SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame alums Steve Sullivan and Wayne Micek, class of 1968, walked through the Morris Inn this week and recognized a familiar face.
Walking with a cane, slightly hunched, his once-coal black hair having long turned silver, was the hero of these 60somethings who arrived in South Bend in 1964.
They just had to shake hands with Ara Parseghian.
“He started a tradition that is comparable to Rockne and Leahy and Holtz,” said Micek of Glen Ellyn, Ill. “The spirit he created, just one hell of a guy.”
We sometimes forget Parseghian in the pantheon of great coaches. He became a major college head coach in 1951, became Notre Dame's coach in 1964 and won two national championships before stepping away from the game in 1975 at age 51.
Parseghian played for Paul Brown and Sid Gillman. Coached with Woody Hayes. Went head-to-head with Bud Wilkinson and Bear Bryant and Darrell Royal and John McKay.
Parseghian was 4-0 against Oklahoma, which tries to reverse 60 years of Irish frustration Saturday, when the teams play at Notre Dame Stadium. Parseghian even beat the Sooners twice when he coached Northwestern, 1959 and 1960.
And he's with us still. At 90 years old, 39 years after his final Irish game, Parseghian remains a Notre Dame institution.
Notre Dame hired Parseghian in 1964. And he heard the same things you hear today.
The landscape has changed. The Fighting Irish no longer can compete at the top of college football. Notre Dame no longer has the advantages it once had but still has the same disadvantages.
Schedule too difficult. Academics too tough. Can't recruit the top talent. Same old song.
“Every time a coach has been dismissed from here, go back and read the papers,” Parseghian said. “It's exactly the same. Almost word for word.
“Then somebody comes in, knows what they're doing or experienced … I think as long as Brian Kelly stays, their program is going to stay at a high level.”
Knute Rockne and Frank Leahy are dead. Holtz has turned cartoon character on ESPN. But here's Ara Parseghian, as distinguished as ever, still living in South Bend. Still holding the candle for Notre Dame, and he's not even Catholic.
Parseghian's father, an immigrant from Armenia, despised Catholics, blaming them for the World War I genocide in his native country. But Parseghian took the job anyway.
“I'm still here,” Parseghian said with a shrug. “I used to kid around. Everybody says, did they try to convert you. I said, I don't think they wanted me, because they never did try.”
South Bend can be tough on coaches. A coach as great as Leahy was fired. Dan Devine won a national championship but lasted just six seasons. Rockne coached 13 years before dying in a 1931 plane crash, but Leahy, Holtz and Parseghian each coached only 11 years. Four OU coaches have gone longer — Bennie Owen (22), Bud Wilkinson (17), Barry Switzer (16) and Bob Stoops (15 and counting).
But most Notre Dame coaches move on after the gridiron. To another job, or another part of the country.
“I had pretty good footings here,” Parseghian said. “We had been here 11 years. My kids grew up here. My son and daughter both went to Notre Dame. My other daughter went to St. Mary's (across the street).
“Then I got involved with an insurance agency, had some of my former coaches that were with me. We had reasons to stay. It was a good environment to be in. Just the right-sized town. One of the reasons I never went into pro football was because I wanted my kids to grow up around an academic environment. And that's exactly what we did.”
The Bob Stoops Story is the Ara Parseghian Story. Both took over storied programs that had gone five straight years without a winning season.