Ara Parseghian, Notre Dame Football’s Savior Coach, Dies at 94

  • During his tenure, the Fighting Irish won two national titles
  • He was inducted in the College Football Hall of Fame in 1980

Ara Parseghian, who returned the University of Notre Dame to football prominence in the 1960s and 1970s after winning two national championships, has died. He was 94.

He died Wednesday at his home in Granger, Indiana, according to a statement from the university’s president, John Jenkins. No cause was given.

Parseghian arrived on the South Bend, Indiana, campus as head coach in 1964 after the school went five years without a winning season and posted a 2-7 win-loss record the previous year. The team improved to 9-1 in his first season, just missing the national championship with a 3-point loss to the University of Southern California in the final game. He was awarded College Coach of the Year.

Two season’s later, Notre Dame won the consensus national championship, the school’s first since 1949. In Parseghian’s 11 years at the university, he led the Fighting Irish to 95 wins, 17 losses and 4 ties.

What the team had been lacking before his arrival was spirit rather than talent, the coach said in his acceptance speech for the Contributions to College Football Award in 2012.

“You get kicked around and you lose, pretty soon you believe you’re a loser,” he said. “The biggest problem was to re-instill a lost confidence by the players.”

‘Elephant Backfield’

One of his first actions in South Bend was to turn the roster upside down. He took the three members of Notre Dame’s “elephant backfield,” among the largest players on the team, and moved them to the defensive line.

“Parseghian knew it was simple to defend a slow, overweight backfield,” Jim Dent wrote in his 2009 book, “Resurrection: The Miracle Season That Saved Notre Dame.”

He recast the backfield with smaller, quicker players and a quarterback, senior John Huarte, who could throw the ball, leading a revolution in the college game to speed, multiple offense and passing. In the new coach’s first season, Huarte, who barely played during his previous years on the team, set 12 school records and won the Heisman Trophy.

“Parseghian was a coach, father, priest, general and cheerleader rolled into one,” Dent wrote. “More than anything, he was a master organizer.”

After his retirement from Notre Dame, he became a popular college football television analyst at ABC and later, CBS. He left broadcasting in 1988.

Immigrants’ Son

Ara Raoul Parseghian was born May 21, 1923, in Akron, Ohio, the third child and second son of Michael Parseghian and the former Amelia Bonneau. His father, an Armenian who had worked as an accountant, had fled Turkey in 1915. His mother was French. They named him after a mythological Armenian king, “Ara the Beautiful,” according to Dent.

Parseghian began playing college football at Akron University in 1941. After the U.S. entered World War II, he enlisted in the Navy and was assigned to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center north of Chicago. There he played on a military team coached by Paul Brown, the future Pro Football Hall of Fame coach.

After his service ended, Parseghian entered Miami University and won the starting halfback spot. He was named to the All-Mid-American Conference first team in 1947, a year Miami went undefeated.

Parseghian graduated in 1948 and signed with the Cleveland Browns, the professional team then coached by Brown. He played two seasons until a hip injury ended his career.

Woody Hayes

His first coaching job came in 1950 at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, as an assistant under Woody Hayes. Parseghian was promoted to head coach the next year when Hayes moved to Ohio State University where he won five national championships over 28 seasons. At Miami, Parseghian compiled a 39-6-1 record.

In 1956, he moved to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, where his teams went 56-8-3, including victories in all four meetings against the Fighting Irish.

Parseghian’s hiring at Notre Dame broke a half-century of tradition at the school. He was the first non-alumnus tapped as head coach since 1913.

The only season Notre Dame lost more than two games under Parseghian was in 1972 when it went 8-3. The following year he won a second national championship.

Parseghian retired after the 1974 season for health reasons. In 24 years as a head coach he compiled a career record of 170-58-6.

In 1980, Parseghian was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

After retiring, he helped raise more than $40 million for the Ara Parseghian Medical Research Foundation to combat Niemann-Pick Type C, a genetic pediatric disorder that damages the nervous system. Three of his grandchildren were diagnosed with the disease in 1994 and all died by 2005.

With his wife, the former Kathleen Davis, he had three children: Karan, Kristan and Michael, according to Marquis Who’s Who.

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