Thursday, August 03, 2017

Ara Parseghian

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 morning at his home in Granger, Ind. He was 94.

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.

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.

“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.

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 Nov. 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’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.

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.

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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