The Real Return To Glory: Ara Parseghian’s 1964 team put Notre Dame back on the map
Editor’s Note: The following is a chapter from the 2004 book Notre Dame Stadium Stories by Eric Hansen, chronicling the lasting impact Ara Parseghian made on the Notre Dame football program. Paresghian died at his home in Granger on Wednesday. He was 94.
The same drive almost a year earlier had spooked Ara Parseghian.
This time it seemed every porch light was on. Every face that saw the bus rolling from the South Bend airport toward the Notre Dame campus seemed to have an approving glow. The ride itself seemed to be all right turns and green lights.
In the moments ahead, a fieldhouse full of admiring students and fans would cheer ’til their throats hurt, almost taking the sting out of a last-minute upset loss at USC suffered the previous day.
“Oh God, it was magic,” recalled Tom Pagna, an assistant coach on that 1964 Notre Dame football team whose storybook run had prompted the impromptu pep rally. “I never saw anything like it in my life.”
The same could be said of the 1964 season itself. Under new head coach Parseghian, the ’64 Irish did more than just push aside the darkest era in Notre Dame football history -- five straight non-winning seasons, including a 2-7 mark in 1963.
They dispelled the notions that the football schedule had gotten too tough, that maybe high academics and championship football had become divergent principles, that the rest of the college football world finally had caught up to Notre Dame -- for good.
And even in the aftermath of the 20-17 setback to the rival Trojans that jarred the Irish from their No. 1 perch, perhaps the most profound message Parseghian, the 1964 Notre Dame team and its 9-1 record sent to those celebrating in the fieldhouse that late November evening and all those who wished they could have been there was this: This is only the beginning.
Over the next 10 years, Parseghian would coach the Irish to a top 15 finish in all of them and eight more times coax Notre Dame into the top 10. National titles came in 1966 and 1973. Forty first-team All-Americans were anointed. The richest tradition in sports got a second wind.
And then, just as dramatically as he had arrived, Parseghian, after the 1974 season, abruptly walked away from coaching forever. A 13-11 upset of No. 2 Alabama and coach Paul “Bear” Bryant in the Orange Bowl punctuated his exit.
“I just got to thinking that here I am supposed to be a sensible person,” Parseghian said, “and I’m taking two pills a day for blood pressure. That’s not my nature. So I figured I better get out while I still had my senses.”
He was 51 years old, roughly the same age as the man who succeeded him, Dan Devine, and the man who almost got the job in the first place back in December of 1963.
Parseghian had heard the rumors in the days leading up to his mid-December hiring at Notre Dame. The Rev. Edmund P. Joyce, Notre Dame’s executive vice president and iron-hand leader when it came to athletics, was supposedly infatuated with the then-Missouri coach. Parseghian read that Devine, however, was entangled in a contract, but Parseghian never pressed the issue with the Notre Dame leadership to see if it was any more than printed innuendo.
After all, a Rochester, N.Y., newspaper even had legendary NFL coach Vince Lombardi taking the job.
Parseghian had called Joyce a few weeks earlier to find out if Notre Dame was going to make a coaching change. Hugh Devore was the Irish head coach during the 1963 season, but he wore an “interim” label in front of that title the entire time.
Joe Kuharich, 17-23 in four seasons (1959-62) and not a record above .500 in any of them, parachuted out five weeks before spring practice in 1963 to take a job as the NFL’s supervisor of officials. (Kuharich quickly bailed out of that to resume coaching in the pros.)
Joyce then elevated Devore, the Irish freshman coach during the Kuharich regime, to the interim head coaching job. The Irish then backslid from their 5-5 season in 1962 to a 2-7 mark in ’63.
“I picked up the phone and asked Father Joyce if they were contemplating a change,” Parseghian recalled. “And if he was, I’d like to throw my hat in the ring. And if he wasn’t and wanted to continue on with Huey Devore, disregard the phone call.”
