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Era of Ara Still Seems Like Just Yesterday

Sunday, August 6, 2017

“You know what it takes to win. Just look at my fist. When I make a fist, it’s strong and you can’t tear it apart. As long as here’s unity, there’s strength. We must become so close with the bonds of loyalty and sacrifice, so deep with the conviction of the sole purpose, that no one, no group, no thing, can ever tear us apart.”

— Ara Parseghian

Time stood still Sunday on the University of Notre Dame campus.

Or, more accurately, time made a half-century detour as Ara Parseghian’s life and tenure as Irish football coach were celebrated at a Mass at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart followed by a touching hour-long memorial service at Purcell Pavilion.

There was John Huarte, the Notre Dame senior quarterback who seemingly emerged from nowhere to lead Parseghian’s first team in 1964 out of college football oblivion. Wasn’t it just yesterday he won the Heisman Trophy?

There was Tom Clements, the last of Ara’s signal-callers. Didn’t Clements just come back to the sidelines after that end-zone heave to Robin Weber that cemented the 1973 Sugar Bowl win over unbeaten Alabama to clinch another national championship?

There were the trophies Parseghian’s teams won for defeating top-rated Texas and Alabama (twice) in the Cotton, Sugar and Orange bowls. Weren’t those just recently hoisted by Ara and his captains?

There were All-Americans Dave Casper, Ross Browner, Luther Bradley, Eric Penick, Mike Townsend, Mike McCoy, Walt Patulski, Larry DiNardo, Jim Lynch, Terry Hanratty and so many more — more than 70 former players all told in South Bend to pay their respects to their former coach and friend.

There were Brian Boulac and Mike Stock, two of Parseghian’s former assistant coaches. Couldn’t the players still recognize their familiar voices from the practice field as they instructed their charges?

Around every corner over the weekend there was another reminder of that 11-year Era of Ara (1964 to 1974) that so emphatically put Notre Dame back on the national football map coming out of the steepest slide in program history.

There was Mike Parseghian, son of the former head coach and once an Irish running back. Wasn’t it just yesterday that Mike and his wife Cindy and their four children built their lives in Tucson, Arizona — before Niemann-Pick Type C disease claimed the lives of the youngest three?

There was Peter Schivarelli, the former Notre Dame lineman who was so passionate about his former coach that — as business manager of the rock group Chicago — he arranged for a percentage of its concert ticket sales to benefit the Ara Parseghian Medical Research Foundation that fought that same disease.

When it was appropriate to erect a Notre Dame Stadium sculpture of Parseghian alongside those of other national title-winning Notre Dame football coaches, it was Schivarelli who led the charge.

University president Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., presiding at the Mass and delivering the homily, referred to “the loss of a truly great man.” A Notre Dame student in the 1970s when Parseghian coached the Irish, Jenkins talked about how students “revered” Ara.

He retold the well-known tale of the “Ara, stop the rain” chant by Notre Dame students at an Irish home game, suggesting, “We attributed to him almost supernatural powers.”

Concluded Jenkins, “Ara was a great coach because he won football games. He was a great man because he changed the lives of those around him.”

Ara’s nephew, Tom Parseghian, spoke on behalf of the family at the conclusion of the Mass and provided intimate details of the former coach’s upbringing.

Ara’s game plan for most all occasions? “He played to his strengths and played to his opponents’ weaknesses,” said Tom. “On the few occasions when an opponent had superior ability, Ara added the psychological angle.”

Tom closed by quoting from John Walter Wayland’s 1899 poem “A True Gentleman.”

The memorial service at Purcell Pavilion, led by Notre Dame alumnus and trustee and NBC News correspondent Anne Thompson, featured remarks from Schivarelli, former Notre Dame dean of science and current Miami University president Greg Crawford and his wife Renate, former Irish football coach Lou Holtz and former Notre Dame basketball coach Digger Phelps.

Thompson opened by quoting a former Irish All-American:

“‘If you make a contribution and you’re willing to work, you will be rewarded.’ That’s how Thom Gatewood remembers Ara Parseghian’s recruiting pitch. It could have been Ara’s mantra.”

Offered Schivarelli, “I quickly realized that no matter how hard we worked, Ara always outworked us. We always felt that we were totally prepared for any situation. Ara always brought a special strength to the team, especially when he would say to us that we have no breaking point.”

