Former Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian dies at age 94

Author: Dennis Brown and Michael Bertsch

Ara Parseghian


Legendary coach Ara Parseghian, who guided the University of Notre Dame’s 1966 and 1973 national championship football teams and is a member of the National Football Foundation’s College Football Hall of Fame, died at 1:30 a.m. Wednesday (Aug. 2) at his home in Granger, Indiana, the University’s president, Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., announced. He was 94.

“Notre Dame mourns the loss of a legendary football coach, a beloved member of the Notre Dame family and good man – Ara Parseghian,” Father Jenkins said. “Among his many accomplishments, we will remember him above all as a teacher, leader and mentor who brought out the very best in his players, on and off the field.

“He continued to demonstrate that leadership by raising millions of research dollars seeking a cure for the terrible disease that took the lives of three of his grandchildren. Whenever we asked for Ara’s help at Notre Dame, he was there.

“My prayers are with Katie, his family and many friends as we mourn his passing and celebrate a life that was so well lived.”

A Mass for the Feast of the Transfiguration and Celebration of the Life of Ara Parseghian will take place at 2 p.m. Sunday (Aug. 6) at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at the University of Notre Dame. The University’s president, Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., will preside. A memorial celebration will follow the Mass at 3:30 p.m. Sunday in Purcell Pavilion at the Joyce Center. Family members and former players and colleagues will speak. The public is invited to both the Mass and memorial.

Elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1980, Parseghian led the Irish to a 95-17-4 record (.836) over his 11 seasons in South Bend, highlighted by the 1966 and 1973 teams that finished 9-0-1 and 11-0-0, respectively, and claimed Notre Dame’s eighth and ninth consensus national championships.

“As a student, I enjoyed the thrill of being on campus for Ara’s last three years as head coach, including the 1973 championship, and saw firsthand the profound impact that he had on my classmates who played for him,” said Jack Swarbrick, vice president and James E. Rohr Director of Athletics. “When I returned many years later as athletics director, Ara was unfailingly generous with his time, and his counsel proved to be invaluable.”

Parseghian retired from coaching after the 1974 season and entered broadcasting. He worked as a color commentator with ABC Sports from 1975-81 and served as college football analyst for CBS Sports through the 1988 season.

Former football coach Ara Parseghian Click image to download.

In 1994, Parseghian, along with his son Michael and daughter-in-law Cindy, started the Ara Parseghian Medical Research Foundation to fund the study of Niemann-Pick Type C Disease (NPC) in hopes of moving toward a cure. The foundation has raised more than $45 million to combat the disease, which claimed three of Parseghian’s grandchildren, Michael and Cindy’s children, Michael, Marcia and Christa.

Earlier this year, Vtesse Inc. announced the full enrollment of patients for a clinical trial of VTS-270, a drug candidate that was developed through research supported by the foundation.
Numerous other studies have been funded to identify the molecular mechanisms behind NPC disease, develop new models, identify novel techniques to better understand NPC and support young investigators researching the disease.

NPC is a genetic pediatric neurodegenerative disorder that causes progressive deterioration of the nervous system, usually in school-age children. By interfering with children’s ability to metabolize cholesterol, NPC causes large amounts of the substance to accumulate in the liver, spleen and brain, leading to a series of ultimately fatal neurological problems.

Building on a partnership the University formed with the foundation in 2010, the University established the Ara Parseghian Medical Research Fund in May 2016 and moved the administrative functions and granting process of the foundation from Tucson, Arizona, to Notre Dame.

The fund supports a competitive granting process, promotes fundraising efforts to support NPC research, raises awareness for the disease, manages communications and oversees an annual research conference in which researchers from around the world collaboratively share their findings.

“When I first started out, I wanted a silver bullet,” Parseghian told the South Bend Tribune last year. “I wanted that cure that could help the children immediately. But research doesn’t work that way. You’ve got to go step by step by step.

