Noie: Notre Dame legend Ara Parseghian was a great coach, but an even better man

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Dozens of individuals with Notre Dame connections descended on Purcell Pavilion one evening last July for something to celebrate.

The basketball arena was reserved for a surprise 75th birthday party for former Irish coach Digger Phelps. The guest of honor was still a few minutes away from walking down the arena ramp, but another individual had already entered the building.

And everything about it, about the night, changed.

Quietly, gracefully, former Notre Dame football coach Ara Parseghian had eased himself across the arena floor and to a nearby candle-lit table.

Many made it a point to make their way toward Parseghian. Wearing his customary golf shirt and blue blazer, he’d offer his ever-present inviting smile, maybe a handshake. A picture. A quick story. And then, a laugh. That laugh.

Nobody at Notre Dame could work a room like Parseghian just by being himself and doing … nothing.

He never worked the room. The room came to him.

There was no bluster. No "I’m here," moment. No holding court for all to hear. He was just Ara being Ara.

And when Phelps arrived, emotions already escaping him at the sight of the night, he shed a few more tears seeing Parsehgian sitting there. Smiling. Soaking it all in.

Ara being Ara.

On Wednesday morning at his home in Granger, the 94-year-old Parseghian died after a recent illness. He had been hospitalized in South Bend with a hip infection for much of the last month, but only recently returned home.

Today, the Golden Dome on a campus that he so loved doesn’t shine as brightly without one of Notre Dame football’s Mount Rushmore, a man who restored the school’s football glory decades ago by winning national championships in 1966 and 1973. By taking a losing football team with little direction when he arrived and getting them going. By winning. A lot.

Parseghian coached Notre Dame for 11 years, but it really was nine. Heading into his 11th fall, part of him knew there would be no 12th. The job was so all-consuming and Parseghian had given it everything he had.

He had nothing left to give.

Parseghian walked away from Notre Dame, and from coaching, for good in 1974. Rumors that he would eventually land in the NFL after a few years to recharge never materialized. Once he was done at Notre Dame, he was done for good.

Little did Parseghian know that coaching football would seem easy compared to the battles he’d face later in life.

It’s often said in troubling times that God selects his strongest soldiers to fight the fiercest battles, but no man should have endure the heartache and carry the heaviness in one’s heart that Parseghian did.

Life wasn’t fair, that much was obvious. But Parseghian wasn’t going to stop living it regardless of how cruel it would get.

Long gone from worrying about winning and losing, Parseghian was forced to face his toughest fight where winning, at least for yesterday and today, was not an option. A win might be a thousand tomorrows away. But Parseghian long believed that day would come. It had to.

Parseghian watched three of his grandchildren succumb to a disease called Niemann-Pick Type C, where cholesterol attacks a body’s cells, affects the central nervous system and causes death. There is no cure.

Parseghian, his wife, Katie, son Michael and daughter-in-law Cindy worked tirelessly to raise the dollars to help fight Niemann-Pick and find one. It wasn’t enough to save Michael or Marcia or Christa, all of whom died before their 17th birthdays.

One of Parseghian’s daughters, Karan, also died in 2013 after a decades-long battle with multiple sclerosis.

How much pain could one man, one family, endure? The Parseghians had long lapped it. Still, the patriarch kept moving forward. Kept fighting. Kept driving to find a cure for NP-C so that somebody else’s children, somebody’s grandchildren might one day be saved.

Parseghian did it with grace. With class. Privately, he likely had his moments of utter despair. Days and nights where all hope seemed lost.

Publicly, he remained the rock-solid and stoic Ara.

Even as this game moved deep in the fourth quarter with the odds mounting, Parseghian always believed he would find a way to get his team to win.

Instead of asking why, Parseghian asked what he could do to find a cure. In 1994, the Ara Parseghian Medical Foundation was established to fight Niemann-Pick.

While Gerry Faust and Lou Holtz remained visible on fall Saturday afternoons long after their days of coaching the Irish ended — Faust in the Notre Dame Stadium press boxes on Saturday afternoons and Holtz as a television talking head on ESPN — Parseghian often would pick and choose his spots.

He never sought handshakes, but never turned them away. He never went looking for something to say. Yet when he talked, people listened. Everyone listened.

He wasn’t always there, but in a way, he was.

Back to that night last summer. The sight of Parseghian may have overshadowed the guest of honor. But Phelps couldn’t have cared less. He worshiped the man. Idolized him. Looked up to him as the big brother he never had.

And Parseghian sometimes treated Phelps like a little brother.

Early in his tenure, Phelps had his corner office at the Joyce Center redone with all the latest top-of-the-line stuff. A new desk. Fancy lamps. Comfy chairs. He was peacock proud of the place. Maybe too proud.

Phelps walked in the morning after the redo to find the office empty. Cleaned out. Everything he so valued was long gone.

Phelps raced down the back hallway to the other end of the first floor that housed the football offices. He burst into a staff meeting.

Where, he demanded while growing more agitated by the second, was all his furniture?

Some of Parseghian’s assistants — Greg Blache and Gene Smith and Mike Stock — failed to keep straight faces. They cracked almost immediately. Not Parseghian. He stayed his stoic self.

He offered Phelps not a clue on the furniture. It was gone, so get out of his staff meeting.

Returning to his office, Phelps fielded a call from his secretary, Dottie, who asked that her boss retrieve several pieces of his office décor, which had been stacked in the first-floor women’s restroom stall.

It was all Parseghian.

For years later and right up to days not long ago, Phelps would kid Parseghian that he never did find a pair of lamps. The two would laugh. Parseghian would offer a wink.

But he never did crack.

In remembering Parseghian, we’re reminded of the words spoken right around the time last year by the late Craig Sager. Battling leukemia that eventually would take his life with the same courage and determination that Parseghian brought to finding a cure for Niemann-Pick Type C, the sideline announcer was honored at the annual ESPY awards.

Like Parseghian often did, Sager stressed that it wasn’t about him. It was about something bigger. Way bigger. It was about life. And living it. Every day. Despite the odds. Or the outcome. Push through the pain and keep playing the game.

“Time,” Sager said that night, “is simply how you live your life.”

Parseghian made good of that time.

For more photos of Ara Parseghian's life and career, follow the link below:

The Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, president of the University of Notre Dame, with Notre Dame football coach Ara Parseghian in 1964. Tribune photo archives.

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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)