Ara Parseghian: Tribute To A Notre Dame Football Legend

Ara’s Birth and Early Years

Ara was born in Akron in 1923 to an Armenian Father and a French mother, both immigrants.  He was an intense kid, a fine student, and a dominant playground athlete, though his mom initially discouraged his interest in football.

Prep Phenom

Once he hit the gridiron, he immediately became a star halfback and after graduation from Akron South High School, he matriculated at hometown Akron University, the Zips, but stayed only one year.

Answering Duty’s Call

WWII called to young Ara both as a young patriot and on Dad’s behalf as Dad had educated him on the Armenian genocide by the Ottoman Turks.

Great Lakes and a Great Coach

Parseghian was initially assigned to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, and there, Paul Brown, aware of Parseghian’s schoolboy exploits, “drafted” him for the Great Lakes football team.  Ara sustained an injury, but got to observe the transcendent coaching ability and techniques of Paul Brown.  Ara had found a mentor. He was enthralled with Brown’s discipline, focus and ability to command respect from players.

Post War: Miami and Sid Gillman.

After the War, Parseghian went to Oxford, Ohio to play for the then Miami Redskins and Sid Gillman. Gillman was decades ahead of his time and was already using the downfield passing game in college. Gilman would later be the dad of the vertical passing game and godfather of the West Coast Offense in his days in San Diego and Los Angeles in a 20 year coaching career in the NFL and AFL. Ara became an All-Ohio halfback and a little All-American and learned much from  Gillman.

Cleveland Browns and Paul Brown Again

Ara signed with the Cleveland Browns and, for one shining moment, was part of the starting backfield with Otto Graham and Marion Motley.  The injuries took their toll, but now, in a civilian setting, Ara was able to absorb more from the master, Paul Brown.

Miami Ohio, Woody Hayes, and Bo

A guy from Denison, Ohio had been named was named Head Coach at Miami to succeed Sid Gillman.  He was a student of both people and military history and thought applying the best practices of both areas of study would help him coach football. He had a point. His name was Wayne Woodrow Hayes and he hired Parseghian as Miami’s freshman team coach.

In Ohio, Columbus serves as both state capitol and football capitol.  Ara’s boss, Woody Hayes, received a call to replace Wes Fesler as head man of the Buckeyes, and Poof! just like that he was gone. So, Ara, at the tender age of 28, became a head college football coach.

Ara inherited a short, intense young offensive lineman from Hayes.  He was from Barberton, Ohio, and he was Glenn E. Schembechler, nicknamed “Bo.” Ara taught him a lot.

Ara Parseghian the Coach

Ara’s Success at Miami

Ara was a spectacular 39-6-1 and wins over Big Ten foes Indiana and Northwestern made the Big Ten, which, shockingly, actually had “Ten” teams in that era, sit up and take notice.

Northwestern Calls

In Evanston, they saw that the pupil of Brown, Gillman and Hayes could coach.  Ara accepted the job, taking over a team that had finished 0-8-1 under Lou Saban and improving it to 4-4-1

Taste of Ashes and the Turnaround

If pressure makes diamonds, then Ara would produce a gem from the 0-9 season of 1957. The Wildcats were outscored 271-57.  But Ara kept coaching his players, cajoling, entreating, teaching, recruiting.

Beating Oklahoma, Michigan, Ohio State, and ND

Beginning in ’58 Ara righted the listing Wildcat ship. While at Northwestern he  scored wins over Bump Elliott at Michigan and former teacher Woody Hayes and Ohio State.  He played Bud Wilkinson’s Sooners twice and beat them twice.  And he was a perfect 4-0 against Notre Dame.

After Ara got to Notre Dame he would never lose a game to Northwestern.

Bum Phillips used to say “He’s such a good coach he can take his’n and beat your’n and take your’n and beat his’n.” That’s just what Ara did in the Northwestern-Notre Dame series.  If you wanted to know who was going to win just see which sideline Parseghian was patrolling.

