by Craig Chval
If 24-hour radio shows and all-sports television networks had been in existence on Jan. 1, 1973, could you imagine the intonations of the talking heads as the clock approached midnight and Nebraska was celebrating its 40-6 thrashing of Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl.
Announcer 1:Coming on the heels of Notre Dame’s 45-23 loss to Southern California in its final regular-season game, this loss really raises some questions about the direction of the Irish program.
Announcer 2: I agree. First, Anthony Davis scores six touchdowns for USC against Notre Dame, and now Johnny Rodgers scores four tonight for the Cornhuskers. Notre Dame barely managed 200 yards of total offense, while surrendering 560 yards of total offense to Nebraska. Maybe Ara Parseghian used smoke and mirrors to win that national championship in 1966 and to lead the Irish to top-10 finishes in each of his first seven seasons at Notre Dame. This marks the first time Notre Dame has lost three games in a season since 1963. I think perhaps the game has passed Parseghian by a little bit.
In his book, Era of Ara, co-authored with Bob “The Czar” Best, longtime Parseghian assistant coach Tom Pagna described the three defeats suffered by the ’72 team, which included a 30-26 upset loss to Missouri in October, as “three of the most stunning defeats in Notre Dame history.”
But if people doubted Parseghian’s ability to once again produce teams that lived up to the lofty standards Parseghian had established for himself at Notre Dame, they did so at their own peril. Parseghian, whose intensity was legendary, challenged his players and his staff – and most of all, himself – as never before.
Pagna remembers Parseghian’s drive in the weeks and months following the Orange Bowl.
“Ara was constantly asking the staff, ‘Where did we go wrong? What mistakes did we make as coaches?'”
During the offseason, Notre Dame switched from its customary 4-4-3 defense to a 4-3-4 alignment. Starting positions were up for grabs. No fewer than four returning starters from the ’72 team found themselves in backup roles
And Parseghian implemented new team rules.
“Ara had always been one to listen to the players,” recalls Pagna.
“When assistants would argue that we should have restrictions on the length of players’ hair and things like that, Ara would always say, ‘Give me something I can hang my hat on. Give me a reason to do it.’
“And if we couldn’t provide an adequate rationale for a rule like that, Ara wouldn’t go for it. He didn’t always agree with a lot of what was going on in those days, but he wouldn’t impose rules without having a legitimate reason.
“But after the ’72 season he decided that we were going to put some new rules into place, and for the first time, we really clamped down. And he really stuck with it.”
New players, rules and formations? Some would see these as desperate moves by a captain ready to go down with his ship.
But not this time.
If it would be difficult to imagine a more disheartening start to 1973 than Notre Dame’s performance in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 1, 1973, it would be even more difficult to imagine a more spectacular and satisfying conclusion to 1973 than the Irish provided with their performance in the Sugar Bowl on the night of Dec. 31, 1973.
Parseghian’s team needed only 364 days to completely vindicate itself, as the Irish completed Notre Dame’s first perfect season since 1949 and earned Notre Dame’s ninth consensus national championship with an electrifying 24-23 upset of top-ranked Alabama.
Even Parseghian was surprised to be sitting atop the college football world quite so soon.
“It was unexpected,” Parseghian confesses. “I thought we were a year away.”
Everybody connected with the ’73 Irish, who are celebrating the 30th anniversary of their national championship season this weekend, agrees that team chemistry was critical to the team’s success. But debating who is most responsible for creating that chemistry should make for some lively conversation at the team banquet following today’s game.
To a man, the players point to their coach. Parseghian points right back at them, praising both talent and attitude.
Parseghian, when pressed for a key to the ’73 season, points to the unexpected contributions from prize freshmen Ross Browner, Luther Bradley, Al Hunter and Willie Fry.
“The thing that stands out in my mind was the ability of our freshmen to make big contributions in the areas where we needed them most,” he says.
“They fit in as if they were perfect pieces to a puzzle.
“Sometimes it takes two or three years before a player is ready to step in and contribute,” Parseghian says. “How lucky can you be?”
Pagna is having none of that.
“He is a born leader,” says Pagna of Parseghian.
“He has that rare, rare ability to focus and pinpoint exactly what are the key points to success, and to communicate them to the team.”
Pagna, who played for Parseghian at Miami (Ohio), and coached with him at both Northwestern and Notre Dame, also credits the leadership of Notre Dame’s captains – seniors Dave Casper, Mike Townsend and Frank Pomarico – along with junior quarterback Tom Clements and junior linebacker Greg Collins.
Parseghian also praises the leadership provided by the older players, many of whom lost playing time upon the arrival of the fabulous freshmen.
“Sometimes it’s tough between the groups of younger players and older players,” acknowledges Parseghian. “But we had excellent chemistry.”
Parseghian had a well-deserved reputation for being an exacting taskmaster, but he went out of his way to make sure his players also had fun. The delight in his voice is still unmistakable as he recounts the intrasquad “talent” competitions held at the close of practice each Thursday.
“The offense would come up with some jingle about our upcoming opponent, something about how we’d kick their tails,” explains Parseghian.
“Then the defense would take its turn, singing a jingle. And then the scout team would perform one.
“They’d all be cheering like hell, looking at me to pronounce the winner. I’d take my time, pretending that I was really trying to decide. I’d finally announce a winner, and they acted like they’d just won the Super Bowl,” Parseghian laughs.
“That was something, to see that kind of exuberance at the end of practice,” Parseghian says. “It was important to know that we would work hard, but that we’d also have fun.
“After all these years, I still tell my wife I wish we had gotten some of those talent shows on film.”
At least there is plenty of film capturing the on-the-field exploits of the Irish.
As Parseghian’s young team was finding its way early in the season, it faced a stern midseason test in USC. Notre Dame hadn’t defeated the Trojans since 1966, but the Irish proved they were for real with a 23-14 win over the sixth-ranked Trojans.
Bradley set the stage on the first play from scrimmage. The rookie defensive back hit USC star flanker Lynn Swann so hard that he not only broke up quarterback Pat Haden’s pass, but knocked Swann’s helmet completely off his head.
Junior halfback Eric Penick broke the Trojans’ backs in the third quarter, exploding through a gaping hole opened by the left side of the Notre Dame line to race 85 yards down the sideline for a touchdown. Nobody touched Penick until he was mobbed in the end zone by the Notre Dame student section.
Although undefeated, the Irish were only ranked fifth when they took the field against top-ranked Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
Somehow, the first-ever meeting between the legendary programs and their legendary coaches — Parseghian and the Crimson Tide’s Paul “Bear” Bryant — managed to live up to its incredible pregame build-up. The lead changed hands six times, with Irish kicker Bob Thomas’ 19-yard field goal with 4:26 to play providing Notre Dame’s 24-23 margin of victory.
But the matter wasn’t settled until Sugar Bowl MVP Clements completed a third down pass from his own end zone to tight end Robin Weber, allowing Notre Dame to run out the clock.
Can you hear the talk-radio hosts and the all-sports stations now?
Announcer 1: Notre Dame proved tonight why it is always one of the top teams in the country.
Announcer 2: Ara Parseghian proved tonight that he is a true genius among college coaches.