Oct. 8, 2004
By Pete LaFleur
Notre Dame’s storied football history includes 11 consensus national championships and five other seasons when the Irish finished No. 2 in the national polls. Yet another season that falls outside those 16 – the 9-1 campaign of 1964 – always will be considered one of the finest seasons in Notre Dame football history.
The reason that such lofty status is heaped upon the 1964 season involves not so much the final record as it does the circumstances leading up to that memorable fall. The Irish program had experienced an unthinkable slump, without a winning season in the five-year stretch from 1959-63, and a new coaching staff led by Ara Parseghian had been called in to right the ship on the heels of a dismal 2-7 showing in 1963.
The bar of expectations for 1964 was set low for traditional Notre Dame standards, as many of the Irish faithful would be content with the “baby steps” progress of simply compiling a winning record. “Six-and-four in ’64” became a common catchphrase among the ND alums … but there certainly was the fear of yet another season in which the Irish failed to win more games than they lost.
The Irish – playing for their third head coach in as many seasons – opened the season with the additional hurdle of playing on the road, but Parseghian’s mastery had his team clicking from the get-go in a 31-7 rout of Wisconsin. The win vaulted Notre Dame to No. 9 in the AP poll and the Irish then climbed to the 6th, 4th and No. 2 spots after wins over Purdue (34-15), at Air Force (34-7) and back at home vs. UCLA (24-0).
Two more wins over Stanford (28-6) and the Roger Staubach-led Navy squad (40-0, in Philadelphia) preceded a 17-15 escape at Pittsburgh that pushed Notre Dame up to the No. 1 ranking for the first time in a decade. A couple more wins followed over Michigan State (28-0) and Iowa (28-0), but a heartbreaking loss at USC (17-20) prevented the Irish from claiming what would have been a storybook national championship (Notre Dame did not compete in postseason bowls at that time).
When the dust had settled, Notre Dame stunningly had set 27 team records and tied two others – as the Irish coupled a record-setting aerial attack (2,015 total passing yards) with the nation’s second-ranked rush defense (68.7 yards per game) while finishing third in the final national polls.
Today we pay tribute to coach Parseghian while celebrating the 40th anniversary of that magical season. Nine individuals who were participants or close observers in that season have provided their insights into what Parseghian did to “make that season click.” They dissect his leadership style and highlight some of the key decisions that made the debut season in the “Era of Ara” one that never should be forgotten.
The comments included below come from nine individuals (one for each win of the ’64 season): two leading players on that 1964 team (Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback John Huarte and captain Jim Carroll), assistant coaches Tom Pagna and Johnny Ray, graduate assistant coach Brian Boulac, the team’s radio analyst at the time Jim Morse, longtime South Bend Tribune writer Joe Doyle, legendary Notre Dame fencing coach Mike DeCicco (who also worked closely with the football team in ’64 as its academic advisor) and a spirited student from the early 1960s, Russell “Cappy” Gagnon (now a security specialist at his alma mater). All of the above individuals, with the exception of Pagna, have the added perspective of being Notre Dame graduates and (with the exception of DeCicco and Gagnon) most also played football for the Irish.
Building A Staff
Parseghian had been a successful coach at his alma mater Miami of Ohio (1951-55) and Northwestern (1956-63) and he brought two assistants with him to Notre Dame – Richard “Doc” Urich (ends and offensive line coach) and Paul Shoults (defensive backs) – who had been on his staffs at both of the previous schools. Pagna, who had played for Parseghian at Miami, also came along from the staff at Northwestern and coached the offensive backfield.
The other five coaches on the 1964 staff all were former Notre Dame players. Ray, brought in to coach the defensive linemen and linebackers, was a South Bend native and had served five years as head coach of one of the nation’s top defensive teams at John Carroll University. Joe Yonto had been head coach at Notre Dame High School in Niles, Ill., and would assist with the defensive line. The other three – Dave Hurd (assisted with offensive line), George Sefcik (head freshman coach) and John Murphy (assistant freshman coach) – all had been retained from the 1963 staff, providing Parseghian with a link for perspective on the previous seasons.
