Ara Parseghian at Notre Dame

Ara Parseghian, Coach Who Returned Notre Dame Football to Greatness, Dies at 94


By David Stout

GRANGER, Ind. (New York Times) — Ara Parseghian, a Presbyterian of Armenian descent who might have seemed an unlikely savior of Notre Dame football but became just that, coaching the Fighting Irish out of the wilderness and back to greatness in the 1960s and ’70s, died early Wednesday, August 2, at his home in Granger. He was 94.

The Rev. John Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, announced the death in a statement.

Parseghian, whose home was not far from the university’s campus in South Bend, Ind., had recently been undergoing treatment at a care facility for a hip infection.

Parseghian ranks with Knute Rockne and Frank Leahy in the pantheon of Notre Dame football coaches. In his 11 seasons (1964 through 1974), his teams won 95 games, lost 17 and tied four, for a .836 winning percentage. His 1966 and 1973 teams were voted national champions.

When Parseghian arrived at Notre Dame, the university’s football program had been in decline for years. The collapse started in 1956, when Notre Dame won only two games and lost eight. Though there were some victories, Notre Dame never won more than five games in a season from 1959 to 1963. Twice it won only two games.

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Parseghian gained a reputation as coach at Northwestern, where he moved after five highly successful seasons at his alma mater, Miami of Ohio.

Notre Dame fans and Notre Dame haters — there have always been armies of each — offered theories: The university’s leaders were de-emphasizing football as they sought to raise the school’s academic reputation; good players didn’t want to go to an all-male school; tradition alone could not attract enough talented athletes; the coaching was bad; all of the above.

Meanwhile, Parseghian was gaining a reputation. After five highly successful seasons at his alma mater, Miami of Ohio, where he was a protégé of Woody Hayes, he moved to Northwestern for the 1956 season. He barely broke even in his eight years there, but he was credited with doing a lot at an academically rigorous institution with no trace of a football factory image.

By the early 1960s, Notre Dame’s administrators were all too familiar with Parseghian; his Northwestern teams had beaten Notre Dame four years in a row.

At the time, Notre Dame had an interim coach, Hugh Devore, and Parseghian’s relationship with the Northwestern athletic director, Stu Holcomb, had become strained. Parseghian contacted the Rev. Edmund P. Joyce, Notre Dame’s vice president and its chairman of athletics, and soon it was announced that he was headed to Notre Dame.

In the spring of 1964, student servers in Notre Dame’s main dining hall noticed that football players were forsaking gravy and ice cream. The new coach had told them that they were going to be leaner and faster.

Topics: Obituary, Sports

Above all, Parseghian wanted to change the players’ emotions. “The biggest problem was to re-instill the confidence,” he recalled in a television interview years later. This he did, with an enthusiastic, hands-on approach in practices that were always well organized.

Parseghian gave a half-time pep talk to the Notre Dame team in 1964. “He made us believe in ourselves,” one player said.

“He told us we were good; he’d give each of us a chance to show what we could do in practice,” Jack Snow, who was switched from running back to wide receiver, told the New York Times in 1964. “And he’d be in there with us, doing exercises, snapping the ball from center, showing us how to block and run. He made us believe in ourselves.”

Parseghian had a keen eye for talent that had been misused or overlooked. Besides shifting the sure-handed Snow to receiver in 1964, he converted three big but rather slow running backs (“the elephant backfield,” he later called them) into linemen, where they thrived. Most important, Parseghian decided his starting quarterback would be the senior John Huarte, who had spent far more time on the bench than on the field his sophomore and junior years.

Snow was Huarte’s favorite receiver as the Fighting Irish won nine straight games in 1964, with many of the same players from the squad that had lost seven games the year before. Southern California spoiled a perfect season with a 20-17 victory in Los Angeles, but Huarte, who had not even won a varsity letter until 1964, was awarded the Heisman Trophy. Parseghian was acclaimed coach of the year.

In his 11 seasons at Notre Dame, Parseghian demanded the best from his players without cursing or breaking clipboards on the sideline. “All he had to do was look at you,” Ross Browner, an all-American defensive lineman in the 1970s, recalled years later.

