July 6, 2010

NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Former longtime University of Notre Dame football offensive backfield coach Tom Pagna died late Tuesday morning of congestive heart failure at Memorial Hospital in South Bend, Ind. He was 78.

Pagna played a major role in coordinating the Irish offense during all 11 seasons of the Ara Parseghian era at Notre Dame from 1964 through 1974. During that period, those Irish teams won 95 combined games, captured consensus national championships in 1966 and 1973 and won the MacArthur Bowl from the National Football Foundation in 1964.

Pagna helped the Irish to postseason bowl games in five of his last six seasons in South Bend – including victories after the ’70 season over top-rated and unbeaten Texas in the Cotton Bowl, after the ’73 season over number-one-ranked and unbeaten Alabama and after the ’74 campaign over second-rated Alabama in Parseghian’s final game as Notre Dame head coach. Highly-regarded as a play-caller, Pagna coached a long list of Irish greats, including ’64 Heisman Trophy winner John Huarte, as well as all-stars Nick Eddy, Bill Wolski, Larry Conjar, Terry Hanratty, Bob Gladieux, Rocky Bleier, Joe Theismann and Tom Clements. He played a major role in Irish offenses that ranked seventh nationally or better in nine of his 11 seasons in South Bend – including second in ’64, ’68 and ’70 (a record 510.5 yards per game). With Pagna on the sidelines, Notre Dame led the nation in scoring in ’66 (36.2 points per game) and three other times ranked fourth or higher. Among Pagna’s pupils, Eddy, Conjar and Hanratty all became second-round NFL draft selections.

Before coming to Notre Dame in ’64 with Parseghian, Pagna served five seasons on Parseghian’s Northwestern staff from 1959 through ’63 (freshman coach from ’59 to ’61 and backfield coach in ’62 and ’63) – with the Wildcats putting together a 27-18 combined record in those years (including four straight wins over Notre Dame from ’59 through ’62). Pagna coached at Akron (Ohio) North High School in ’57 and ’58. After leaving Notre Dame he spent two seasons as the offensive backfield coach for the NFL Kansas City Chiefs in 1978-79 under head coach Marv Levy.

A spectacular halfback as a player at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, under Parseghian, Pagna twice won Little All-America and all-Ohio honors, as well as three straight all-conference certificates. He was the first player in Miami history to gain more than 1,000 yards rushing in a single nine-game season (1,044 in ’52) and also set the Miami scoring record (78 points in ’52). In 1950 Pagna played on Parseghian’s first freshman team at Miami. He was selected team MVP and most outstanding senior in 1953 — and finished his Miami career with 2,078 rushing yards (averaging 6.4 yards per carry on a career basis) and 151 points scored.

Pagna was a standout in football, basketball and baseball at Springfield Township High School in Akron, Ohio. He also spent three years in the United States Air Force, reaching the rank of captain. A 1954 Miami graduate, Pagna later earned a master’s degree in education from Northwestern in 1961. He played briefly with the NFL Green Bay Packers and Cleveland Browns before injuries cut short his professional career.

After concluding his coaching career, Pagna served as color commentator (working with Tony Roberts) on the Notre Dame Football Radio Network for the Mutual Broadcasting System and Westwood One from 1985-2000 – and also hosted his own radio talk show in 1996 (Michiana Talk) on which he always said, “Never despair, always have hope. . . . God writes straight with crooked lines.” He had been a longtime editorial contributor to Blue & Gold Illustrated. He served one year as executive director of the Notre Dame Alumni Association (named to that slot in 1975), worked with Ara Parseghian Enterprises, headed up the South Bend-Mishawaka Metropolitan YMCA in South Bend in the early 1980s, worked as vice president with Trans-Aire Sports, Inc. in Elkhart, Ind., and also served as senior vice president for marketing at the Varsity Club of America.

In 2008 he received the Creighton Miller Outstanding Running Back Award from the All-American Football Foundation. That same year he was inducted into the Indiana Football Hall of Fame via the St. Joseph Valley chapter. In 1990 he received the Jack Quinlan Excellence in Sports Broadcasting Award from the Notre Dame Club of Chicago. In 1983 the Moose Krause Chapter of the National Football Foundation named him its Distinguished American. He is a member of the Summit County Athletic Hall of Fame in Akron, and the Miami University Athletic Hall of Fame.

Known as a superb speaker, Pagna also is author of several books – “Parseghian and Notre Dame Football” in 1970, “Notre Dame’s Era of Ara” in 1976 with Bob Best, “The Phantom Letters: Motivation at Notre Dame in the Parseghian Years” in 2005 and “Petals From a Rose” in 1998.

Born Jan. 28, 1932 in Cleveland and raised in Akron, Pagna is survived by his wife Shirley, daughters Sandy Major (Mike) and Susan Staszewski (Bob), and grandsons Adam and Christopher Staszewski.

Funeral arrangements are pending through Welsheimer North Funeral Home, 17033 Cleveland Road, South Bend, Ind. 46635 (574-968-0058).

— ND —