I possibly can. I’mgoing to use all the things in my toolbox to compete. A lot of those tools were put there by Ara Parseghian, Larry DiNardo, assistant coaches Tom Pagna and Wally Moore, my father, Brother Owen Capper, and my high school coach Vince O’Connor. I had one week to go, and the arena was waiting: Notre Dame Stadium.
Practices leading up to game day were scripted down to the minute. Ara was involved with developing the game plan on both sides of the ball, according to assistant coach Bill Hickey. “He would sit with the defensive staff on Monday and Tuesday mornings and set the defensive game plan with them,” Bill said. From Tuesday afternoon through Thursday, Ara would work with the coaches on the offensive end to develop the strategy for that side of the ball. “Not many coaches are that detailed or that totally into the game,” he said.
Monday of game week involved a “time up” of some offensive and defensive plays. Time up involved running through plays at about three-quarter speed. Once the season began, Ara also used Mondays to give out awards from the previous week. Some Mondays during the season also involved what we called the “Toilet Bowl,” which was a scrimmage between the freshmen team and varsity players who had not gotten into the game the previous Saturday. We practiced for about one-and-a-half hours on Monday.
On Tuesday, we would do our normal practice with drills and individual work on our position. Practice was about 2 hours and 10 minutes. We worked hard timing up our plays on offense and on defense working on recognition of the opposing team’s offense. Most of the time we didn’t do full contact at practice, but we would run some live goal line in the early part of the year to get ready for the schedule. As the season went on, the risk of injuries became more significant, so our live practice work was kept to a minimum.
Wednesday was also a full-pads practice of about 2 hours and 10 minutes involving special teams, individual work, and team time up. On Thursday, practice was only about one-and-a-half hours, consisting of special teams and time up with no individual drills. The tempo was quick, but the contact eased off a bit.
“One of my most vivid memories is how Ara would get us all together after practice, and he knew exactly what to say,” said defensive lineman George Hayduk. “If we had a tough practice where things weren’t going good, he knew how to get us back up again. He was very insightful about what young people were living through.”
Ara liked to have some fun with the team on Thursdays and Fridays. With game preparation winding down, he would have a competition with different parts of the team involving what he called “cheers.” The offense, defense, and prep teams were challenged to make up a jingle or act out a skit about the upcoming game. The friendly competition would get some great laughs. “Ara would go to each group and listen,” said Bill Hickey. “He would take a few seconds to ponder, then he would point to the winners, and the kids would go out of their minds. It was a tremendous thing to loosen up the players two days before the game.”
Then Ara would talk to us about the significance of the upcoming game and remind us to keep our noses clean and do our schoolwork, because if we weren’t eligible, we couldn’t play. We would then break practice and go to training table. There would be short meetings after dinner, then back to the dorm to do our schoolwork or attend whatever social event we had planned.
Friday practice was short, about one hour, concentrating on special teams and time up of our offense and defense. We would do another set of cheers and then we were ready.
The Phantom Letters were a motivational tool that assistant coach Tom Pagna came up with. He would write weekly inspirational letters and post them on players’ lockers. They were signed “The Phantom,” though we pretty much figured out he was the author. Here is the letter he posted before the opener against Northwestern in 1971:
Most people have the Will to Win. Only Winners have the Will to prepare to win. This day and this week are the beginning—They are pages in the book of your life. How will the 1971 Irish book read? Will it state?
1.) They are hard nose and hitters!
2.) They had no breaking point behind or ahead
3.) They played the game for the full 60 minutes.
4.) They played with a full heart.
5.) They were not individuals, but an intricate weave of many talents dedicated to one final result.
6.) They had Class-Polish-Pride.
If it states these things, it is naturally acceptable they can be champions. You play a game on a given day with a given opponent. Saturday the 18th, Northwestern, is the day and the opponent. No game will be as important as that game that day.
Pep rallies were held Friday evenings before every home game. The marching band would go through campus playing the “Victory March,” and students would run alongside and behind them, whooping it up. For many years the rallies had been held in the Old Fieldhouse in the middle of campus, but by 1971 they moved to the newer Stepan Center on the north end. It was a nicer venue, though nothing could match the intensity of the Fieldhouse scene of swarms of sweaty, feverish students hanging from the rafters. These days, the rallies are held in the Athletic and Convocation Center (ACC), and they seem to be more scripted and more Hollywood than ever before.
Denny Murphy, our freshmen coach and a former player at Notre Dame, told me about a tradition passed down by generations of Irish players: they’d visit the Grotto the night before a game to say a little prayer that we would do our best in the game ahead of us. Dan Morrin and I always held up that tradition for home games. For some reason I always thought it helped and felt I always had special help when we went out and played at Notre Dame Stadium.
After stopping at the Grotto, we made our way to Moreau Seminary for the night. Ara liked the idea that we were away from the campus and its football-weekend party atmosphere. At the time, Playboy magazine had a poll on party schools. Notre Dame didn’t make the list, and when Playboy was asked why not, someone answered that the magazine didn’t want to lump the pro partiers at Notre Dame with the amateurs at other colleges.
Moreau Seminary housed young men who were studying to be priests in the Holy Cross order. They would give up their room for Friday night so that the football players could stay there. It was much better than staying at a hotel. There was a movie theater in the seminary, and we would see a western or a war movie with a lot of action—often a John Wayne film.
After the movie and light snack, we went back to our rooms for the night. The first night I stayed at Moreau, I got to my room and was getting ready for bed when all of a sudden there was a noise, the closet door opened, and out jumped Dan Novakov, our senior center. It scared the bejesus out of me. I almost started swinging at him as I thought it was some nut job who had gotten into the seminary somehow.
When I finally realized it was Dan, the guy who would play next to me the following day, in came our captain Thom Gatewood, laughing at how scared I was and welcoming me to the starting lineup for the Northwestern game. It turns out that it was somewhat of a Notre Dame tradition to scare the new guy in the starting lineup. Dan and Thom told me how they were put through the same rite of passage before their own first start. It kind of settled me down after that and I wasn’t as nervous about the game—but I did sleep with one eye open.
This excerpt from "Ara’s Knights: Ara Parseghian and the Golden Era of Notre Dame Football" by former Notre Dame offensive lineman Frank Pomarico and writer Ray Serafin is printed with the permission of Triumph Books. For more information, please visit www.triumphbooks.com/ArasKnights.