“Ara did a great job of balancing that staff and we worked well together as a team of coaches. It was a very strong staff from the top down,” says Pagna.
“He told his assistants, `Loyalty is a two-way street’ and there was great mutual respect among all of us. He was a dynamic personality and commanded your attention. If you had an idea, he heard it out – and might make it better. As a member of that staff, you wanted to be a contributor.”
A common theme when discussing the dawning of the Era of Ara is the coach’s unquestioned ability to inspire his players with newfound confidence.
“Ara had a knack for developing a lot of pride in yourself and in the team. He simply came in and rebuilt our confidence from day one,” says Carroll. “Ara was such a devoted coach and he had that great love of the game that was contagious. He sold us on the fact we should be confident in our selves.”
According to Doyle, the first-year Irish coach “had confidence in his own ability and it easily permeated the entire squad.”
It also swept across a campus starving for a return to glory on the gridiron. “When Ara arrived it was like a big breath of fresh air,” says Gagnon. “He took us out of the wilderness.”
“The success of that 1964 season happened in stages and as a new coach Ara had to establish discipline with that team,” says Boulac, who had wrapped up his career as a member of the floundering 1963 squad.
The mantra of discipline extended to all phases of the football players’ lives – practice, games, academics and social life.
“When Ara was at Northwestern, he felt that Notre Dame had better players but would lose on a fumble or bad penalty,” remembers Gagnon. “It basically a lack of discipline and he set out to change that from the start.”
Morse often spoke with fellow Muskegon, Mich., native Bill Wolski (a fullback on the ’64 team) and asked about the change in practice sessions under the new coach. “He said it was like night and day. Everything they did in practice had a purpose and there was no wasted time,” says Morse.
The 1964 spring season featured a clear message from the head coach: no players on the team were to run into trouble at any of the local South Bend taverns.
“It happened to a guy on the team, probably our best pro prospect, and he was kicked off the team,” says Boulac. “Kids saw that the man means what he says. He stood by his guns.”
The high level of discipline also extended to the academic realm. After meeting with executive vice president Father Edmund Joyce, C.S.C., and DeCicco, Ara had a familiar message for his team.
“He told those kids that they had to follow the academic guidelines as they were outlined or they wouldn’t play,” says DeCicco. “And the first kid who stepped on the cracks, Ara booted him off the field. There was complete discipline.
“That message spread through the team like it was cancer. Those kids straightened out and flew right. Ara told us he respected what Notre Dame meant on the academic side even more than athletically. Everyone thinks that coaches always are looking for ways to beat the system but that was not Ara’s way of doing things.”
All of the confidence and discipline in the world may not have added up to a nine-win season. But Parseghian added another wrinkle to his coaching genius by pulling the right strings with several key position switches – in addition to the pivotal moment in which he selected a starting quarterback.
Huarte logged just 50 combined minutes of playing time in the ’62 and ’63 seasons and had yet to earn a varsity monogram. Huarte had an unconventional style. But there were things Parseghian liked about him – namely his dodging feet and a quick release – and he declared Huarte the starter at the end of spring ball. He envisioned the California product leading his team to great heights the following fall.
One of the key position shifts produced Huarte’s favorite target, as Jack Snow dropped 15 pounds and converted from fullback to receiver. Snow went on to set three Irish single-season records and finished fifth in the Heisman voting, even garnering Doyle’s first-place vote for the nation’s top award.
The holdover “Elephant Backfield – comprised of halfbacks Paul Costa (240 pounds), Jim Snowden (250) and fullback Pete Duranko (235) – also was disbanded, with each moving to the line (Snowden on the offensive side and the others on the defensive). Duranko and Snowden enjoyed pro careers thanks to the switch, with Duranko also earning All-America honors as a member of the fearsome defensive-line foursome that helped the Irish win the 1966 national title.