Ara Parseghian Comes to Notre Dame

Dark Ages in South Bend; A Light in Evanston

While Notre Dame’s hair was on fire with Kuharich and the Dark post-Leahy Ages, the Chicago press inflamed the Notre Dame community in Chicago with glowing affirmations of Parseghian. Northwestern alums jabbed at Notre Dame alums.

Notre Dame had always hired alumni and Catholics.  Not any more, Ara took the job in late 1963.

Ara Brings His Coaches and Reaches to Cleveland

Ara brought Tom Pagna, Doc Urich and Paul Shoults with him to South Bend.  But then he called the Head Coach at tiny John Carroll in Cleveland.  The guy’s name was Johnny Ray and he listened because he was a Notre Dame alumnus as well as an ex-Marine.   It was a short conversation.  Johnny Ray was taking his talents to South Bend. Ara had his Defensive Coordinator.

On a Cold Night in February

Ara was shocked.  Not annoyed, merely perplexed.  Some students wanted to him address a group of students from the steps of Sorin Hall-on a weeknight in February.  Ara realized he wasn’t in Evanston any more.

Ara lit up the night.  If you were there, words are inadequate vessels to capture the impact; if you weren’t there, words can never describe the Supernova that appeared that night.

There is no excellence without passion, and Ara showed his to the student  body that night.

William Blake wrote the poem, but he must have been a prophet of Parseghian:

“Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire? “

The students knew: “It’s different this time.’

Ara’s Staff Receives Three Gifts

Not since Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to Bethlehem  had three such appropriate gifts welcomed a Messiah.

  • GOLD: John Huarte was buried on the quarterback depth chart. He was behind Notre Dame non-legends Dennis Szot and Frank Budka in 1963 under Devore.  Pagna and Parseghian could not believe Huarte’s potential.
  • FRANKINCENSE: Devore had had an incredible recruiting year when he took over for Kuharich, especially in the trenches.  He had brought in Hall of Famers Alan Page and Jim Lynch.  They were accompanied by Kevin Hardy, Don Gmitter, Tom Regner, Paul Seiler, George Goeddeke, Dick Swatland and much much more. These were some large mammals, and were able to save energy by playing only half the game.
  • MYRRH: The NCAA had changed its rules and now allowed unlimited substitution.  Many coaching staffs were slow to adapt but Ara carpe’d the diem and immediately split his team in half.   Ray was able to work his defensive monomania on his defensive charges without having mundane, weak, limp-wristed, non-Jarhead  offensive concepts diverting  their focus. Doc Urich focusing on teaching the mother lode of offensive talent to block and forget about tackling and other defensive flapdoodle.

A Fast Start in 1964

Nobody saw the fast start coming, save for Ara and his staff.  Parseghian and Pagna deigned to start Huarte.  Huarte located Snow, completed passes to Snow. Huarte won the Heisman. The Irish were dominant,  ripping off 9 quick wins and outscoring their opponents 270-57.  But Ara tasted defeat in the Coliseum in the finale, 20-17, an agonizing loss.  Yet, he had brought the Irish back. The decade-long South Bend nightmare was over.

Caught Between Quarterbacks in 1965

In 65 ‘the best quarterbacks on campus were ineligible freshmen: Coley O’Brien, Terry Hanratty and Bob Belden.   The Irish struggled to a 7-2-1 record without a quarterback to turn the ignition.  But the running attack was stout except against Michigan State’s great defense, and the Notre Dame defense of Johnny Ray was still stingy.

Who’s the Guy in the Fedora?

Joe Doyle laughed:  “Well, kid, that’s the greatest football coach who ever lived.  That’s Frank Leahy!” Ara welcomed Leahy and Leahy appreciated the welcome back.  Ara had basked in the glory of Paul Brown, Sid Gillman and Woody Hayes.  He was more than comfortable with enjoying the aura, the company and the good counsel of Frank Leahy. Excellence “gets” excellence.


The Irish were a juggernaut in 1966. The missing piece was plugged in when Terry Hanratty just barely beat out Coley O’Brien for quarterback and then developed uncanny chemistry with fellow soph Jim Seymour.  The Irish were massive and quick in both lines, and had Nick Eddy, Larry Conjar and Rocky Bleier to run the ball.

