At 93, Ara Parseghian still on top of his game — and Kelly's too

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

BRIDGMAN, Mich. — Ara Parseghian’s advice for Brian Kelly and his glut of polished Notre Dame quarterback talent competing for one starting spot was simple.

“Be very happy about it,” the 93-year-old patriarch of Notre Dame football said with a chuckle.

The iconic coach who led the Irish from 1964-74 was mentally sharp, constantly humorous and still very much plugged into college football as he met with the media Monday during an appearance at the second annual Kelly Cares Golf Invitational fundraiser at Lost Dunes Golf Club.

“Other than my legs, which saw a lot of action when I was younger, I’m doing pretty well,” said Parseghian, who now walks with a walker and jokingly claimed to be 39 years old.

He still watches college football games with a notepad, plotting like a coach how he’d try to stop today’s spread offenses with his defensive schemes or flipping the script and calling offensive plays in his mind before the snap.

Unless it’s a Notre Dame game. Then he lets his passion take over.

“I watch every one of the Notre Dame games, and root and cheer,” he said. “I’ve become a good cheerleader, but I can’t jump up and down.”

Parseghian, who amassed a 95-17-4 record and won a couple of national championships at ND through the old bowl system, loves the new four-team college playoff. In fact, he loved the concept decades ago when he was coaching.

“I championed a playoff,” he said. “I was one of the few coaches who was hollering for a playoff. The bowl games dominated in those days, and you had to come up with some logical reasoning to drop them.

“Now they’ve got a format and a good foothold on a champion at the end of the seasons. I would love to be a part of that.”

What he’s still championing these days, and successfully so, is helping to find a cure for the rare Niemann-Pick type C disease that claimed the lives of three of his grandchildren — Michael, Crista and Marcia. None of them lived to see their 17th birthday.

The Ara Parseghian Medical Foundation recently partnered with Notre Dame in that quest, bringing more awareness, more resources, more money and more hope for an organization that has been pushing for progress for 23 years.

“When I first started out, I wanted a silver bullet,” Parseghian said. “I wanted that cure that could help the children immediately. But research doesn’t work that way. You’ve got to go step by step by step.

“But the monies that we’ve been able to raise and funnel into research have been very beneficial. We know a lot about it. When we first started, we knew very little about Niemann-Pick.

“We didn’t even have a diagnostic test to tell it was Niemann-Pick, so we’ve come a long way. It was a paragraph or two in the med books. We’ve brought a lot of information about the disease out to the public and the people who have the misfortune of having their children diagnosed with this.”

And Parseghian was told this fall there may be some additional research breakthroughs.

“We have high hopes,” he said.

The Kelly Cares Foundation is directing some of the nearly $300,000 generated from Monday’s event to the Ara Parseghian Medical Research Foundation as well as the foundation of former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz.

“When we came into the community, Lou’s foundation and Ara’s foundation kind of got us running and gave us momentum,” said Kelly, ND’s seventh-year head coach and the one with the enviable QB dilemma — Malik Zaire or DeShone Kizer.

“So this is a way to give back to their foundations for the help they gave us.”

The Kelly Cares Foundation has become so much more than just breast cancer awareness, but that was the inspiration for its inception, spearheaded by Kelly’s wife Paqui, a two-time breast cancer survivor.

The foundation’s most visible gift to the community is the Paqui and Brian Kelly Comprehensive Breast center at Saint Joseph Health System Mishawaka Medical Center.

“It’s more overpowering to me in the evening when it’s all lit up,” Paqui said of her occasional drives past the facility. “The beautiful part of it is people come up to me and say, ‘I saw your guys’ sign up on the St. Joe Med Center, and it reminded me to go make an appointment,’ which is, in the end, what it’s literally about.

“It’s about early detection and helping the community.”

Parseghian, meanwhile, stuck around long enough to watch Kelly play some golf at the event, which included a 30-foot putt for birdie on the first hole.

“He’s gotten a lot better in the last three to four years,” Paqui said of her husband’s golf game.

“You can’t get too good at this game,” Brian Kelly said, “or you’re in jeopardy of being called out by your athletic director, that you’re spending too much time on the golf course and not enough time with your football team.

“My game is average, and that’s where it will stay.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Former Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian makes his way to an interview area during the Kelly Cares Foundation Golf Invitational on Monday at Lost Dunes Golf Club in Bridgman. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)