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.
Both won immediately, in part by putting players in the right position. Stoops moved Frank Romero from defensive line to offensive line and found an all-Big 12 tackle. J.T. Thatcher was moved from tailback to free safety and made All-American.
Parseghian in 1964 inherited three massive running backs — Jim Snowden, Pete Duranko and Paul Costa were called the Elephant backfield. Parseghian moved them to the line, and all became stars.
Senior John Huarte, who had yet to even letter, was named the starting quarterback. He won the Heisman Trophy.
Notre Dame won its first nine games before a season-ending loss to Southern Cal.
“It created an electricity that I don't know that this university has ever seen since then,” said Sullivan, the '68 grad from Cordova, Tenn.
After Notre Dame won its opener at Wisconsin, the team returned to South Bend via bus around midnight in the rain, only to discover Notre Dame Avenue lined and packed with students.
“That excitement carried on all year,” Sullivan said.
And Parseghian's teams never slumped. His worst record was 8-3 in 1972; the Irish were 95-17-4 overall under Parseghian.
“He gave you every opportunity to succeed,” said Terry Hanratty, Parseghian's great quarterback from 1966-68. “We never went into a game where we were surprised at anything.
“Great communicator. Great in-game coach. If we ever recovered a fumble or intercepted a pass, better put your secondary on the 10-yard line, because we were coming at you.”
Parseghian had a great saying: “We must find the other team's breaking point. We do not have a breaking point.” It's the inscription on his statue just outside Notre Dame Stadium.
But Parseghian did have a breaking point. He stepped down after the 1974 season, worn out.
“I was old as a football coach,” Parseghian said. “I became a head football coach when I was 27 years old at Miami of Ohio. The burdens of being a head coach are different from being an assistant. If I had been an assistant coach for awhile, then become a head coach, I probably would have lasted longer.
“I coached for 25 years. I was here 11 years. You do the head coaching responsibilities at major universities for 25 years, it's going to wear and tear on you. Very demanding. It finally catches up with you. Demands on your time, you're on a treadmill almost. Season to season going through all that.”
Parseghian promised his wife he would sit out a season. So far, he's sat out 39.
Hanratty believes Notre Dame erred, that the university should have named an interim coach, and Parseghian would have returned, batteries charged, in 1976.
But Parseghian found other life interests. He was an ABC or CBS analyst for 14 years.
One of his daughters was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Three of his grandchildren died from the rare genetic disorder Niemann-Pick disease, and Parseghian's family founded the Ara Parseghian Medical Research Foundation in 1994.
On Jan. 1, 1975, Notre Dame beat Alabama 13-11 in the Orange Bowl. Parseghian's players carried him off the field. He never coached another game.
“I assured my wife I'd stay out for a year,” Parseghian said. “After a year was over, I had opportunities. But I decided not to. I knew what it was going to take out of me physically. I wanted to accrue some longevity in my life. The quickest way to shorten it was to be back on the hot seat again.”
Parseghian was right. He's lived a long life. And still touching people, with his foundation and with his strolls through the Morris Inn.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.