Sept. 30, 2017
By John Heisler
The Ara Parseghian Medical Research Fund has held a number of functions on University of Notre Dame home football weekends over the years.
But surely none of the previous events provided the same tone of the one Friday night at the Morris Inn on campus–celebrating the life and furthering the legacy of the former Irish head football coach who died nearly two months ago.
This weekend likely would have been the ultimate tribute to Ara who is honored on both the Notre Dame and Miami campuses with sculptures noting his coaching accomplishments at each university.
The institutional connections now go even further with current Miami president Greg Crawford having come from the position of dean of the College of Science at Notre Dame (where he worked closely with the APMRF, including multiple cross-country bicycle rides to raise funds and awareness) and current Miami head coach Chuck Martin left the Notre Dame football coaching staff to go to Oxford following the 2013 season.
All of that meant Friday’s event took on another dimension, with emotions spilling a bit quicker than normal.
Here is a sampling of remarks made by various speakers at the event:
Notre Dame vice president and James E. Rohr athletics director Jack Swarbrick:
“When we scheduled this game, we looked forward to it as a way to celebrate the legacy of one of the most important people in the history of the University. We celebrate it under different conditions than we would have hoped. But we come together still to celebrate everything Ara stood for and cared about, including his crusade to find a cure for Niemann-Pick Type C.
“My interactions with Ara spanned many generations and include three chapters. The first was when I was in school here. I was an avid hockey fan, and so I and some of my friends would sleep out overnight to be first in line to get our hockey student season tickets every year. We slept outside the Joyce Center when about 5:15 one morning the headlights came up and woke us and out of the car came Coach Parseghian. There were only four of us there, and he had no idea why we were doing that.
“When I came back here and after I’d been in the job about 90 days I asked him for some counsel and advice, and I had the chance to do that several more times over the years, including when we made a coaching change. He always was so generous with his time and his counsel and also was so reassuring. He never took that as an opportunity to tell me how to do my job. He used it as an opportunity to make sure we were focused on the right values.
“In the middle of my career an organization I helped run in Indianapolis was recognizing Coach Parseghian in his fight against this insidious disease. There were about 2,000 people at the event, and we presented him with an award and a donation. After he spoke I went up and introduced myself and I said, ‘Coach, I can’t tell you how moved I am by your commitment to this cause and all the energy and time you put into it.’ He said, ‘Jack, it would only be notable if I did not do it.’ That struck me as such a poignant expression of the things he valued over anything else.
“You’ll see a number of things Saturday-Ara’s name on the helmets and video tributes during the game. None of that will ever be enough. It can never begin to match the impact he has made on family–his own, this University’s and the family of our football program.”
Miami president Greg Crawford:
“When I had to tell Coach Parseghian that I was going to go to Miami, he said, ‘Well, Greg, I guess there’s only one place I’d ever let you go.’
“In the first few months before my inauguration at Miami, I sat down with my team and they said I had the opportunity to give the highest honor that’s given by Miami University. At Miami we always use the phrase ‘love and honor’ to explain how our values merge. The President’s Medal was going to be given to someone who exemplified that in every form and I didn’t have to think about that for one second before I knew who that medal had to go to.
“When Coach came to Oxford last fall we were trying to figure out where to seat him during the ceremony. At the time our football team was 0-6, so I said, ‘Why don’t we sit him next to Coach Martin?’ After that Miami went on to win the next six games. So I had to ask Ara, ‘What did you tell Coach Martin?’ He said, ‘First I told him his offense was too complicated. In my day we had three plays-we ran right, we ran left or we passed.’ The second piece of advice was that if the other team doesn’t score, you can’t lose. The third one was that if your fullback can average three and a half yards a play running the ball, you’ll win the game.
“One time when I stopped at his home to see him, he answered the door and his first comment to me was, ‘How is my fullback doing?’
“If you know three things about Coach, it’s his courage, his grace and his humility.”
Former Irish quarterback and 1964 Heisman Trophy winner John Huarte:
“The first time I saw Ara we were playing Northwestern, he was the coach there and I was a sophomore in 1962 and kneeling on the sideline with Jack Snow. We looked across the field and the quarterback was Tom Myers throwing to Paul Flatley. They sort of dinked their way down the field, little curls and little outs, and they scored. And we looked across at Ara and we thought, ‘We can do that.’
“We were a poor football team in 1963 and then there was a celebration because Ara Parseghian was coming to coach. It was the dead of winter and we had a beautiful snowfall. Somehow a pep rally fell together and Ara came over to the porch at Sorin Hall and first there were 200, and then 400 and finally maybe 600 students stopping to hear what Ara had to say. There was an absolute vibrant energy across the campus. Ara said we were going to be disciplined and we were going to win some games.
“In spring ball, we had one of our first meetings at O’Shaughnessy Hall. I sat near the door. As we filed out, maybe 70 players, Ara called every one by name. Heck, I was on the team and I didn’t know all those names. You think the man had done his homework and prepared? It was fantastic.”
Cindy Parseghian, co-founder of the APMRF:
“Our children (lost to Niemann-Pick Type C) became children of Notre Dame. They instilled in all of us a sense of hope, a sense of mission. They’ve been the driving force, that’s why we come together, that’s why we’ve fought so hard. And it made a difference.
“We have a drug now in the trial process and it’s been given fast-track designation. They’ll analyze the data and the FDA will rule on it in maybe 18 months. I’ve seen the effect on these children and how it has slowed down the disease. It has given them a better quality of life. What we’ve been trying to accomplish for the last 23 years is finally coming to fruition. We’ve got a long way to go. It’s a treatment, it’s not a cure.
“All the children we’ve lost have taught us how important life is. We are so thankful to everyone who has walked this path with us.”
Jim McGraw, former Notre Dame football student manager
“Katie Parseghian asked me to read some comments. She wrote, ‘In our 10 years in Oxford, we went from students to a couple, first coaching job, three children born there and lifelong friends. Then later 11 Camelot years here at Notre Dame as our family grew to high school and college. Ara’s history is honored by the statues here and at Miami-tributes to 25 years of coaching and the man he was. Love and honor to Miami and love thee Notre Dame.’
“Coach taught us the importance of discipline, the dedication to a goal, the value of unbreakable unity, always doing things with class, even when we lost. He taught us how to live and it stayed with us all our lives.
“The one thing I will always remember that he said-‘There is no circumstance that we cannot overcome.'”
Dan Novakov, former Irish offensive lineman
“He knew attacking Niemann Pick Type C would be a long hard journey. He never complained despite the intense pain he and his family have endured.
“In Ara’s memory we are committed to finding a cure for Niemann Pick Type C. All we need is more time and more money. We will find a way.”
Noted Crawford in the latest APMRF publication, “I have seen Ara’s commitment to social justice, I have seen him create change, and I have followed his virtuous leadership.”
Online donations to the APMRF can be made through parseghianfund.nd.edu.