Joyce didn’t disregard the phone call. He would later proclaim publicly that one of the reasons Devore wasn’t retained was because of his age (53), a statement that could certainly engender a lawsuit in this day and age.
Devore, however, turned out to be an unsung hero in Notre Dame’s real return to glory. He was given the title of assistant athletic director, a position without much responsibility or teeth to it. But Devore nevertheless worked with Parseghian during the transition, giving the new coach recruiting contacts and information on returning personnel. His attitude in helping Notre Dame was infectious rather than toxic.
Even during his interim season, the second such time Devore had filled that role in his coaching career at Notre Dame, he was a positive force.
Kuharich, a Notre Dame and South Bend product whose freshman coach when he was an Irish player was none other than Devore, had gutted morale during his return to South Bend. He came back to Notre Dame from the NFL and ran the Irish like a pro team.
He was distant, aloof and was hardly open to the new ideas and directions. Above all, he was convinced that the Frank Leahy dynasty days (1941-53) were not only impossible to recreate but unapproachable as well.
“This insatiable appetite to win has become so strong, it is ludicrous,” Kuharich said often during his four seasons as Irish head coach. The media guides -- called “dope books” during the era -- were almost laughable in their content concerning Kuharich. His bios almost read like a litany of excuses why the Irish wouldn’t be among the nation’s elite teams in a given year.
Ironically, Kuharich recruited every one of the starters on the 1964 turnaround team. Many of them, like eventual All-America linebacker Jim Lynch, came for the education rather than the football. Lynch picked Notre Dame over Parseghian’s Northwestern team and Navy.
“I was probably the only Irish Catholic kid growing up in the Midwest that gets offered a scholarship to Notre Dame, takes it and his parents are disappointed,” Lynch said with a laugh. “They wanted me to go to the Naval Academy, where my older brother went. At any rate, my choice had nothing to do with the personalities of the coaches that were there or anything else. It had to do with the reputation of the school.”
Others, like running back Nick Eddy, came to Notre Dame because of connections. Neither Kuharich, nor any of his staff saw any film of the Tracy, Calif., product. They simply took a recommendation for Eddy’s high school coach at face value.
“I didn’t even realize Notre Dame was in Indiana,” Eddy said. “I thought everything was in California, because that’s the only place I ever lived.”
However they got there, why ever they came, Devore took them all under his wing. It was an age in which freshmen were ineligible, so Devore spent the freshman practices working on fundamentals. Even the quarterbacks hit the blocking sleds.
“He was like a father figure to us when we were freshmen,” said Mike Wadsworth, an Irish lineman and a 1966 grad who went on to be Notre Dame’s athletic director a couple of decades later. “And when Huey was the head coach, he brought the Notre Dame spirit back. The 1963 season was such a grim year.
“The president (John F. Kennedy) was assassinated and all that business. But you have to look at everything in its fullness. And Huey gained our respect for doing the best he could in a very difficult situation.”
Devore had gone 7-2-1 in his first interim stint back in 1945. He was the second of two replacements who filled in for Frank Leahy (Ed McKeever coached in 1944) when Leahy was in the Navy during World War II.
Devore then left Notre Dame in 1946 to take the St. Bonaventure head coaching job. The former All-America end bounced around in the collegiate and pro ranks before landing back at Notre Dame. Among his coaching stops was the University of Dayton, where in 1954 his .500 Flyers upset Miami of Ohio, 20-12.
It was the only loss in the final two years at Miami for a man named Ara Parseghian and one of only six setbacks Parseghian suffered against 39 wins and a tie in five years at his first head coaching job.
The timing of Kuharich’s departure, though, put Devore in a tougher situation than he had ever encountered. He had to throw together a makeshift coaching staff, for one. And he wasn’t the most organized guy in the world to start with. But he was resilient.
“The one thing you always knew about Huey was his love for Notre Dame,” said Eddy, a running back who blossomed under Parseghian. “That’s what we all learned was how much he loved Notre Dame. As a result, you grew to love it as much as he did.
