Notre Dame coaching legend Ara Parseghian dies at 94

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Four-plus decades after he last stalked the sideline for one of college football’s most successful programs, Ara Parseghian remained a fixture around Notre Dame.

At the 2007 annual spring football game where he served as honorary coach alongside another Irish coaching legend, Lou Holtz. At summer golf outings for charities with current coach Brian Kelly. At a surprise 75th birthday in the summer of 2016 for former Irish men’s basketball coach Digger Phelps, who was moved to tears at the sight of a smiling Parseghian.

Even at his winter home in Florida, his thoughts never were far from South Bend. After nearly every game of Kelly's tenure, Parseghian mailed the eighth-year Irish coach a handwritten letter with words of encouragement. Even when the use of a walker made it difficult for him to get around, he’d be around. There with a smile, a handshake, a laugh and an encouraging word from someone who endured his share of heartache.

At 1:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Parseghian died in his home in Granger, Notre Dame President the Rev. John I. Jenkins announced. He was 94 years old.

“Notre Dame mourns the loss of a legendary football coach, a beloved member of the Notre Dame family and good man — Ara Parseghian,” Jenkins said in a statement. “Among his many accomplishments, we will remember him above all as a teacher, leader and mentor who brought out the very best in his players, on and off the field.

“He continued to demonstrate that leadership by raising millions of research dollars seeking a cure for the terrible disease that took the lives of three of his grandchildren. Whenever we asked for Ara’s help at Notre Dame, he was there.

“My prayers are with Katie, his family and many friends as we mourn his passing and celebrate a life that was so well lived.”

“An amazing man,” Phelps told the Tribune.

Born Ara Raoul Parseghian in Akron, Ohio, he is survived by his wife, Katie. They married in 1948. He also is survived by his daughter, Kris Humbert, and son, Michael.

Parseghian was preceded in death by his daughter, Karan, in 2012 of multiple sclerosis, and three grandchildren – Michael, Crista and Marcia – all of whom suffered from a rare genetic disorder, Niemann-Pick Type C disease.

In his later years, Parseghian made it a large part of his life’s work to raise funds to help fight and find a cure for the terminal illness.

A graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, Parseghian played two years of professional football as a halfback with the Cleveland Browns before an injury necessitated his retirement in 1949. He returned to Oxford and spent two seasons as the freshman football coach for Woody Hayes. Parseghian then took over the top job when Hayes left for Ohio State. He was head coach at Miami for five years (1951-55) and for eight at Northwestern (1956-63).

During Parseghian’s final year in Evanston, Notre Dame was in the process of finishing 2-7 under interim coach Hugh Devore. That offseason, Parseghian then contacted former university president, the Rev. Edmund P. Joyce, and expressed interest in the head coaching position.

There was hesitation to seriously consider Parseghian. He was not a Notre Dame graduate, as had been the case with each of the previous eight Irish coaches dating all the way back to Knute Rockne, who took over in 1918.

Offering a salary of $20,000, Joyce eventually hired Parseghian. Three seasons later, Notre Dame won the first of two national championships under Parseghian.

“The talent was there,” Parseghian told the Associated Press regarding his turnaround of the Irish program. “It was just misplaced.”

Parseghian figured out how and where to place it. Notre Dame won its first nine games and finished 9-1 in his first season, one in which a consistent, winning foundation was laid.

"The campus, the players were hungry for Notre Dame to do well. I think the country was hungry for Notre Dame to do well,” former Irish linebacker Jim Lynch told the Associated Press about that ’64 season. “It was such a great Cinderella story coming out of nowhere.

"Ara Parseghian woke up a slumbering giant."

Once stirred, that giant would win the 1966 national championship. Included in that 9-0-1 season was the famous “Game of the Century” in which Notre Dame visited East Lansing and tied Michigan State, 10-10. Parseghian endured some criticism in playing "it safe'' when the Irish had the ball late in the fourth quarter.

Notre Dame had nine players from that championship squad selected as All-Americans.

Parseghian also led the Irish to the 1973 national championship following a 24-23 victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.

For Parseghian, his only perfect season in South Bend marked the unofficial beginning of the end of his coaching career. By the middle of the 1974 season, he already had decided that after 25 years of coaching football and “physically and emotionally drained,” he would walk away from his position at season’s end.

Then he did, even after Notre Dame finished 10-2, won the Orange Bowl and was ranked sixth in the final Associated Press poll.

Parseghian left Notre Dame with a 95-17-4 record. His teams went 3-2 in bowl games. Nine of his 11 Irish squads were ranked in the Top 10. Never did a Parseghian-led team finish lower than 15th in the national polls.

Though he contemplated taking a year or two off and then turning his attention to coaching in the NFL, Parseghian never coached after leaving Notre Dame. Elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1980, he worked as a television color commentator for ABC (1975-81) and CBS (1982-88).

