Aug. 2, 2017
The following story appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Sept. 14, 1979.
By Skip Myslenski
SOUTH BEND, Indiana — The walls of the man’s office are papered with memories. There is John Huarte, running off the cover of a 1964 Sports Illustrated and leading the team that personifies the headline “Notre Dame Returns To Power.” There are Terry Hanratty and Jim Seymour, a baby-faced duo, on the cover of Time; and Joe Theismann, a whirligig, scoring against Texas: and Tom Clements in the end zone of the Sugar Bowl, his right arm raised and ready to release the pass that will guarantee another national championship. There are three MacArthur Bowl plaques, two sets of horns from the Cotton Bowl, a coach of the year citation, and more-paraphernalia and memorabilia enough to fill a museum.
In the middle of the room is a cluttered desk, and behind it the man who operates from here is at ease. He is chairman of the board of the insurance company that he guides from this setting; he serves, too, as a football commentator for ABC, as a motivational speaker, as a public-relations spokesman for various firms, as a fund-raiser for the fight against multiple sclerosis, and as a board member of both the MS Foundation and Miami University, his alma mater. The color of his hair is a distinguished salt-and-pepper, the lines of his face are few and soft, the tone of his voice is calm and without urgency, and he is pushed back in a leather chair, his mouth wrapped around a large cigar and his feet propped atop a nearby sideboard.
In front of him, on the edge of the desk, is a nameplate that was sent to him at Miami and that has traveled with him from there to Northwestern to Notre Dame and now to this ninth- floor office in the St. Joseph’s Bank Building in downtown South Bend. “Coach Ara Parseghian,” it simply says, recalling the man s past life. But here there are no movies to view, no game plans to produce, no ranking to protect, no opponent to consider–and so there is time to give, time that in that past life had been hoarded and protected.
Then, a conversation was limited by the demands of his job, but now it will flow easily and without interruption throughout all of a Monday morning. “The pace I’m involved in now,” Parseghian says, “is more reasonable and rational than before.
“People who compare pictures of you from back then and pictures of you now say you look younger,” he is told.
“Those were very true pictures that were taken. I was drawn, my eyes were sunk back in my head. Twenty-five years of coaching caught up to me. The long hours–I’ve always been an early riser. The pressure of the season–I worked myself and my staff maybe too hard. I’ve looked back and asked myself why it was that way, and realized I wouldn’t have had the success I did without doing it that way. You have to operate in a manner based on your own personality, on your own makeup. I didn’t change over the years. I remained excitable. I always got emotionally involved.”
“Do you feel younger now?”
“Yeah,” Parseghian says. “Yeah, I do.”
I was on a treadmill, and I couldn’t seem to get off.
When he came to Notre Dame after coaching at Miami of Ohio and Northwestern, he was greeted as a redeemer, as a messiah, with an outdoor pep rally in the middle of a Midwest winter, and that fall he earned even hosannas, driving his team to a record of 9-1 and losing the national championship in the last quarter of the last game of the season. More seasons would follow, more successes would be garnered, more honors would be showered down upon him, and for a decade Parseghian successfully endured all the demands and the duties and the pressures of the toughest coaching position in the country.
Yet those years did not pass without a toll, for he was a driven man, an intense man, a man who courted urgency; his days were always long and his nights were always short and he was never able to escape for rest or sweet surcease.
During the season he would awake at 4:30 each morning, dress, depart his house within a half-hour, and drive to Milt’s Grill, an unpretentious South Bend diner a couple of miles south of campus. There, he would spend an hour drinking coffee and reading The Tribune and the Sun-Times and the Wall Street Journal, and then he would leave for his office, where his first staff meeting would begin promptly at 7 and where his last staff meeting would not end until 10 at night.
“Before a game, his tension builds almost to a point of suffering. He has to choke back the tears,” his wife Kathleen once said, and after games he could go for 32 hours before relaxing enough to fall asleep. When those games passed, when a season ended, there would be recruiting to do, and then spring practice to plan and hold, and then appearances to make and speeches to give, and finally, on the horizon, fall and another year.
“I didn’t work by the hour, a worked by the job, by what had to be done,” Ara Parseghian says now. “I didn’t consider it work. A responsibility, yes, but not work . . . I was on a treadmill and I couldn’t seem to get off.”
