Notre Dame legend Ara Parseghian fulfilled a promise to his players

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Thom Gatewood wants to talk about promises.

Back in 1968, the lanky high school wide receiver from Baltimore was peppered with them — from Joe Paterno and Penn State, to Woody Hayes and Ohio State, to Bo Schembechler and Michigan, to John McKay and USC. From all corners of the country, lavish promises landed in his mailbox or floated seductively over the phone.

“Everybody else was saying, ‘You’re a high school All-American. You’re definitely going to be an All-American in college. We’re going to change our offense just for you,’ ” Gatewood recalled. “There were all kinds of promises.”

Just not from Notre Dame.

When Gatewood visited South Bend, he sat across from sixth-year Irish head coach and 1964 national champion Ara Parseghian, who died early Wednesday at age 94. Gatewood wasn’t assured a starting role, an easy degree or a red carpet to the NFL.

He was offered a roster spot — an invitation. An opportunity.

That was all.

“Ara only made one promise,” Gatewood said. “He put it in my hands. He said, ‘If you make a contribution and you’re willing to work, you will be rewarded.’

“Now I feel like, ‘Wow, that was a promise that was kept.’ I got a great education. I became an All-American. I became an academic All-American. I had a successful professional career. Forty-nine years later, I’m still being rewarded because of his teachings and his promise.”

Forty-nine years later, Parseghian’s promise endures. In 11 seasons on the Irish sideline (from 1964 to 1974), the Akron, Ohio, native amassed a 95-17-4 record and a pair of national titles.

Still, his players would rather talk about a presence, those fulfilled promises — and unforgettable first impressions.

“To be quite frank, I had absolutely no intention of going to Notre Dame until I met him,” said former Irish tight end Robin Weber, who grew up in Dallas and took his first visit to South Bend on a day in February when the campus was coated with snow.

“I had scholarship offers to any school I wanted to go to. I was probably headed for Texas or Oklahoma at that time. But when he offered it to me I was like, ‘OK, I’m ready to roll. Let’s go.’ ”

In 1973, Weber hauled in a 35-yard pass in the fourth quarter of Notre Dame’s eventual 24-23 Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama, which punctuated an undefeated 11-0 season and cemented Parseghian’s second national title.

Like Weber, Gerry DiNardo — a starting offensive guard on that 1973 national championship team — wasn’t sold on Notre Dame … until he sat with Ara Parseghian.

“I had no interest in going there, because my brother (former All-American offensive guard Larry DiNardo) had been there and had been very successful,” DiNardo said. “I didn’t think I could measure up to my brother athletically or academically. I didn’t want, in my mind, to be burdened with that. So I resisted.”

Notre Dame requested DiNardo fill out a recruiting questionnaire, and he resisted — for a while. His brother’s alma mater invited him to take a visit, and he resisted — for a while.

He persisted and resisted, but Parseghian’s promise (and his presence) proved too much to overcome.

“I sat with Ara in his office like all the recruits did,” DiNardo recalled on Wednesday, and I said, ‘I want to be wherever this guy is.’ ”

That’s the thing: Parseghian was everywhere. During practices, he stood atop a tower — silently conducting the symphony, overlooking his kingdom and the culture of competition he had instilled.

“He used to stand in that tower, and I swear he had eyes behind his head,” said Joe Theismann, who played quarterback at Notre Dame from 1967 to 1970 and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2003. “I’d screw up and turn around, and I swear he was looking the other way. I’d get in the huddle, and then I’d come out and he’d say, ‘Joe, don’t do that again.’

“It’s like, ‘How do you know these things?’ He was almost like a mystical character to me — bigger than life.”

Parseghian’s promises were few, but that mystical presence was always imposing.

“He didn’t have to say much. All he had to do was look at you,” Weber said. “If you screwed up, he’d cock his head and then he’d get this horrible look on his face, like, ‘Why did that just happen, Robin?’

“He had a way of looking at you that set you straight.”

The first time Ara set eyes on Coley O’Brien, the eventual Irish quarterback was receiving the award for outstanding prep player at the Touchdown Club of Washington, D.C. After watching a short video clip of O’Brien’s highlights, Parseghian introduced himself and invited the high school senior to take a visit to South Bend.

O’Brien left that visit with a promise, but without an official offer.

“They just said that they had a number of other quarterbacks that they were still looking at and that they’d get back to me later,” O’Brien said. “I thought, ‘Well, there’s a brush off if I’ve ever heard one. I’ll probably never hear from them again.’

“Two weeks later, I got a call from Ara himself. He said, ‘We want you out here, Coley. We want to give you a scholarship.’ I said over the phone, ‘All right, I’ll be there.’”

Of course, Parseghian’s coaching acumen was also immense. He had an uncanny gift for evaluating players’ talents and maximizing them in different positions. He oversaw the offense and defense in equal measure, designing game plans for every opponent on both sides of the ball. Weber insists that, while he lost three games in his four seasons at Notre Dame, Parseghian was never once out-coached.

But what truly separated Parseghian wasn’t a scheme or a strategy, but his ability to inspire.

“He just captured the imagination and the attention of everybody,” O’Brien said.

Added Ross Browner, a two-time All-American defensive end that played 10 seasons in the NFL: “I owe a lot to coach Ara Parseghian. He was love. He was like my father or my godfather.”

On Wednesday morning, that’s what Notre Dame lost: a father, a godfather, a role model, a winner, an example, a presence, a motivator, a coach. His impact was enormous, stretching as far as his stare. Every day, from Dallas to Washington, D.C., his players continue to fulfill his promise.

And even now, Ara is watching — peering down from the tower above.

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame head coach Ara Parseghian and team captain Jim Carroll (60) lead the team into Notre Dame Stadium on Aug. 31, 1964, which was picture day for the team and the day before the season's practices were to begin.SBT file photo