“He had a little boy who had Cerebral Palsy, and he would bring him to practice every once in a while and we’d give three cheers for the little boy. Just seeing him in that setting gave you even more of an appreciation of the type of man he was. It couldn’t help but rub off on you and become something you carried in your own life.”
Indeed, after a successful run in pro football and a couple of decades working in the insurance industry, Eddy started over as a teacher. A special education teacher.
Parseghian was touched by Devore as well.
“He could have been very bitter if he wanted to be,” Parseghian said. “He was anything but, and I really appreciated every bit of his help.”
Parseghian moved so seamlessly into head coaching it appeared he didn’t need much help. But he has a long list of people who touched him along the way and who helped encourage and shape his genius.
It started with his high school coach in Akron, Ohio -- Doc Wargo -- and continued with Paul Brown when Parseghian was in the service at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center.
Sid Gilman, Parseghian’s football coach at Miami, where Ara was a three-sport participant, was another contributor. Then it was back to Brown in the pros and then came exposure to the fiery Woody Hayes, his boss for just a year at Miami.
From a purely X’s and O’s standpoint, though, Blanton Collier, a backfield coach for the Navy’s Great Lakes team, was the man whose brain Parseghian picked most often.
“He was a master technician, a wonderful person, a guy who could express himself,” Parseghian recalled. “He was a guy you wanted to play for, because he was always trying to improve you, and he was always doing it in that low-key manner.
“Even though he was an offensive coach, he had a great defensive philosophy. I felt I was deficient on the defensive side of the ball, so I spent a lot of time with him.
“Each of those guys gave me certain things. But when I talked at clinics. I’d tell them, ‘You know, you can’t be somebody else. You may admire and take away the good things, but you must always be yourself and not try to be that person. Once you have your own set of fundamental philosophies, then you express them through your own personality. Otherwise, you’re going to be revealed as something you’re not.’ ”
Hayes’ departure to Ohio State after the 1950 season meant Parseghian was elevated to the head coaching job after just one year total as an assistant. To this day he wonders had he been an assistant longer if his head coaching career would have lasted longer, that maybe he would have learned to process the adversity better if he could have learned that lesson peripherally as an assistant instead of on the front lines for so many years.
There wasn’t much adversity to process at Miami, though. But from there, it was on to Northwestern, which hadn’t had a winning record in the four seasons that preceded Parseghian (or in 28 of the 30 that followed him).
It was there that the seeds of the 1964 Notre Dame run were actually sown. After a 4-4-1 campaign in 1956, the Wildcats lost all nine games the following year. Eventually, long after he had left Northwestern, Parseghian came to the conclusion that being the only private school in a league (Big Ten) dominated by state schools had severe disadvantages, but he would hear none of that in 1957.
Instead he grew introspective, dissecting everything from recruiting practices to the equipment the Wildcats used.
“Some of the problems were inherited,” Parseghian said. “We paid the penalties for that. But we weren’t going to have excuses. One of the great lessons you learn in athletics is that you’re going to get knocked down.
“Every day is not going to be a bright, sunshiny day. You get your tail kicked, but then you have to evaluate why it happened. Just because you get knocked down doesn’t mean you’re going to stay down.”
In his last four years at Northwestern, Parseghian was reunited with Pagna, a star running back for him at Miami and who hailed from Parseghian’s hometown at Akron.
Pagna had gone onto the pros to play, done a hitch in the military and started coaching at North High School in Akron when he saw that Parseghian had an opening on his staff going into the 1960 season. But when Pagna went to interview for it, he was taken aback.
“He seemed kind of distant and removed,” Pagna said. “And I was a little bit hurt. I always thought we had such great rapport.”
That might be an understatement. Severe health problems and the death of his father gave Pagna just one season of high school football. His dream was to go to Notre Dame for college, but he resigned himself to the notion any college was out of the question. The family had lost just about everything during his father’s decline. He needed to work to put food on the table for his family.
