Few coaches have been a better fit at Notre Dame than Ara Parseghian. This was no mere fit; this was a bespoke suit, although only as a figure of speech. The Parseghian who came to South Bend in December 1963 never stood still long enough for a tailor to measure him.
The legendary coach, who died Wednesday at 94, was in a hurry his whole life. Parseghian's life is an icon of 20th century America. He was a child of immigrants, an Armenian father and a French mother. He excelled in sports at South Akron (Ohio) High, where the editor of the yearbook declared in print that someday Parseghian would coach football at Notre Dame. He checked that box at age 40, already a veteran of 13 seasons as a college head coach.
Parseghian wore clip-on ties, beltless slacks and shoes without laces, all to save time. "Seems like I'm always in a rush," he said in Sport magazine in 1964. "I'm always in a rush. Don't know where I'm goin' but I'm always in a rush!"
Parseghian coached the Fighting Irish for 11 seasons and won 95 games, lost 17 and tied four. He also led the Irish to two national championships, in 1966 and 1973.
At most schools, that record would be unmatched. This being Notre Dame, Parseghian's winning percentage of .836 ranks only third, behind Knute Rockne and Frank Leahy. That was the allure and the challenge of coaching the Irish in the middle of the 20th century. But Parseghian won as much as he did with a handicap. Unlike Rockne and Leahy, he took over a program in shambles. In the decade between Leahy and Parseghian, the Irish went through three coaches and averaged five wins per season.
Parseghian didn't hesitate. "If I don't have the courage to take this job, then am I really worthy of the job that I have?" he asked, according to Jim Dent's book about the 1964 Irish, "Resurrection."
Notre Dame didn't recruit Parseghian. He called them. He had driven Northwestern as high as No. 1 in 1962, and he fought mighty Ohio State to a draw. "It is utterly amazing when Northwestern, over a six-game period, can win three against Woody Hayes," the late Beano Cook said. "He had that great win in '58, 21-0, against Ohio State. I can still see the picture in the paper, players carrying him off the field. The game was at Northwestern, and his fist was in the air."
But Parseghian clashed with the athletic director and grew tired of student apathy. After one of his two victories at the Horseshoe, Parseghian commented on the flight home that he couldn't wait to see the reception his team would get when it returned to campus. A sportswriter on the plane told him there would be no students waiting for him, and a disbelieving Parseghian bet a steak dinner. He lost. The year after Northwestern reached No. 1, he left.
"I've gone as far as I can without school spirit," Parseghian told Father Theodore Hesburgh, the president of Notre Dame. "I'm a believer in emotionalism in athletics, and I know they have it at Notre Dame, and I know I can do better there.'"
Parseghian apprenticed under the tutelage of postwar football royalty. He played at Great Lakes Naval Training Station for Pro Football Hall of Famer Paul Brown. After leaving the Navy, he enrolled at Miami (Ohio) to play for another Hall of Fame coach, Sid Gillman. After one season of professional football, he returned to campus as an assistant coach to Hayes. And when Hayes left after two seasons for Ohio State, Parseghian replaced him. He was 27 years old.
He did his part to sustain Miami's reputation as the Cradle of Coaches, and after five seasons, he left for Northwestern. Parseghian methodically built the Wildcats as best he could, but Northwestern didn't have the bodies, physically or numerically, to last the length of the Big Ten schedule. In eight seasons, Parseghian went 36-35-1, but only 10-19 after October.
A lack of depth never plagued Parseghian at Notre Dame. After October in the regular season, he went 35-6-2. Four of those losses came at the hands of John McKay's USC Trojans. Every great coach has a guy on the opposite sideline who gives him trouble. For Parseghian, it was McKay, against whom he went 3-6-2. For Paul "Bear" Bryant, it was Parseghian, who beat Bryant three times by a total of six points. That's not to mention 1966, when Parseghian nabbed his first national championship in spite of an infamous 10-10 tie against No. 2 Michigan State, while 11-0 Alabama fumed at No. 3. Until the day he died, Parseghian had to battle the perception that he didn't try to beat the Spartans. The Irish took over possession at their own 30 with 1:10 to play, and Parseghian, the guy in a hurry, the coach who never sat, chose to sit on the ball and run out the clock.
More characteristic was the gutsy call that sealed his second national championship. In a battle of unbeatens on a rainy New Year's Eve at Tulane Stadium, No. 3 Notre Dame led No. 1 Alabama 24-23 late in the fourth quarter. Bryant, playing the percentages, elected to punt and pin the Irish deep in their territory. On third-and-8 from the 2-yard line, Parseghian called a long pass. Tom Clements threw 36 yards to his backup tight end, Robin Weber, whose second catch of the season sealed the game and the national championship.
That's right: bad conditions, long pass, seldom-used target. Parseghian coached aggressively, and it paid off.
By then, the pressure of coaching Notre Dame had begun to grind him down. After winning the national championship in '73, the Irish went 10-2 the next year. When you win 10 games and hear fans grumble, it's not such a good fit anymore. Parseghian had hurried and pushed himself hard for nearly 30 years. That was enough. After the 1974 season, he retired at age 51 and never coached again.
Dan Devine replaced him, and in his third year -- with juniors and seniors recruited by Parseghian -- Devine won a national championship. That was 40 years ago. Notre Dame has won one since, in 1988. Notre Dame will miss Ara Parseghian. It has been missing him on the field for a long time.