By Harry Squires
Baseball may be America’s national pastime in October, but during November the national attention is focused on the sport of football. And when one thinks of football and its heroes of the past, one also recalls the great football coaches of yesteryear. Among those outstanding coaches is Ara Parseghian, whose career as coach of the Notre Dame football teams was so remarkable that he is remembered just behind the legendary Knute Rockne.
From 1964 through the 1974 season, the football teams at Notre Dame compiled the enviable record of 95 victories, 17 losses and four ties. During this most impressive tenure, Parseghian-led teams won three national championships and went through two seasons undefeated. In the 1973 Sugar Bowl game, he led his team, rated No. 3 that year, to a 24-23 victory over number-one-rated Alabama. Two years later, playing against the same highly-rated opponent, the Notre Dame team won 13-11 in the Orange Bowl.
Coach Parseghian’s teams were always noted for their precise executions both offensively and defensively. He set up tough drills for every team player, including workouts of Sunday afternoons. This regimen paid off in the case of quarterback John Huarte, who was a third-stringer in 1963 but won the coveted Heisman Trophy a year later. In that year, 1964, the media was so impressed with Parseghian’s coaching ability and both he and coach Frank Broyles of the University of Arkansas, were voted “Coach of the Year.”
Before his coaching career at Notre Dame, Parseghian was head coach at his alma mater, Miami University of Ohio, where his teams won 39 games, lost only six and tied one. After Miami, it was at Northwestern that he attracted the attention of the Notre Dame sports administrators; for four straight years Northwestern defeated Notre Dame. His overall coaching record was 170 victories, 58 defeats and six ties; that put him among the highest-rated college football coaches of all times.
Why did he retire from active coaching at the height of his distinguished career? “I felt like I was on a treadmill,” he explained. “You go from a bowl game to meetings to spring practice to fund-raising and back into a new football season. The cycle is endless. The pace never slackens. There were just too many demands. You think you’re in good health while you’re going through it, but something must be wrong when you’re popping two blood- pressure pills a day.”
Parseghian was born in Akron, Ohio, on May 21, 1923. His father Michael was a native of Moush, Turkey; his mother was born in Nice, France.
“When I was a youngster my father spoke to me, my brother and sister in Armenian, and my mother spoke to us in French,” Parseghian told me. “So I am half-Armenian, but our social activities were always centered around Armenian evens. Even to this day my children grandchildren gravitate toward Armenians affairs, even though my wife is not Armenian.”
When I inquired whether Parseghian was fluent in the Armenian language, he replied: “Frankly, I do not speak Armenian that well, but I can grasp the gist of an Armenian conversation. I suppose one never forgets what one learns as a child.”
It should be noted that Parseghian, a handsome, 5-foot, 10-inch, 200-pound man during his younger days, had been a tremendous athlete himself. He was an outstanding athlete in high school, a three-sport star in college and a professional football player with the Cleveland Browns until a hip injury ended his career.
Parseghian, who served in the U.S. Army during World War II earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Miami University. Following his successful coaching career, he entered the world of television, first hosting a series called “Ara’s Sports World,” a 52-week, halfhour program that encouraged participations of all age groups in sports. In 1967 he joined Keith Jackson and Chris Schenkel as color commentator on the ABC College Game of the Week. Six years later, CBS asked him to join Brent Musburger as an in-studio commentator for pregame, halftime and postgame shows. He retired from this assignment last year and presently is the chairman of the board of Ara Parseghian Enterprises, based in South Bend, Indiana.
“I have an insurance agency with two of my former coaches,” Parseghian told me. “I do public relations work and some motivational speaking and am deeply involved with my favorite charity, multiple sclerosis.”
Multiple sclerosis has claimed the lives of his sister and brother-in-law and has struck his own daughter Karan. His proudest moment came when Karan was able to walk down the aisle at her church wedding.
The greatest pep talk Ara ever gave was not before a football game but rather at the wedding of Karen. “It was low-keyed,” said Parseghian. “I merely suggested that she try walking. She made it! I have never seen my daughter more radiant than when she came out of the church that night.”
Today, the nationally-known football coach considers himself to be `semi-retired,’ enjoying a slow-paced life after so many active and productive years.