“But the monies that we’ve been able to raise and funnel into research have been very beneficial. We know a lot about it. When we first started, we knew very little about Niemann-Pick. We didn’t even have a diagnostic test to tell it was Niemann-Pick, so we’ve come a long way. It was a paragraph or two in the med books. We’ve brought a lot of information about the disease out to the public and the people who have the misfortune of having their children diagnosed with this.”

In his autobiography “God, Country, Notre Dame,” the late University President Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., related the importance he and his executive vice president, Rev. Edmund P. “Ned” Joyce, C.S.C., placed on luring Parseghian to Notre Dame from Northwestern University after the 1963 season:

“Ara called Father Joyce, whom he knew well … (and) told (him) that he had decided to leave Northwestern and was considering several offers. Would Notre Dame be interested in him? Would we!

“Parseghian had agreed to meet us on neutral ground, which turned out to be a Chicago motel at 9:30 at night. I won’t soon forget that night. Ned and I drove some 80 miles in a blinding snowstorm to keep that appointment. And it was worth it.”

Father Hesburgh’s successor, Rev. Edward A. Malloy, C.S.C., conferred an honorary degree on Parseghian at Notre Dame’s 1997 University Commencement Ceremony. In his autobiography, Father Malloy wrote:

“Ara Parseghian … combined the best qualities of all the great Notre Dame football coaches. He was great at adapting his strategy to the talents of his athletes, he was a master strategist in preparing for games and an excellent recruiter, and he represented the best of Notre Dame.”

“I was enrolled in seminary at the time when he was hired as head football coach, and I went over to his opening press conference because I was all excited about him coming.

“I was so delighted that we could recognize him (with an honorary degree), not only for his legendary status as a coach but also because he has spent a lot of time fighting Niemann-Pick disease.”

As the Notre Dame coach from 1964-74, nine of Parseghian’s 11 teams finished the year ranked in the top 10 of the final Associated Press poll, and on 40 occasions during that period Irish players received first-team All-America recognition. He coached eight NCAA postgraduate scholarship recipients, 17 Academic All-Americans and five eventual winners of the NCAA Silver Anniversary Award.

He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1980.

The 1966 season marked the third year under Parseghian, who nearly guided the Irish to the national title in his debut season (9-1-0) in 1964. Notre Dame’s domination on both sides of the ball was born out in the numbers – including a dozen players who collected All-America honors. The Irish outscored their opponents by an eye-popping 362-38 margin, finishing as the nation’s top-scoring team (36.2 points per game) while allowing just 3.8 points per game (second-best in the nation). Notre Dame shut out six of its 10 opponents, including 10th-ranked Oklahoma and 10th-rated USC.

The balanced offense (391.5 yards per game/third in the nation) included passing and rushing attacks that both ranked among the national top 20, with the defense yielding an average of just 187.6 yards per game (fourth-best in the nation).

Linebacker Jim Lynch – a unanimous All-America selection – led a defensive unit that also included All-America safety Tom Schoen and three All-Americans across the defensive line: end Alan Page (a consensus pick) and the tackle tandem of Pete Duranko and Kevin Hardy.

Aug. 29, 2014; Former football coach Ara Parseghian.For Notre Dame MagazinePhoto by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame Aug. 29, 2014; Former football coach Ara Parseghian. Photo credit: Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame. Click image to download.

The ’66 offense actually produced more All-Americans (seven) than the Irish defensive unit (five), led by unanimous All-America halfback Nick Eddy. The team’s tailback, Larry Conjar, also was tabbed for All-America honors, as was the “fling-and-cling” passing combination of quarterback Terry Hanratty and receiver Jim Seymour, center George Goeddeke, tackle Paul Seiler and guard Tom Regner.

Hanratty and Seymour formed what remains one of the top passer-receiver combinations in Notre Dame history. Hanratty finished sixth in the 1966 Heisman Trophy balloting, three spots behind his teammate Eddy, while Seymour had eight touchdown catches (despite playing just seven games) and set a Notre Dame record by averaging 123.1 receiving yards per game.
In addition to their on-the-field honors, both Lynch and Regner were named Academic All-Americans.

