Notre Dame offers one final goodbye for legendary coach Ara Parseghian

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — What started as an unseasonably cool, rainy, cloudy Sunday gave way to sunshine, slices of blue sky and summer-level temperatures, just the way legendary Notre Dame football coach Ara Parseghian probably preferred.

After all, if anyone could stop the rain, and sometimes even the snow, it was Parseghian, right?

As someone who often stressed hope and happiness over sadness and struggles, Parseghian was remembered Sunday by the university he so loved. A memorial Mass at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart was said in his honor before a celebration of his life at Purcell Pavilion.

The 94-year-old Parseghian, who coached Notre Dame for 11 seasons and won two national championships, died Wednesday at his home in Granger after an illness. He last coached the Irish in 1974 but remained a fixture around the program and in the community. There always was talk that Parseghian would eventually find his way to the NFL. But Parseghian never coached again.

After Notre Dame, he often said, what else was there?

Ninety minutes before Sunday’s Mass, the Basilica was so solemnly still that overhead planes on their inbound flight paths to South Bend International Airport could be heard. Less than hour later, the church pews were crowded as some snapped pictures of the panorama with their iPads and iPhones. Nearby, a cell phone went off.

The ringtone was the Notre Dame Victory March.

Sunday’s 70-minute service was delivered by the Rev. John I. Jenkins, university president, to a near-capacity congregation. That included many who knew Parseghian well, like former Notre Dame sports information director Roger Valdiserri. The two routinely had lunch every Wednesday. Also attending were former Irish quarterback Joe Theismann, former coach Gerry Faust, current coach Brian Kelly and some who may not have known Parseghian at all.

That didn’t matter. Everyone in the community felt they knew Parseghian, even if they never shared so much as a spoken word.

A student at the university during Parseghian’s coaching days, Jenkins considered it an honor to say Mass for a man many considered a family member, a colleague and a friend.

“Ara Parseghian was more than a football coach,” Jenkins said during the Homily. “He was a great man, because he changed the lives of those around him.”

Parseghian is gone, but not soon forgotten. If ever. His spirit forever lives on. The Irish football team this season will sport a special “ARA” decal across their helmet. The statue of Parseghian being carried off the field by his players should forever stand outside Gate B of Notre Dame Stadium.

What he did on the field — and maybe more importantly, off it — long will be remembered.

And probably never duplicated.

He was one of a kind.

Leading into Sunday’s services, word arrived from the university that the Parseghian family would have no public comment. In the hours last week after Parseghian’s death, one of his grandchildren reached out to the Tribune via e-mail to offer thanks for all the kind words about the man and adding, “We’re heartbroken.”

A campus and a community shared that sentiment.

Just prior to the close of Sunday’s memorial Mass, Parseghian’s nephew, Tom, made the family’s first public comments after four difficult days.

He talked of his uncle answering one specific question when the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, then university president, was considering hiring Parseghian away from Northwestern in 1964. Would Parseghian be able to adhere to the standards of integrity that Notre Dame expected?

If so, the job was Parseghian’s.

“He answered that question that day and continued to do so for the next 53 years,” Tom said of his uncle.

Sunday marked the 12-year anniversary of the death of Marcia Parseghian, one of Parseghian’s three grandchildren afflicted with Niemann-Pick type C disease, which is fatal and currently has no cure. Nobody worked harder than Parseghian to raise funds to help find one.

Parseghian’s electronic obituary on the Tribune website included 80 comments as of Sunday morning. From Portland, Maine, to Portland, Ore., fans shared their memories of Parseghian, even those who had never met him.

Among the tributes was a note from one of his former players at Notre Dame, Tom Lopienski, of Hudson, Ohio, whose son, Tom, also played for Notre Dame.

“It was a privilege and honor to play for you,” the senior Lopienski wrote.

The same often was said last week about just knowing Parseghian. Seeing him carry on through life’s later years, none of which were easy for myriad reasons.

Sunday allowed everyone to remember Parseghian, through some tears at Mass in the Basilica and later laughs at Purcell Pavilion. Among the speakers at the memorial service were former Irish football coach Lou Holtz and basketball coach Digger Phelps, who considered Parseghian the big brother he never had.

Both events were open to the public. That was important to the Parseghian family. Even in their time of grief, they realized that Parseghian was a man of the people. Of all people. You didn’t necessarily have to understand or follow or love football to love Parseghian, who became much more than just a football coach in the decades after his coaching era ended.

In remembering Parseghian over the last few days, many times only one word was needed. One word said so much about not necessarily Parseghian the football coach, but the family man. The person.

Class.

Dignity.

Honor.

Respect.

On a special Sunday in the shadows of the Golden Dome, another was added.

Goodbye.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

Twitter: @tnoieNDI