Schivarelli admitted being nervous for his final football game, the 1971 Cotton Bowl against unbeaten Texas. Quarterback Joe Theismann, from the next locker, reassured him: “Relax. Ara has a great game plan for us.” Notre Dame won 24-11.

Crawford made major contributions to the Ara Parseghian Medical Research Foundation in his Notre Dame days by riding his bicycle nearly 15,000 miles to help raise awareness and funds for the cause.

When Crawford informed Parseghian of his opportunity to become president at Miami (Ara’s alma mater), Parseghian’s response was, “I guess there’s only one place I’d let you go.”

Added Crawford, “One of my first acts at Miami University was to award the President’s Medal. And as I read through the high standards, somebody who truly exemplified love and honor and extraordinary life achievements, there was no doubt who that first medal would go to.”

Also in attendance Sunday were current Irish football coach Brian Kelly, current Miami coach Chuck Martin (a former Irish assistant under Brian Kelly), former Irish football coach Gerry Faust and current Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald.

An emotional Holtz said, “A lot of people can be successful, but Ara was significant. Significance is when you help other people be successful.”

Holtz appreciated the advice he received from Parseghian after Holtz’s Irish won the 1988 national title: “After we won it, I said, ‘What change is there going to be?’ He said, ‘Number one, you’re going to be the same person that you were your first year when you had a losing season. Don’t think you’re smart. Don’t think you’re special.'”

Holtz had another take on the “Ara, stop the snow” story: “The first time they’re hollering, ‘Stop the snow, Ara, stop the snow.’ He walked over to Tom Pagna, his offensive coordinator, and he said, ‘Do you think I can?’ Ten years later, the same thing happened. Ara said, ‘I walked over to Tom and I said, “Do you think I should?” That’s the difference in the mentality over the years.”

And Holtz loved how Ara handled his 1964 team’s heartbreaking, season-ending loss at USC: “He said to his players, ‘Hold your tongue and lift your head up high in the face of defeat. Be a Notre Dame man. I’ve never been associated with a greater bunch of guys than you. No one will ever forget the achievement you made this year.'”

Phelps revisited the letter he wrote to Parseghian as a Pennsylvania high school coach in the mid-1960s and professed amazement that, after he became the Irish basketball coach, Ara produced the letter from his “crazy letter file.” And Phelps may still not have forgiven Parseghian for hiding all his new office furniture a day after it arrived.

Digger, too, became emotional in expressing what Parseghian meant to him: “As a young coach, during that part of my life it was Ara being my big brother and my mentor. He was incredible when it came to being who he was and especially how he let me learn and know and understand how to coach here at Notre Dame.”

Vince Gill, who with his wife Amy Grant became close with the Parseghians in helping the Niemann-Pick Type C cause, sang a pair of tender songs.

Then Thompson closed with this anecdote:

“After big victories, Ara would often recite a poem to his team, and as he worked through physical therapy just last month, (his son) Mike said Ara suddenly blurted out the poem word for word.”

Remember this whole life through, that tomorrow there will be more to do.
And failure waits for all who stray, with some success made yesterday.
Yesterday is history, tomorrow is the future.

Those Parseghian anecdotes, those victories, those motivational speeches.

Didn’t they happen just yesterday?

For one more day they all came alive.

I can see the tears upon your face, no hiding place
And you’re afraid that soon I will be gone, but time will still go on
You’re searching for the answers you can find, all in good time

What’s the worst thing that can happen,
If they say my time is through
Can they take away the love,
Or the years I’ve shared with you
What’s the worst thing that can happen,
That’s the worst that they can do
Threaten me with Heaven, it’s all they can do
Threaten me with Heaven, if they want to
Threaten me with Heaven, I believe that it’s true
Threaten me with Heaven, I’ll be waiting on you

I hear angels through the window pane, calling my name
Someday when they carve my name in stone, I won’t be, I won’t be alone
If by chance a miracle appears, I’ll dry up your tears

What’s the worst thing that can happen,
If they say my time is through
Can they take away the love,
Or the years I’ve shared with you
What’s the worst thing that can happen,
What’s the worst that they can do
Threaten me with Heaven, it’s all they can do
Threaten me with Heaven, if they want to
Threaten me with Heaven, I believe that it’s true
Threaten me with Heaven, I’ll be waiting on you

–lyrics from “Threaten Me With Heaven” played Sunday
at Purcell Pavilion by Vince Gill in honor of Ara Parseghian