I never met Ara Parseghian. Unless he sneaked past me on campus at some point I never even saw him in person. I was born in the reign of Faust, 8 years after Parseghian retired from coaching completely. Needless to say, Ara was before my time.
My dad visited campus when he was a boy and the only two things he could remember were that Ara was coach and they went to the pep rally in the field house. For Subway Alum’s such as ourselves these stories–when he didn’t even get to watch a game–were held in reverence.
It seems silly to even tell that story but Ara was such an enormous figure–just instant respect from everyone. And Notre Dame during that era, well it’s safe to say that powerhouse fit the bill. Merely stepping on campus then was like sensing and smelling true greatness.
A while back we had a short discussion in our comment section about the best 10-year era for college football. I vouched for something in the 1985 to 1995 period while most everyone else thought that any of the recent 10-year periods have been the golden age.
On his achievements alone you could make the case that Ara Parseghian is the best Notre Dame coach of all-time, and thus seriously in the conversation as the best coach in the history of college football. He was 95-17-4 over 11 seasons with the Irish with a pair of National Championships, plus damn good at Miami-Ohio, and plenty impressive at Northwestern. His accomplishments are deep and wide.
For me, Ara is quintessential Notre Dame and he coached in an era that in my opinion will always be quintessential Notre Dame. It may not have been the greatest 10-year period for the game of college football but it just might be an era that will never be topped in Fighting Irish annals. Here are some reasons why:
1) Father Ted Hesburgh was University President for over a decade before Ara was hired. Yet, Hesburgh’s peak as maybe the largest influential American Catholic leader came right during the Civil Rights Movement when Parseghian was coach. In many ways, both men are tied together as Mount Rushmore Notre Dame people.
2) Truthfully, Rockne and Leahy coached in an era overwhelmingly favoring Notre Dame, with a different set of rules on and off the field, and in a much different period in American history. Ara’s era was just modern enough for his accomplishments to actually mean something to kids today. You can flip on the tape of his games and it’s still a game similar to today’s, something that’s really hard to say for Leahy and Rockne.
3) Additionally, Ara was such a great “bridge” coach within the culture of America and Notre Dame. When he took over the game was broadcast sparingly in black and white TV. When he retired the game was being shown in color. When he started Notre Dame was an all-male school. By the time he retired the first couple years of women receiving undergrad degrees had already happened.
4) Of course, Parseghian coached and competed in an era of a heavy run-game on the field. All the same, he was a little more aggressive throwing the ball than many of his contemporaries. Most of his most famous offensive players (Huarte, Thiesmann, Snow, Casper, Hanrartty, Gatewood, Seymour, Clements) were either quarterbacks or pass catchers. This also provides a link to the more modern pass-heavy game. Perhaps the greatest single play in Notre Dame history came during Ara’s tenure, the audacious end zone pass from Clements to Weber in the ’73 Sugar Bowl.
5) Visually, the Parseghian era provided the archetypal “look” for all things Notre Dame. The plain unadorned gold helmets, the simple blue jerseys, the mustard pants, the knee-high pro-style socks. Millions of college football fans grew up in the era of color television watching this dominant Notre Dame program in a very standard and recognizable set of uniforms.
6) Ara was coach when Notre Dame finally entered the post-season bowl bonanza with some all-time classic wins against the likes of Texas and Alabama. He also faced USC arguably at their peak as a program and notched major wins (due to the era, of course) against so many blue-blood programs. When you look at the peak of the Lou Holtz era there are bowl wins against West Virginia, Colorado, Texas A&M, and Florida. Other major victories against the likes of Miami and Florida State, at the time not blue-bloods. Ara’s victories largely have a more historical feel to them and that can’t be discounted.
When you add all of this up and factor in the great human being that Ara was it’s kind of overwhelming. He may never get the publicity and hype to make him the best coach at his own program but that’s probably fitting for a man as humble as he was. He might be the best college coach of all-time and most of his own fans may not even know it.