After the Irish beat Bob Griese in the opener, they and the team from East Lansing were on a collision course for the class in Spartan Stadium on November 19th.  It was the most anticipated regular season game since the Army Notre Dame game of 1946. Even with the perspective of 50 years, it remains one of the greatest college football games of all time.

For a complete treatment of the 1966 National Championship and the epic between Notre Dame and Michigan State, please read our full feature on the 1966 Notre Dame national championship.

Coleman Carroll  O’brien was ready in the finale against USC in the Coliseum.  Ara would get only one win in the Coliseum in his glittering career, but it was a dandy, 51-0.  The Irish had their national championship.

1000 Rough Days

Notre Dame demolished both Purdue and USC in the ’66 season.  The USC win was on November 26, 1966. The Irish went through the next three calendar and fooball years without beating either the Boilers or the Trojans. The 1,000 bleak days (actually 1,300) ended on September 26, 1970 with a romp in the rain against Purdue.

Ending the Bowl Drought 

Notre Dame’s first and only bowl had been the win by Rock and the Four Horsemen over Stanford, Pop Warner and Ernie Nevers in the Rose Bowl after the 1924 season.  Well, if you’re going to only play one, it might as well be that one!

But Moose Krause kept working on Joyce and Hesburgh, Ara added his non-alum two cents and the Cotton Bowl’s Hoss Brock kept shipping Cowboy hats to Moose.

After the ’69 season, Notre Dame agreed to play Darrell K. Royal and the Horns in the Cotton Bowl, and Notre Dame added bowl magic to its repertoire.  Ara lost a squeaker to National Champion Texas in that first one , but in his next three bowl wins, beat Darrell Royal, Bear Bryant and Bryant again.

1970 A close call

The Irish were solid in 1970, started with 8 strong wins, then the offense vaporized in November home games against Georgia Tech and LSU, scoring just 13 points combined.  The finale in the Coliseum was in the cliché’d quagmire and USC won 38-28, dashing Notre Dame’s national championship dreams.

Another Rule Change

Freshman eligibility was restored to college football in 1972. Notre Dame got a petri dish and put in Steve Niehaus from Moeller as a test.  He was beyond phenomenal until his knee injury.  He came back to become an All-American and a successful pro, but the knee robbed him of his remarkable, dancing-bear agility and quickness.  But for the injury he would have earned his way to membership on our All-time top 25 list.


Ara had seen enough, and attracted frosh phenoms like Ross Browner, Luther Bradley, Al Hunter, Willie Fry and others to bolster Clements, Casper and the rest of the returning talent.

The Irish rampaged out of the gate, and with the feared visitors from USC in for an ominous, rainy mid-October, the fans were more nervous than the team.  Luther Bradley popped Lynn Swann early in the game, and in the third quarter, Eric Penick, behind astounding blocks by Pomarico and Dinardo, went 85 yards to glory in what may have been the greatest misdirection play in history.  ND 23-USC 14.

The Irish marauders continued, destroying everything in their path.  They outscored regular season opponents 358-66.

There was an unbeaten team in the SEC, and Bear Bryant wanted a piece of the Irish.  In South Bend, t-shirts carried the slogan “There will be no Crimson Tide where the River Shannon flows.”

It was New Year’s Eve in rickety old Tulane Stadium in the Big Easy and the media covered the clash of titans like the dew covers Dixie. It was back and forth,  thrust and parry, and when one play was needed, Tom Clements drove a stake into Bear Bryant’s lustful heart with a 36 yard pass that nestled into the hands of the improbable Robin Weber.  ND 24-Bama 23.  Drive home safely! Laissez le bon temps rouler!  Irish National Champions.

For a more detailed and thorough look at the ’73 championship season and the epic wins against USC and Bama, please click this link: read our full feature on the 1973 Notre Dame national championship.

1974-Ara’s Final Year

It always ends poignantly. “Parting is such sweet sorrow.”

In the summer of 1974, a dormitory incident led to the dismissal of Browner, Bradley, Fry and Hunter.  Ara never discussed it, but one would surmise that it affected him.

A weird early season home loss to Purdue dashed ND’s national title hopes.