Enter Parseghian, who recruited the Akron area for Miami. He saw Pagna playing in an industrial league basketball game and took him out for ice cream afterward. In just that brief brush, Parseghian recognized both the talent and the heartache that burned inside Pagna. So he helped Pagna get a job at the Goodyear plant. Pagna worked there for ninth months, then enrolled at Miami.
While at Miami, Parseghian would hand down his old clothes to Pagna. When Pagna tore a muscle his senior year, Parseghian sent him to the best doctor he know -- the Cleveland Browns’ team physician. He even let Pagna and his bride use his home for their honeymoon, because Pagna couldn’t afford one.
So it was understandable why Pagna left Evanston, Ill., stung, with serious thoughts of heading to law school or, more realistically, back to the Goodyear plant.
“Later on Ara explained to me,” Pagna said. “He said, ‘Tom, I was on shaky ground with Stu Holcomb (the athletic director at Northwestern), and I didn’t want to bring you into a situation where the next year we’re all fired. But you seemed so intent on it, I thought, what the hell, hire him.’ ”
The chemistry was perfect. Pagna wasn’t the only one, but he in so many ways embodied the assistants who Parseghian was able to attract in keep over the years. Competent. Innovative. Loyal almost to a fault. Pagna, for instance, turned down coaching offers regularly to stay with Parseghian.
He was one of three assistants who made the move with Parseghian at the end of the 1963 season to South Bend. Paul Shoults and Doc Urich were the others. Both Shoults and Pagna stayed for all 11 Parseghian years at Notre Dame.
“I’m not sure my assistants got the credit they deserved,” Parseghian said. “But without them, it would have been a different story. Tom, for example, was a people person. He could identify with the players. He just had a natural instinct for the game and the people he was dealing with.”
As did Parseghian. He was familiar with Notre Dame’s personnel, having played the Irish four straight years (1959-62) with Northwestern beating the Kuharich-coached Irish all four times.
“When we were at Northwestern, we really admired Notre Dame’s talent,” Pagna said. “And when we got there, we couldn’t believe their talent. It was so much better in terms of depth and size and speed from what we had. At Northwestern, we might have maybe seven, eight good players starting for us. At Notre Dame they had players that good sitting two deep on the bench. But things were in such disarray.
“A lot of guys on Huey Devore’s staff had spent the previous year kind of backstabbing him, because he was the interim guy and they all wanted to be the head coach. We thought, if we can just get organized, we can win at least five games. So we started looking at film, started evaluating our talent, size and speed.”
The real genius of Parseghian and his staff came the spring before the 1964 season, when he unearthed talents like senior quarterback John Huarte, who had been rotting on the bench since his arrival from California, and moved players to new positions.
Parseghian, for example, slimmed down fullback Jack Snow and made him an All-America wide receiver. Paul Costa and Pete Duranko moved out of the offensive backfield over to the defensive line.
“We had the feeling that he knew what he was doing,” Eddy said of Parseghian moves. “The impression that he gave was that he was always under control, and I think he always gave the impression he was ready to go out and play himself if he could. As a result, you would run through walls for him.”
Wisconsin, the 1964 season-opening opponent, seemed to present a rather formidable wall itself. The Badgers had beaten Notre Dame each of the two previous seasons, and having to start the season on the road only added to the mental hurdles.
Early in the game, Snow got behind the Badger defense and let a strike from Huarte slip through his rain-soaked hands. But the two heated up from there, with Huarte throwing for 270 yards and two long TD strikes to Snow as the Irish thundered past a stunned Wisconsin team, 31-7.
“I always placed a hell of an emphasis on the first game of the year, every year,” Parseghian said. “We didn’t know how good we were going to be, because we had been going against ourselves. But the attitude had been great, and I felt pretty good about that.
“It was so important to get that first win. I was basically selling our way and what sacrifices the players had to make to be a good football team. If you want your team to buy into that, you better win right away.”