Rules changes had introduced two-platoon football for the 1964 season and Parseghian also shined in this regard by placing players on their most effective side of the ball. Huarte and Snow were anchored on the offensive team while playing such as defensive lineman Alan Page and linebacker Jim Lynch were free to focus on the start of their tremendous All-America careers as elite defensive players.
“I’ve known every Notre Dame head coach since Frank Leahy and none has been as thoroughly prepared and organized as Ara,” says Morse. “He could adjust to the situation and put people in the right positions. He led virtually the same players from a 2-7 season to a 9-1 record the next year.”
Adds Huarte, “From a psychological standpoint, Ara was very smart in how he handled the players. In my case, he told me just go out there and play and if I made mistakes they were going to stick with me. He also was very good at using players in the scope of their skill levels. He just was outstanding in developing his offensive scheme to maximize the personnel.”
Parseghian and his staff used several tactics – such as computerized scouting, quartering the team at nearby Moreau Seminary the night before home games and heading to Phoenix a day early before moving on to USC – that were new to Notre Dame and, in some cases, on the cutting edge nationwide. He also was not afraid to insert himself into drills on a regular basis, strengthening the bonds between player and coach. “They had never heard of the two-minute drill at Notre Dame before Ara got there,” says Doyle. “he would simulate the drill and control the clock. One time they scored six straight times and on the seventh drive and Ara jumped out there and kicked the field goal. He just really got into the spirit of the thing.
The first-year Irish coach also would run goal-line scrimmages at every practice and in general had full knowledge of everything that was going on at each position. “Ara knew both sides of the ball like a book and it was like he was the coordinator on both sides,” says Doyle.
Adds Ray, “Ara truly was a hands-on coach who knew his x’s and o’s and knew the psychology of how to handle a team. He even would lead the warmup exercises the players would respect him even more for things like that.”
Gagnon was just as impressed the day after games as he was on Saturdays. “Starting with that 1964 season, Ara would do a Sunday afternoon TV show and he would break down the plays from the day before,” says Gagnon. Just watching that, it was clear that he knew his stuff.”
Intensity … Tempered by Humor
Parseghian’s intense approach to his job provided great inspiration to players and fans alike.
“Ara was such a great motivator who pushed the right buttons,” says Boulac. “After the first game when everything we did was right, the kids believed in everything he said. It was such an emotional season and we exploded on the scene.”
Adds Ray, “Ara had such a thorough and intelligent was of doing things. It showed the type of person he was. If he was in business, he would have been a top CEO or president of some great company.”
Like many great leaders, Parseghian had a depth to his personality that often went unperceived by the general public.
“Most people never really saw what a great sense of humor Ara had,” says Ray. “He was very intense on the sideline and in preparing the team but he also was great at using that intensity to set up his funny side.”
A common phrase among the Irish coaches was “Ara is putting the `gig’ on you,” in reference to one of the coach’s classic practical jokes. On one such occasion, he instructed Boulac to load up some free weights at the bottom of one assistant’s travel bag. He then called that coach into the locker room and gave him a spirited pep talk for the ensuing recruiting trip.
“Ara’s voice was getting that crescendo and he keeps saying things like `You can’t fail’ and `Do you understand?”,” recalls Ray. “And then he tells the coach to pick up his bag and get going and the guy was so excited he ran five steps before falling down like a sack of potatoes because of the weights.
“But that was the thing about Ara. He was very clever and intelligent with his humor and it helped keep all of us loose at the right times.”
In his book, aptly titled “Era of Ara,” Pagna wrote that athletics was the lifeblood of Notre Dame and “Ara provided the transfusion.” It truly was a magical season in 1964, setting the stage for national championship seasons in ’66 and ’73.
It was a season that never should be forgotten.