“My freshman year there was his second year, and he was striking, a very good-looking guy,” says Terry Hanratty, who played quarterback for Parseghian through 1968. “But about five years later I saw him at a banquet in New York and thought, ‘My God, what have you been doing to yourself?’ His hair was grayer, he looked tired, he didn’t have the bounce, he’d slowed down, it wasn’t Ara. You could see retirement coming.”
It hadn’t come by the summer of 1974, but then Parseghian’s treadmill began spinning even faster and the emotions that well within him began being touched even deeper. First, six players were suspended for violating a dormitory rule during summer school, and he was forced to plead their case before the university, to explain the circumstances to the families and communities involved, and to defend them when civil action was contemplated against them. “I make no bones about it,” he once said, thinking of that time when they were dismissed from Notre Dame. “I shed tears.”
Then, in quick order, a friend from Evanston died, and a friend from South Bend died, and announcer Van Patrick died shortly after Parseghian did a show with him. “I couldn’t pinpoint it, but I personally think he got a health scare,” says Roger Valdiserri, the school’s assistant athletic director and Parseghian’s close friend. “I think he realized he was vulnerable.”
His emotions were affected even more acutely on the Saturday before the Monday night game that would open that season, when his older daughter Karan, a victim of multiple sclerosis, walked down the aisle and was married in a ceremony that moved all who witnessed It.
The season that soon began evolved into a continuing struggle pockmarked with problems, and Ara Parseghian, a man who had once eschewed even aspirin, was suddenly taking tranquilizers and sleeping pills and pills to control his blood pressure. “That’s not living,” he once told Valdiserri. He also began to talk of retirement with his wife and brother, and one evening during the year he stopped in the darkened halls of the Athletic and Convocation Center and stared long and hard at the gold-plated bust of Knute Rockne. “You,” he muttered to the statue. “You started all this.”
“Why did Frank Leahy resign?” he asked Valdiserri at one point.
“How did he get through the demands of the job?” he asked him at another.
“I’ve got news for you,” he told him often.
“I just resigned.”
“Then he’d laugh,” Valdiserri recalls. “But behind the laugh, you could read that it had gotten to the point where he was thinking about it.”
The thinking stopped on the night of Nov. 2, as he flew home with his team from Philadelphia and from its meeting there with Navy. “The postgame exhaustion after that was incredible,” he once recalled–yet he would tell no one of his intentions until a month had passed. Then, on Friday, Dec. 6, he met with Fr. Edmund Joyce, the school s vice president in charge of athletics, and announced that he would resign after his team s confrontation with Alabama in the Orange Bowl. Joyce received the news with some skepticism, but in the next seven days he talked with Parseghian’s wife, grew convinced that this was not a hasty or emotional decision, and contacted Dan Devine, who was coaching in Green Bay and was his choice as successor.
The next Friday, the 13th, Joyce off his car at Parseghian’s house, and the two of them talked further us they drove toward Elkhart and a party at the home of a mutual friend. The discussion continued later that night, and they agreed to meet again on the following Monday, but as they pulled into Parseghian’s driveway, his son Mike bounded out of the front door. “Dad,” he said. “It’s been on the news that you’re going to resign.”.
“All of a sudden we had a problem,” Ara Parseghian now recalls. “We weren’t sure when we should do it.” They decided to do it immediately, and at 8 o’clock the next morning he gave the news to his staff at an emergency meeting, and that afternoon the same news was officially released to the public. “It was an inevitable thing.” Valdiserri now says. “The time had come, his complexion was almost gray. You could tell he was emotionally and physically spent.
“I think 10 years is about all people can stay in that job, if they care about their health. They stay longer if they have a death wish.”
“It was a sum accumulation of a lot of things,” says Ara Parseghian himself. “The best way to say it is that it was 24 years as a head coach, 11 of them at Notre Dame.”
I’ll always make things happen.
He departed with accomplishments littered behind him. He had won Notre Dame’s first national championship in 17 years, he had produced Notre Dame’s first undefeated and untied team in 23 years, he had guided Notre Dame to Top 10 finishes in 9 of his 11 years, he had grown into the second winningest coach in Notre Dame’s history, and he had been given a place in the Notre Dame pantheon that before him had included only Knute Rockne and Frank Leahy. He was much honored, regarded as one of the finest in his craft, and so the explanation he offered for his resignation–health reasons–was accepted skeptically and viewed cynically.