In 24 years of coaching, Parseghian lost just one season opener. That was the 0-9 season at Northwestern in 1957.
The upset of the Badgers sent the Irish into the AP top 10 for the first time since Oct. 28, 1961, when Parseghian’s Wildcats knocked off the Irish 12-10 and sent them into a nose dive.
The ’64 Irish followed their conquest of Wisconsin, with a rout of another Big Ten team, a 34-15 triumph over Purdue. Lopsided victories over Air Force, UCLA, Stanford and Navy vaulted Notre Dame into the No.1 spot in the polls for the first time in 12 years and stirred Heisman Trophy talk for Huarte, who won the award later that season.
“Ara really did do a good job of keeping us focused,” said Lynch, a linebacker who would go on to captain the 1966 national championship team and earn All-America honors that year. “The biggest team you had to worry about beating you was your own team, Ara would say. And so there was always an inner focus about being the best you can be, individually and collectively.
“We knew Ara and the coaching staff were good. I just didn’t know how good until years later, after I had been around other coaches staffs and other methods. He was way ahead of his time, and it took me a while to appreciate just how good we had it.”
Notre Dame preserved its No. 1 ranking in its first defense of it, but just barely. The Irish edged Pittsburgh, 17-15, on the road, snuffing a Panther drive at the 17-yard line. The Irish then routed Michigan State and Iowa to set up a showdown at USC in the season finale.
The four-game sweep of the Big Ten was astounding, given Notre Dame’s collective 3-17 record against its Midwest neighbors over the five previous seasons. That included an 0-5 mark against Michigan State.
The Irish still were under their self-imposed bowl ban, so a victory over the Trojans on Nov. 28 would mean a national title. USC rallied, though, late, pushing across the winning score with 1:33 left to end the magical run. Notre Dame finished third in the AP poll behind Alabama and Arkansas, respectively.
It often took Parseghian four days to get over a loss, but the cheering throng in the fieldhouse that last Sunday in November almost made the hurt go away.
Parseghian would go on to reinvent himself several times over the next decade. He would move into new realms of political endorsements and side businesses. He would raise huge amounts of money for Multiple Sclerosis and later Niemann-Pick Type C Disease.
He would help rescind Notre Dame’s bowl ban. He would beat Devine’s Missouri team 20-7 in 1970 in the only meeting between Parseghian and his eventual successor.
And then he would walk away for good.
“Oh I’d get the itch to come back to coaching once in a while,” said Parseghian, whose post-coaching pursuits included being a college football analyst and color commentator for television. “I’d find myself doodling defenses and offenses, and then an opportunity with a pro team would come up, but I’d push it away every time. I think I did the right thing.”
He certainly lived up to the name his father had given him. Ara was a king in Armenian legend who symbolized new life. And that he gave to the Notre Dame football program.
And yet, it came so close to never happening. Had Northwestern athletic director Stu Holcomb not been so meddling, Parseghian may never have picked up the phone to call Father Joyce. Even after Parseghian had agreed to be the Irish coach, there were “30 hours of indecision,” as the South Bend Tribune called it. Parseghian did not sign his contract right away, and there was speculation that he never would.
“If you knew why I did that, it’s safe to say you wouldn’t think any less of me or Father Joyce,” said Parseghian, who has dodged the question deftly for four decades.
“He walked out of the press conference and it could have been a dozen things, nobody really knows,” Pagna said. “But he did tell me one day, as he came down Notre Dame Avenue toward the Golden Dome, he got this eerie feeling.”
It was the same drive he would take a year later after the USC loss.
“He said, ‘Tom, I was born and raised Catholic, but I never really practiced it.’ ” Pagna related. “He said, ‘I married a Protestant girl, and I guess I question whether I have the right, with all the heritage and with all the tradition and everything. Do I have the right to coach here?’ He took that seriously, you know.
“And of course, I’m Roman Catholic, and I told him, ‘Ara, hell yes you have the right. You know you can bring to this school more than they ever dreamed.’
“And that he did.”
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