But for all his success, Parseghian was saddled for a time with the reputation of a coach who “couldn’t win the big ones.” That image was reinforced on November 19, 1966, when unbeaten Notre Dame met unbeaten Michigan State at East Lansing in the most eagerly awaited college game in 20 years.

Notre Dame fell behind, 10-0, then rallied to tie the score. But late in the game and in its own end of the field, Notre Dame played conservatively rather than risk a turnover, and the game ended in a 10-10 tie. Although Notre Dame was voted the national champion by the wire services, there were many who thought the game had taken some luster from the team’s image.

Parseghian shook hands with Michigan State Coach Duffy Daugherty in 1966 after the most eagerly awaited college game in 20 years ended in a 10-10 tie.

After the 1969 season, Notre Dame accepted an invitation to meet top-ranked Texas in the Cotton Bowl, ending four decades in which the Irish did not take part in postseason play. Texas won, 21-17, on New Year’s Day 1970.

A year later, after another season-spoiling loss to Southern California, Notre Dame returned to the Cotton Bowl and upset Texas, 24-11, to snap the Longhorns’ winning streak at 30 games. Notre Dame’s next bowl appearance was a crushing 40-6 loss to Nebraska in the Orange Bowl after the 1972 season.

Parseghian’s year of total redemption was 1973. The team won all 10 regular-season games, then defeated Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, 24-23. The clincher was a daring pass from the Irish end zone for a first down that enabled Notre Dame to run out the clock and silenced those who said the coach lacked nerve when it really counted.

The 1974 season was Parseghian’s last, and in some ways his toughest, even though his team finished 10-2. Several players had been suspended for disciplinary reasons before the season. And in the regular-season finale, Notre Dame suffered a crushing 55-24 loss to Southern California after leading by 24-0.

Parseghian announced in December 1974 that he was retiring, saying that a quarter-century in coaching had left him “physically exhausted and emotionally drained.” Another New Year’s victory over Alabama, this time in the Orange Bowl, enabled him to go out a winner.

He last appeared as a coach on July 24, 1976, in the College All-Star Game against the defending Super Bowl champions, the Pittsburgh Steelers. The contest, at Soldier Field in Chicago, made history: It was the first game halted by a rainstorm in National Football League history. Stopped in the third quarter, the game never resumed. It turned out to be the final All-Star Game; the match was discontinued after 42 years.

Son of Genocide Suvivors

Ara Raoul Parseghian was born in Akron, Ohio, on May 21, 1923, to Michael Parseghian, who had fled Turkey amid the Armenian Genocide, and Amelia Bonneau. His mother had forbidden him to try out for his high school team, and when he did, and made the team, he kept it a secret from her — until the day he came home with an injury.

After high school, Parseghian joined the Navy and played football at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center under Paul Brown, who later gained fame as coach of the Cleveland Browns. When he left the Navy, Parseghian enrolled at Miami University in Ohio and earned all-American mention as a halfback. (He was 5 feet 10 inches, and for decades he maintained his playing weight of 185 pounds.)

Parseghian joined the Browns after college, but a hip injury ended his professional playing career. He returned to Miami as the freshman coach and became the head coach when Hayes left for Ohio State.

After leaving Notre Dame, Parseghian was a color commentator for ABC Sports from 1975 to 1981 and for CBS Sports in 1988.

Surviving are his wife, Kathleen, whom he married in 1948; a daughter, Kristan, and a son, Michael. Another daughter, Karan, died in 2012. His brother, Gerard, died in 2010, and his sister, Isabelle Atwood, died in 2008.

In 1994, Parseghian founded the Ara Parseghian Medical Research Foundation, dedicated to financing research on Niemann-Pick Type C disease, a genetic pediatric nerve disorder that killed three of his grandchildren.

When Parseghian was first offered the job at Notre Dame, he wavered because of the dislike his father had formed for Christians during the Armenian genocide. But he said in 2013 that he embraced the “underlying spirituality to whatever happened at Notre Dame. That was one of the main reasons I enjoyed being there so much.”

Parseghian was only 51 when he left Notre Dame. Initially, there were rumors that he was weighing offers to coach in the N.F.L., but they remained rumors. As for the possibility that he might one day coach college football again, he would say, “After Notre Dame, what is there?”

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