Parseghian and the Irish would follow up the ’66 national title with an 8-2 mark in 1967, 7-2-1 in ’68 and 8-2-1 in ’69. Notre Dame barely missed out on a national title in 1970. The Irish entered their regular season finale at USC with a 9-0 mark and No. 2 national ranking, but the Trojans upended Notre Dame, 38-28. The Irish earned just their second bowl appearance in modern time and defeated top-ranked Texas in the ’71 Cotton Bowl, 24-11, which stopped the nation’s longest winning streak at 30 games. The dominant postseason effort was not enough as Notre Dame ended the season ranked No. 2 and Parseghian’s second national title would have to wait.

The 1972 season closed with lopsided losses to USC and Nebraska, and Parseghian and his staff would have to replace 13 starters from that team, not counting Dave Casper who started at offensive tackle in ’72 and was the starting tight end in ’73, and Mike Townsend, who started at cornerback in ’72 before starting at safety in ’73.

Many figured Notre Dame was a year away. Once again, Parseghian proved them wrong.

Four backs who gained more than 300 yards apiece led the balanced Irish attack: fullback Wayne Bullock (752), halfback Art Best (700), halfback Eric Penick (586) and quarterback Tom Clements (360). It was one of the fastest backfields Notre Dame had ever assembled, as Penick had 9.5 speed in the 100-yard dash, while Best checked in at 9.7.

Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly and former head football coach Ara Parseghian at Practice at the LaBar Practice Complex August 19, 2010...Photo by Matt CashoreCopyright (2010) Matt Cashore Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly and former head football coach Ara Parseghian at Practice at the LaBar Practice Complex August 19, 2010. Photo credit: Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame. Click image to download.

The Irish were ranked in the eighth spot with wins over Northwestern, Purdue, Michigan State, Rice and Army, setting the stage for what everyone considered to be Notre Dame’s first real test of the year.

As was the case on the road to Parseghian’s first national championship in ’66, the game against USC was a pivotal moment in the 1973 title campaign. Notre Dame was also full of memories of the previous season’s clash, which saw running back Anthony Davis romp for six touchdowns in a 45-23 Trojan win.

The sixth-ranked Trojans visited South Bend for the annual matchup, but No. 8 Notre Dame set the tone early when defensive back Luther Bradley knocked Lynn Swann’s helmet off on the first play. Later, Penick raced for an 85-yard touchdown, helping the Fighting Irish to a 23-14 victory. The triumph ended USC’s 23-game unbeaten string and Notre Dame jumped to fifth in the polls.

The Irish cruised through the remainder of their schedule, defeating Navy, Pittsburgh, Air Force and Miami to complete Parseghian’s first perfect regular season.
The stage was set for a Sugar Bowl matchup between No. 1 Alabama and No. 3 Notre Dame.

On New Year’s Eve 1973, the battle of unbeaten teams was a back-and-forth contest for much of the game, and came down to the final few minutes of regulation when Notre Dame’s Bob Thomas kicked a go-ahead field goal with 4:26 to play. But the Crimson Tide pinned the Irish near their own end zone on their next possession, and it looked as though Notre Dame might have to punt, giving Alabama a chance at a game-winning field goal of its own. That was, at least, until third down when Clements connected with Robin Weber on a long pass that sealed a 24-23 Irish victory.

In addition to the 1973 Sugar Bowl win, Parseghian and his Irish posted victories in the 1971 Cotton Bowl and the 1975 Orange Bowl (again over unbeaten Alabama), which proved to be his final game on the Notre Dame sidelines.

Born May 21, 1923, in Akron, Ohio, Parseghian was married to the former Kathleen “Katie” Davis. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in 1949 and 1954 from Miami (Ohio) University. He is survived by Katie, two children – Kristan Parseghian Humbert and her husband, James Humbert; Michael Parseghian, the secretary/treasurer of the research foundation and member of the University’s College of Science Advisory Council, and his wife, Cindy, president of the foundation and a Notre Dame Trustee; son-in-law James Burke; and six grandchildren. His daughter Karan Burke and three grandchildren preceded him in death.