Soon after his announcement, it was speculated that he would sit out a year and then coach the Tampa Bay franchise that would begin NFL play in 1976, and in the time that has since passed his name has been connected with the Cleveland Browns, the New Orleans Saints, the New York Jets, the Cincinnati Bengals, and the Seattle Seahawks. “What’s the real reason he’s quitting?” people would continually ask Valdiserri.
“The last thing a general sports writer’s going to believe is that a guy is actually stepping aside for health reasons,” Parseghian now says. “So they speculated that I was signed, sealed, and delivered to a pro team. Anyone who knew me at Notre Dame knows I’m very candid in my responses, but so many just couldn’t believe the truth. Our confidence in politicians today is less than what we’d like it to be, and as a result anything that comes out as a positive statement is open to speculation. I’ve seen it happen. A guy says something one week and the next week he does something else.”
But this was not Parseghian’s way, and he slipped slowly into his easier life with the same grace and aplomb that had characterized his days at the vortex. He stayed away from reporters, from interviews, from the public spotlight, and he did the inevitable cleanup work that faced him in an office tucked away in the ACC, far removed from that inhabited by his successor, Dan Devine.
In that first year he helped form Ara Parseghian Enterprises, an insurance company that deals primarily with banks and car dealers, and he rejected an overture from ABC, for he didn’t feel he could do an objective job in his initial season away from coaching. “I knew I’d be emotional,” he now recalls, and his prophecy was proven correct that fall, when he attended Notre Dame’s meeting with Michigan State. Valdiserri had given him a seat in a radio booth, a floor above the general press box, and there Parseghian fidgeted and fussed and worried throughout the first half.
“I don’t want to spoil the game for you. I’m going home,” he then told the friend that was with him. He did, and there he attempted to watch its conclusion on television, but he couldn’t manage even this and soon was in his backyard, where he received periodic updates from his wife.
The following season he began work for ABC, but he was not yet immune to past attachments and as he analyzed Notre Dame’s game with Pitt, he referred to his old school as “we.”
“It’s not ‘we’ anymore,” Keith Jackson gently chided him.
Those emotions are now under control, though the beliefs and habits that served him so well in the past are still part of him, Ile defines his business as judging personnel, evaluating competition, setting goals, and finding the best way to meet those goals. On this morning he arose at 5:45 and was in his office and behind his desk by 7:30. (A day earlier, a Sunday, he was also there, arranging his schedule and planning his week.) “One of the things in this business is that there’s no ceiling to your possible accomplishments,” he says.
“Would you ever go into coaching again?” he’s then asked.
“I’ll repeat what I’ve said many times. I’ll never coach in college again. As far as the pros, I review my options on an annual basis when coaching changes are made.”
“Do you still get calls from them?”
“Under what circumstances would you go back?”
“I’d have to get myself in good health”–he had a gall bladder operation in January and an operation on his right hip, his old football injury, in June–“and the challenges that I’m meeting in my lifestyle today would have to diminish. Thus far, they’ve been enough to keep me involved. Right now, I’m finding challenges. If they did diminish, it would probably return my interest.”
“How would your wife react?”
“She’d react unfavorably. But she’d say if that’s what I want, if that’s the way I’d be happiest, then she’d accept it.”
But for now, Parseghian is content. He needs neither tranquilizers nor sleeping pills, and his dosage of blood pressure medicine is half what it used to be, and his blood pressure is the lowest it has been in his life. He no longer jogs or plays racquetball or handball (because of his hip), but he still gets out for an occasional round of golf, and he swims and walks and rides a bike. He admits to missing the excitement of working with players, the excitement of drawing up a game plan and implementing it and adjusting it, but he enjoys the freedom now anted him and the opportunity to have dinner and a quiet evening at home. “Do you miss the applause?” he is asked.
“No,” he says quickly. “I’ve never been a seeker of publicity. But on the other side of the coin, I’m always running into people who recognize me. TV has widened my identification. I can’t walk through an airport without being recognized, I can’t walk down many streets without being recognized, I can’t go to a function without being recognized. I go out to make a talk, and I get a kick out of it . . They give you applause when you stand up and more applause when you sit down. Maybe it’s a substitute. It’s always a pleasure to do a good job and to have people know you’ve done a good job.”
He pauses here, rocks back in his chair, fingers his cigar. and then puffs on it. “I’m just wondering if that is a substitute for me or not,” Parseghian finally says. “The only way I’d know is if I got completely out of public involvement. But that’ll never happen to me. I’ll always make things happen.”