The Irish outscored the first 10 opponents 281-81, then in the regular season finale in the coliseum, led USC 24-6 at the half.  USC then scored 49 points in the next 17 minutes for a 55-24 win.  After 42 years, it remains a painful memory.

Ara had one game left, against Bryant and the Tide in the Orange Bowl.  The players were doubly motivated, to exorcise the demonic performance in the Coliseum and send their beloved coach out with a victory.

The defense was stouter on the Atlantic shore against Bama than they were on the Pacific shore against USC, holding the proud Tide wishbone to 62 rushing yards. It was a perfect parting gift. Notre Dame 13-Alabama 11.

The era of Ara was officially over.

Ara Presided Over a Changing American, ND

When Ara arrived in ’63, Notre Dame was a sleepy little men’s school. The Beatles had not yet appeared on Ed Sullivan. Reefer madness was the anti-drug film of the era, not the camp knee-slapper it later became. Kennedy had just been assassinated, but Notre Dame had been  a bastion of Catholic conservatism personified by Clarence Manion, the Goldwaterite Dean of Notre Dame’s Law School.

During Ara’s era we saw Medicare, the buildup in Vietnam,  Martin Luther King and the whole civil rights movement, Kennedy and King assassinations, the Silent Majority,  Man on the Moon, the British Invasion, the Summer of Love, Spiro Agnew, Carlos Castaneda, Huey Newton, the Symbionese Liberation Army,  the  Tet Offensive, Bebe Rebozo, Woodstock, Four Dead in Ohio, the intersection of Haight and Ashbury, Notre Dame’s  move to coeducation, with Ara leaving  while the ink was not yet dry from Nixon’s impeachment over Watergate. Entertainment had morphed from Saturday night movies at Washington Hall to Captain Electric and the Flying Lapels at Billy Kurtz’ Delphic Oracle.

Notre Dame was no longer  as placid as the surface of St. Mary’s Lake on an August afternoon.  It was turbulent and choppy but the indefatigable Parseghian steered his football ship through stormy seas on campus and in America.

Ara’s Legacy Transcends Wins & Loses

Won-loss records and percentages are sterile.  Ara? More significant than.

He arrived at a Notre Dame mired in the agony of defeat and poor morale from the tenures of Brennan,  the irascible Kuharich and the loyal but overwhelmed Devore.  It was almost as if Notre Dame had been awarded ten years of penance, punished  for gently showing Leahy to the exit.

Ara started a 30 year run that led to a Return to Glory, a TV contract and four national championships.   Notre Dame was on the brink when Ara arrived.   It could have become a football archive, like Princeton and Yale,  with nostalgia and black and white pictures and fables of Gipp,  the Four Horsemen and Leahy’s lads.  But Ara said no.  Send me to fix the problem! Even though he arrived when the new library had been just complete in the Fall of ’63, he was no librarian.  He was a football coach.

As of the time we write this, Ara has just left us.  Yet his eyes, his passion and his spirit will illuminate the night just as they did 52 years ago, on the steps of Sorin Hall.  Today, as in yesteryear, a Lion in Winter.

“When he shall die
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night,
And pay not worship to the garish sun.”

Rest in Peace Ara

Go Irish!

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  1. Correction : It was a pass from USC QB Craig Fertig to Rod Sherman. Below is SI writer John Underwood describing action :

    “The pass is called 84-Z and it is an old one in the University of Southern California’s playbook. A receiver split wide to the left delays for one second after the snap, sprints dead ahead for five steps, fakes outside, then cuts sharply down and across toward the middle of the field. The quarterback drifts straight back and throws to the spot. Last Saturday in Los Angeles’ Memorial Coliseum, with one minute and 43 seconds remaining in the last big football game of the regular 1964 college season, USC worked the play perfectly. Quarterback Craig Fertig threw the ball chest-high to Halfback Rod Sherman for 15 yards and a touchdown. And in that single dramatic instant, while 83,840 people screeched, gasped and whooped, as suddenly and with the finality of a Hollywood fade-out, able-bodied Notre Dame was no longer the No. 1 team in the nation. In a mad, mad, mad, mad season of upsets, USC scored the biggest one of all over the Fighting Irish, 20-17.

