Oct. 23, 2002
By TOM COYNE
AP Sports Writer
Ara Parseghian feels like it’s 1964 all over again.
Back then, he was a first-year coach who took over a sub-.500 team at Notre Dame and immediately produced a winner that nearly won the national championship.
All these years later, he’s watching newcomer Tyrone Willingham oversee a similar turnaround, taking an Irish squad that went 5-6 last year and leading it to a 7-0 start and No. 6 ranking.
“There are a lot of similarities here,” Parseghian said. “The kids get the right chemistry, they get excited about winning and their confidence soars. Those are all factors.”
The 79-year-old Parseghian senses something special is happening.
“It’s a wonderful experience and it’s being shared by all the alumni, the student body, all the former players,” he said. “This is just terrific.”
Nearly 40 years ago, he took over a losing program with a storied past. Many thought the school’s academic requirements and schedule were too difficult to allow it to compete for national titles. Parseghian convinced his players that they were good enough to compete for one.
Willingham is doing the same thing.
“I know exactly what he’s going through because it’s exactly what we went through in 1964,” Parseghian said. “It’s very difficult to duplicate because of the circumstances and because you’re measuring it against the past.”
So far, Willingham is measuring up quite nicely.
A win at No. 11 Florida State (5-2) this weekend would give Willingham an 8-0 record. The only first-year coach in Notre Dame history who got off to a better start was Parseghian, whose Irish were No. 1 and had a 9-0 record before losing the final game of the season to Southern California.
Parseghian didn’t expect that kind of start in 1964. He knew his team had some talent, but he was worried about depth – a story line familiar to this year’s team.
The key back then, Parseghian said, was starting the season on the road with a win against Wisconsin, then beating a Purdue team that had won seven of 10 against the Irish.
“Nothing succeeds like success,” Parseghian said.
This year’s team went on the road and beat Maryland in the Kickoff Classic, then beat a Purdue team that had played the Irish extremely tough the past five years.
Parseghian and Willingham played golf together several times and occasionally have spoken on the phone.
Parseghian also has watched Willingham along the sidelines.
“He’s very cool under pressure, that’s what I’ve observed. He is really totally in control of himself and I think that is reflected in his team and the way they play under pressure,” Parseghian said. “He demands discipline, he demands respect and believes in his system and believes in his staff. I think we shared the same traits when we were here.”
Willingham describes his conversations with Parseghian as “enlightening,” saying they covered a lot of areas.
The only real advice Parseghian remembers giving Willingham is to pace himself and not let the demands of the job get in the way of coaching.
“I just told him, ‘Don’t allow any distractions, because there are going to be a lot of them,”‘ Parseghian said.
Parseghian will tailgate before the games, then go home to watch the Irish on TV so he can sit back without being bothered.
The biggest problem for Willingham now is the same problem Parseghian faced after his first season at Notre Dame 38 years ago: expectations.
“It’s not going to get easier. We were 7-2-1 the second year there, and people wondered, ‘What happened? What’s going on here? Why’d we lose two games?”‘ Parseghian said. “You elevate yourself very quickly like that, then the expectations become very great.”
Willingham knows the expectations he’s created. He describes them as “a reality, but not a concern.”
Parseghian retired in 1974 at age 51, after leading the Irish to two national championships in 11 seasons.
He had another piece of advice for Willingham.
“Enjoy this – the emotion of getting to the top of the mountain – because you can’t duplicate that,” Parseghian said. “It’s a lot tougher to stay on the mountain than it is to climb it.”