Lou Holtz helps put Ara Parseghian's legacy in perspective

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — In the final month of a life that seemed at times that it would not only go on forever but impact forever as well, Ara Parseghian “blurted out” a poem.

According to son Mike, the youngest of the Notre Dame icon’s three children, it was word for word what Ara used to recite to his ND football teams after big victories during an inspiring 11-year coaching run (1964-74) that rescued the Irish program from obsolescence.

Remember this your whole life through

That tomorrow there will be more to do.

And failure waits for all who stay

With some success made yesterday.

Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is the future.

And Sunday was a reminder of just how diligently Ara Parseghian lived those words right up until his passing, Wednesday at his home in Granger at the age of 94.

After family, friends and former players jammed the Basilica of the Sacred Heart for a Mass Sunday afternoon, honoring the life of the son of Armenian immigrants, roughly 1,000 people showed up at Purcell Pavilion for a memorial celebration in Parseghian’s honor.

Country music superstar Vince Gill performed two songs in the late coach’s memory, pinch-hitting for wife Amy Grant, of contemporary Christian and pop music fame, and whose schedule wasn’t forgiving enough to allow for an unplanned trip to South Bend.

Grant became friends with Parseghian’s daughter-in-law and Mike’s wife, Cindy, more than two decades ago and became a fund-raising tycoon for the Ara Parseghian Medical Research Foundation and its fight against Niemann-Pick type C disease.

The rare genetic disorder claimed the lives of three of Ara’s grandchildren (and Mike and Cindy’s children) — Michael, Crista and Marcia. None of them lived to see their 17th birthday.

The Notre Dame Children’s Choir and the Notre Dame Band also provided music in honor of Parseghian, who himself was accomplished on both the piano and organ.

Former Notre Dame basketball coach Digger Phelps, former Parseghian Era walk-on football player Peter Schivarelli and Miami (Ohio) University president Gregory P. Crawford, the latter two also fund-raising dynamos for the foundation, were on the short list of speakers at Purcell.

Phelps’ voice cracked when he started talking about Parseghian’s widow, Katie, and her strength and influence over the years.

Anne Thompson, NBC News correspondent and Notre Dame alumna/trustee, served as the memorial’s emcee.

And Lou Holtz, well, he was the showstopper, fitting because the last Notre Dame head coach to produce a national title (1988) at age 80 becomes the Notre Dame football patriarch, with Parseghian’s passing.

“We’re here to celebrate Ara, not to be sad,” Holtz, ND’s coach from 1986-96, told the audience. “He provided so much love and happiness to so many people.”

And a longtime golf partner and friend for Holtz.

“He was a great golfer,” Holtz said of Parseghian. “He told me very proudly, ‘Lou, at 78 years of age, I shot my age 78 times.’

“I said, ‘Ara, at 78 years of age, I shot my weight 78 times.’ ”

In the timeline published in the memorial celebration program, there are just four dates that account for the 43 years that followed the day in 1974 that Ara Parseghian walked away from coaching for good at the age of 51 for health reasons.

It wasn’t because of lack of relevance or significance in those post-coaching years, but more likely the lack of enough ink and paper to cover all the tiny miracles that reverberated through so many lives.

“Ara Parseghian will live for many, many generations,” Holtz asserted. “Why? Because of the people he affected.

“He affected me. The players I affected were affected by Ara Parseghian. I cannot say enough.”

Current head coach Brian Kelly, who received hand-written cards through the mail from Parseghian after almost every one of the 90 games he has coached at ND, certainly counts himself among those affected.

“He’s not a man of many words,” Kelly said last September, “but for me they’re inspirational in the sense that at 90-something years old he takes the time to write me a note, and I can read them. Very legible.”

On Saturday, from ND’s training camp in Culver, Ind., Kelly recalled the first time he crossed paths with Parseghian, in Kelly’s first season on the job, in 2010.

“He was so — I don’t want to say — resistant to come by, but I almost had to beg him to come by, because he didn’t want to be a distraction.

“I said, ‘You’re Ara Parseghian. You’re not a distraction.’ I went out of the way to make sure anytime he wanted to be there, (he could be).

“But he wasn’t that man. He wanted you to do your thing. I mean he walked away from football at 50-something years old. I remember working really hard to just get him to go to a practice, and then having him there, asking him to speak.

“And he was like, ‘You want me to speak to your team?’

“And I go, ‘Yeah, for an hour, if you would.”

Kelly, who drove up from Culver on Sunday to attend the Mass on the team’s day off, could talk at length himself about his excitement over the decision to put “Ara” on the Notre Dame helmets above the facemask for this season in place of the words “Irish.”

“It wasn’t my idea,” he said of ND athletic director Jack Swarbrick’s brainchild. “But when it was presented to me, it seemed to be an awesome decision to have Ara on our helmet and to honor him in that fashion.

“He’s a football coach’s dream in the sense that he represented the toughness of the game as well. And to have it on the helmet is a great symbol.”

Into the 2016 season Parseghian was watching college football games, and with a notepad in hand, no less. He still liked to think like a coach on Saturdays — how he'd try to stop today's spread offenses with his defensive schemes or flip the script and call offensive plays in his mind before the snap.

With Notre Dame’s games, he instead watched with his heart.

"I watch every one of the Notre Dame games, and root and cheer," he said in June of 2016. "I've become a good cheerleader, but I can't jump up and down.”

In Heaven, he can. And he can also look down and see how beautiful his legacy still looks 43 seasons after he coached his last game.

“I used to always say this,” Holtz said. “The question we should all ask ourselves is this. ‘If we didn’t show up, who would miss us and why?’

“I’m here to tell you, if Ara Parseghian had not shown up, so many people would have missed his insight, his love, and his feeling and his charity for people. He really was a tremendous individual.

“A lot of people can be successful, but Ara was significant. Significance is when you help other people be successful.”

Former Notre Dame head football coach Lou Holtz pays tribute to the late Ara Parseghian Sunday at a memorial celebration at Purcell Pavilion. (Tribune Photo/SANTIAGO FLORES)