    Unfortunately for Coach John McKay’s feverish Trojans, the victory—another treasure to be filed away among USC’s many illustrious deeds—was dulled before the evening ended. Faculty representatives of the Athletic Association of Western Universities curiously voted for co-champion Oregon State to represent the conference in the Rose Bowl against Big Ten champion Michigan. The decision on whether Oregon State or USC would go had been delayed for a week—until after the Trojans met Notre Dame. The Trojans, whose vote doubtless caused the delay, assumed with some justification that they would receive the Rose Bowl honor if they defeated the Irish and wound up the season with a fine 7-3 record. Oregon State had finished 8-2, but no one could argue that State had played as tough a schedule as USC.

    The bad news arrived as McKay and his team were in the midst of a celebration dinner at a suburban restaurant. It was met with stunned silence. But not for long. USC Athletic Director Jess Hill finally said, “So far as I am concerned, this is one of the rankest injustices ever perpetrated in the field of intercollegiate athletics.”

    But if USC was disappointed, Notre Dame was crestfallen. The Irish, after all, had lost a much more valuable prize: the national championship. After its sixth game of the season Notre Dame became No. 1 and, carrying that sometimes awesome burden, it rumbled on past Pittsburgh, Michigan State and Iowa as Quarterback John Huarte passed his way to the Heisman Trophy, as End Jack Snow set record after record, and as Coach Ara Parseghian nervously tried to avoid being compared with Knute Rockne.

    For Parseghian, this last role was especially difficult to act. Most of the members of the Notre Dame team were the same ones who managed to win only two games in 1963. Huarte had not even earned a letter. But here was Notre Dame with a glittering 9-0 record, the second best offense in the country, the best defense, with at least three players—Huarte, Snow and Linebacker Jim Carroll—already named to various All-America teams and now a 14-point favorite to destroy USC and launch one of the grandest celebrations Pershing Square has seen since the invention of sandals. USC Coach John McKay had his own part to play, and he handled it with ease. A witty, pleasant man with a white crew cut and, usually, a cigar, McKay said the Monday before the game: “I studied the Notre Dame-Stanford film for six hours last night and I have reached one conclusion: Notre Dame can’t be beaten.”

    McKay knew what grim and worried thoughts must be traipsing through Parseghian’s mind—his own Trojans had won the 1962 national title. He had another observation on Tuesday. “I’ve decided that if we play our very best and make no mistakes whatsoever we will definitely make a first down,” he said.

  2. I was just a kid when ara patrolled the sidelines but what a coach if they did lose it wasn’t from the lack of trying. The first game I remember fall of71 against Purdue 8-7 win I was 6yrs old been hooked ever since.Then you have last years team wow hard to imagine with that talent how this could happen Kelly better shape up and get this team right there’s no place for a 4-8 team at Nd but that being said that was last year let’s move on better things await this year

  3. Duranko , nice tribute to Ara. Ya know , those years he coached at NorthWestern in Big Ten — people forget he/NorthWestern were rated # 1 in the country in November of 1962. Wisconsin , led by Ron Vanderlellen at Qb beat NW and went on to win Big Ten Title. Wisconsin faced off with USC in what is considered the most famous Rose Bowl of all time. Badger QB Vanderkellen down 42-14 in 4th quarter — brought back Wisconsin to brink of victory –only to fall short in waning seconds. I remember watching this game on TV–and rooting for the Badgers. But back to Ara—NorthWestern ranking at # 1 in November of ’62 , although short lived—is the only time in the schools history of being ranked at top of the polls. This was Ara ! His 1st year at ND — he almost wins a National Championship going 9-0 into last game versus 9-0 USC. Tied game — last play of game USC in ND red Zone — Their Qb connects for TD. Game over–a heart breaker. To this day Irish safety Tony Carey (from Mt Carmel of ChicagoCatholic League) will never forget that play. He slipped on his coverage of All-American USC reciever — named Farmer. Carey lost his footing on the turf — but most important was the Ara reign at ND just beginning in South Bend.

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