With spring practice little more than a fortnight away, we ought examine one of the most critical Spring practices ever conducted at Notre Dame. That was Ara Raoul Parseghian’s first, in Spring, 1964. We are also nearing (in late December) the 50 year anniversary of Ara’s hiring by Notre Dame. And it’s never too early to start the semicentennial celebration of the great Ara!
Let’s first revisit some arcane elements of Ara’s reign, particularly given the inadequacy of Dent’s banal tome on Ara, which merely followed the familiar Dent formula.
Ara played college football at Miami (Ohio) and was an integral part of its later designatiion as the “Cradle of Coaches.” Ara played for Sid Gillman at Miami. Gillman left Miami to migrate to the West Coast and the NFL. Gillman is revered as one of the architects of the modern passing attack, and the forebears of the “West Coast Offense.” The direct descendants of Gillman’s coaching tree include Al Davis, Don “Air” Coryell, Chuck Knox, Chuck Noll, Dick Vermeil and George Allen.
Then, when Ara had his brief “career” in the NFL he was with the Browns under the legendary mastermind Paul Brown. Several players who played for both Halas and Brown indicated that while Halas was colorful and feisty, that Paul Brown was “the man” for organization, technique and a thorough approach to football. Brown famously noted Ara’s self-confidence.
After that, Ara returned to Miami (Ohio) to be the freshman coach under a Denison grad recently hired to shepherd the Miami flock. His name was Woody Hayes. And after staying at Miami for a year, refining Ara’s coaching skills in the process, Hayes answered a phone call from Columbus and became the coach, and I mean, THE COACH, at Ohio State. Ara was then elevated to the head coach job. Gillman, Brown, Hayes. If that’s not enough, when Ara took over he found on his roster a young kid from Barberton, named Glenn Schembechler. So Ara was Bo’s college coach too.
Ara’s EXPERIENCE/Ara’s squandered gift to Notre Dame
Young though he was, Ara had 13 years of college head coaching experience when he took over in December of 1963. He has often, and with great passion and deliberation said:
“I had 13 years of head coaching experience when I took the job at Notre Dame. And I needed every one of those 13 years to succeed.” Ara’s advice was arrogantly, sadly, and painfully ignored when Faust, then Davie, then Kansas’ current head coach were hired with NO years of college head coaching experience.
Ara’s OUTSIDER STATUS AND INSIDER CABINET
Although it seems unremarkable today, Ara’s hire caused a stir because he was neither a Notre Dame alum nor a Roman Catholic. But a snootful of Brennan, Kuharich and the ever loyal Hugh Devore was enough to compel the good Fathers to look beyond the alumni directory.
When Ara arrived, he brought a nice bevy of his Miami/Northwestern cadre with him. In those days before the internet there was no squawking from posting geniuses on the perils of a “small time” staff. So onto campus came Paul Shoults, Doc Urich and Tom Pagna, the Paul Allen to Ara’s Bill Gates, the Watson to Ara’s Holmes. Ara brought in a defensive coach who had played at Notre Dame and was then the head coach at little John Carroll University in Cleveland. Johnny Ray. Words fail in trying to capture the impact and spirit of Ray. He was larger than life. He had, well, an attitude. Alan Page once state that Ray was the meanest white man Page had ever met. There has never been a better assistant coach at Notre Dame. The ’66 Notre Dame defense was epic. Harmon Wages said this about Norm Van Brocklin, but it would sure fit Johnny Ray. “I alway imagine him coming back, riding a steed down a road with players hung on crosses on each side of the road as he passed through, like the final scene in Spartacus.” Johnny Ray!
Ara’s ERA, on the field, at Notre Dame and in America.
We know about the football. But no Notre Dame head coach has ever held the reigns in so turbulent an era. First, the 60’s is an all-time misnomer. Mario Savio and the Haight and Leary notwithstanding, the 60’s did not really begin in America until the June, 1967. The Beatles released Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It signaled middle class, mostly Caucasian, suburban American that gettting high was not only permissible but the best way to go. Boom! The Summer of Love was ’67. The 60’s even arrived in sleepy little South Bend in the Fall of ’67 when NOLA’s colorful Billy Kurtz opened the “Delphic Oracle” in the Bend and had “Captain Electric and the Flying Lapels” as one of his feature bands.
When Ara took over, Kennedy had just been assassinated. He coached his last season after Nixon’s August, 1974 resignation. When he arrived the Beatles had not yet appeared on Ed Sullivan, and “Reefer Madness” was not yet camp but a serious instructional film of the anti-drug forces. Notre Dame became coeducational during Ara’s tenure and the student body changed as a result of America’s change. The first waves of returning Vietnam vets began matriculating at Notre Dame. The Black Power movement even made its way to South Bend, and there was a rumor that some African-American students were plotting to paint the Golden Dome black. So while Ara was doodling X’s and O’s Notre Dame changed more in his 11 year tenure than in any two decades before or since. And Ara piloted his ship through the stormy off-campus and on-campus seas.
ARA’S FIRST SPRING PRACTICE
Through 1963, college football had operated under limited substitution rules. Long story short, players played both ways, mostly. Old timers will remember Paul Dietzel’s LSU team with the White team, the Go team and the Chinese Bandits, designed to take advantage of the limited substitution and timing rules. But the rules changed that Winter of ’63. In 1964, just like the NFL, college teams would be permitted unlimited substitutions.
Many coaches didn’t want to leap too quickly to change their format, and adjusted gradually to the rule change. They wouldn’t fully convert to “two platoon” until 1965. Not Ara. He carped the bloody diem and got his staff and his team on it. They immediately assigned players to one side of the ball or the other. In fact the only player who played both offense and defense after that was Dick Arrington. The rest of the team was either exclusively on offense or exclusively on defense and exclusively under Pagna or Ray. Ara blazed past the rest of the pack of coaches who were hesitant to pull the trigger and still dawdling with changing their modus operant.
This was a monumental benefit to the Irish, not only because of the velocity which which Ara leveraged the rule change but also because of the surprisingly talented roster of large mammals he had inherited. Hugh Devore had recruited one of Notre Dame’s greatest classes for the Fall of ’63. Of course nothing compares to Leahy’s recruiting class of ’46, but ’63 may have been as outstanding as the ’90 class, Vinny’s best.
Here are the draft choices that came in with that class:
That’s 7 players drafted in the first 100 taken.
That’s two college football Hall of Famers, Page and Lynch.
And there were many other huge bodies like Fred Schnurr, Vic Paternostro, Dick Swatland.
There had always been a challenge in getting large players, often a tad slower and with less stamina, to play both ways. Ara obviated that by requiring that they play only half the possesssions. On most practice fields across the land it was business as usual. In South Bend it was business as never before.
Oh, Ara did other things that Spring, “discovering” John Huarte. duh! And he moved Jack Snow from being an average running/defensive back to a wide receiver who not only caught most of Huarte’s passes, but caught a bunch in the NFL. Ara moved Johnstown, PA’s Pete Duranko from being a tough, but ineffective fullback to being a ferocious, highly disruptive defensive tackle.
Ara had used his pedigree, his 13 years of experience, his first rate assistant coaches to completely rework Notre Dame from Devore’s squad into a massive, aggressive “two-platoon” (that phrase now seems archaic) national championship contender. The early opponents were not ready for what Ara had built. The first 6 opponents fell by an average score of 30-7.
The era of Ara had begun.
Spring practice is coming. Don’t get caught watching the paint dry!