In 2007, a statue of Parseghian, paid for by his former players, was unveiled outside Gate D of Notre Dame Stadium. More than 200 of Parseghian’s former players attended the dedication on a football Saturday.

In 1965 while working at Saint Gabriel’s High School in Hazelton, Pa., Phelps penned a letter to Parseghian. In it, he outlined his dream job — to one day coach at Notre Dame and elevate the men’s basketball program to the same heights Parseghian had returned the school’s football fortunes.

Six years later — and barely a year removed from being hired to coach at Notre Dame — Phelps reminded Parseghian and then-sports information director Roger Valdiserri of the letter during an alumni golf outing reception on the second floor of the Joyce Center in the Monogram Room.

One of the three wondered if Parseghian still had the letter from Phelps. Parseghian instructed Valdeserri to go down to his corner office on the building’s first floor and look through his files. If he indeed had kept it, Parseghian told Valdeserri, it would be filed in the “crazy letter” category.

Sure enough, Valdiserri went down to Parseghian’s office, opened the “crazy letter” file and there was Phelps’ correspondence, still in its original envelope.

A picture of the envelope would be included in the Irish men’s basketball media guide for years to come.

“He took me under his wing when I first got here,” Phelps said. “He was my big brother.”

For more photos of Ara Parseghian's life and career, follow the link below: https://goo.gl/nmMJ9N

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

Memorable Notre Dame games under Ara Parseghian

By The Associated Press

Some of the most memorable games from the 11-season coaching tenure of Ara Parseghian at Notre Dame:

• Nov. 28, 1964: Southern California 20, No. 1 Notre Dame 17.

After finishing 2-7 a season earlier, the Irish started the season 9-0 under first-year coach Parseghian. They led the Trojans 17-0 at halftime and appeared to be on the verge of their first national title since 1949. USC rallied in the second half and won after Craig Fertig completed a 15-yard touchdown pass to Rod Sherman on a fourth-and-8 with 1:33 left to play. Notre Dame finishes ranked No. 3.

• Nov. 19, 1966: No. 1 Notre Dame 10, Michigan State 10.

The Irish rallied from a 10-0 deficit against a Spartans team that featured Bubba Smith and three teammates who were among the top eight picks of the next NFL draft. Parseghian was criticized for his conservative play-calling after Notre Dame got the ball back with more than a minute left to play. Notre Dame won the national championship after beating USC 51-0 a week later.

 Jan. 1, 1970: No. 1 Texas 21, No. 9 Notre Dame 17.

Playing in its first bowl game in 45 years, the Irish lost to the unbeaten Longhorns when Bill Dale scored on a 1-yard run with 1:08 left to play in the Cotton Bowl. A pass by Joe Theismann was intercepted with 28 seconds left to end Notre Dame's comeback hopes. Notre Dame was ranked fifth for the season.

• Jan. 1, 1971: No. 6 Notre Dame 24, No. 1 Texas 11.

The Irish defense forced nine fumbles in the Cotton Bowl and Theismann threw for one touchdown and ran for two more as Notre Dame ended Texas' 30-game winning streak to keep the Longhorns from winning a second straight national championship. Notre Dame finished the season ranked No. 2.

• Dec. 31, 1973: No. 3 Notre Dame 24, No. 1 Alabama 23.

The unbeaten Irish turned down a more lucrative deal in the Orange Bowl to face coach Paul "Bear" Bryant and the unbeaten Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl. After Bill Davis missed a point-after kick for Alabama in the fourth quarter, Notre Dame's Bob Thomas kicked a 19-yard field goal with 4:26 left to give the Irish a one-point lead. The Irish clinched the victory when on third-and-8 from the their own 3, Tom Clements completed a 35-yard pass from his own end zone to Robin Weber with two minutes left to lock up the national championship.

Notre Dame quarterback John Huarte, left, confers with head football coach Ara Parseghian during the Sept. 26, 1964 Notre Dame vs. Wisconsin football game. It was Parseghian's first game as Notre Dame's coach. Tribune file photo
Irish coach legend Ara Parseghian (left) and current Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly (right) stay in close contact during the football season. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)
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)

Following is a look at how Ara Parseghian fared in his three stops as a college head football coach, where his record was a combined 170-58-6.

MIAMI (Ohio) 1951-55

39-6-1

NORTHWESTERN 1956-63

36-35-1

NOTRE DAME 1964-74

95-17-4

1964: 9-1

1965: 7-2-1

*1966: 9-0-1

1967: 8-2

1968: 7-2-1

1969: 8-2-1

1970: 10-1

1971: 8-2

1972: 8-3

*1973: 11-0

1974: 10-2

*Won national championship