Parseghian played football and graduated from Akron South High School in 1942, and enrolled at the University of Akron later that fall, but withdrew to serve the U.S. Navy for two years during World War II. He was stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Academy in 1944, where he continued his football career as a member of its football team, which was coached by the legendary NFL Hall of Famer Paul Brown.

Aug. 29, 2014; Former football coach Ara Parseghian.For Notre Dame Magazine Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame Aug. 29, 2014; Former football coach Ara Parseghian. Photo credit: Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame. Click image to download.

After his term of service, Parseghian continued his education and athletic career at Miami University, where he played football, basketball and baseball. He was not only drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 13th round (109th overall) of the 1947 NFL Draft, but also was selected in 1948 by the Cleveland Browns in the 25th round (177th overall) of the rival All-America Football Conference draft. He would ultimately play halfback for the Browns (coached by Brown, Parseghian’s coach at Great Lakes) in 1948 and 1949. Cleveland won the league championship both of those years, but a hip injury ended Parseghian’s playing career.

He returned to Miami in 1950 as an assistant coach under Woody Hayes and was named head coach in 1951 following Hayes’ departure to Ohio State. Parseghian’s five Miami teams combined for a 39-6-1 record (.859), including a 32-3-1 mark over his final four campaigns, and won a pair of Mid-American Conference championships (1954 and 1955).

Miami University President Gregory Crawford, the former Warren Foundation Dean of the College of Science at Notre Dame and a significant supporter of the Parseghian Medical Research Foundation, presented Parseghian with the President’s Medal last fall.

Parseghian moved on to Northwestern in 1956 and coached the Wildcats for eight years. He compiled a 36-35-1 (.507) mark and helped turn a perennial loser into a consistent contender in the national polls. He even led Northwestern to a No. 1 national ranking following a 35-6 victory over Notre Dame on Oct. 27, 1962. That victory capped off a remarkable run of success for Parseghian-coached teams versus the Irish. He went 4-0 against Notre Dame, with the victories occurring in consecutive years from 1959-62. That remains tied for the best winning percentage of any coach who faced the Irish at least four times in his career since the start of the 20th century.

Parseghian turned his attention to Notre Dame and its rebuilding efforts in 1964. The Irish program had not recorded a winning record in the five previous seasons and many experts figured the program would never return to its gloried past.

He wasted no time in dispelling that myth.

Parseghian, who ranks third in school history for career victories behind Lou Holtz and Knute Rockne, guided the ’64 Irish squad to a 9-1 record and McArthur Bowl Trophy from the National Football Foundation. He was chosen the national college coach of the year by the Football Writers Association of America, American Football Coaches Association, Football Writers of America, Washington Touchdown Club, Columbus Touchdown Club, Football News and New York Daily News.

During his years as coach, awards came to his student-athletes as well. Gaining All-America acclaim from his 1964 squad were quarterback John Huarte – the Heisman Trophy winner – split end Jack Snow and linebacker Jim Carroll.

Huarte’s Heisman is one of the best examples of Parseghian’s ability to recognize previously untapped talent. Despite missing much of the 1962 season due to injury and playing sparingly as a junior the next year, Huarte was named by Parseghian as the starting quarterback in 1964. In leading the Irish to a 9-1 record, he ranked third nationally in total offense with 2,069 yards and set 12 school records. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2005.

From the ’65 squad, guard Dick Arrington and safety Nick Rassas were cited on most All-America first teams, while in 1967 Hardy and Schoen added their names to the list of consensus All-Americans produced by Parseghian.

The 1968 Irish yielded tackle George Kunz, Hanratty and Seymour. The ’69 team had Mike McCoy, Bob Olson, Jim Reilly and Larry DiNardo, while the 1970 squad had DiNardo, Gatewood, Clarence Ellis, Joe Theismann and Walt Patulski.

Patulski, Ellis and Mike Kadish earned All-American honors in 1971, while tackle Greg Marx earned the honor in 1972.

In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made to the Ara Parseghian Medical Research Fund at Notre Dame.