Bears – And Spartans – Still Aware Of Ara

SOUTH BEND, Ind. – During the summer of 2015, the first bear to be documented in Indiana in more than 140 years wandered across the state line from Michigan near Elbel Golf Course northwest of the home of the Fighting Irish football team of the University of Notre Dame.


This bear, which meandered through northern Indiana for most of the summer before crossing back into Michigan to hibernate, left evidence of its arrival about five miles west of the home of the coach whose Fighting Irish twice spoiled the national championship dreams of the Crimson Tide of Alabama and another “Bear” – Paul Bryant.


Species often take care of their own kind, which is why that wandering bear probably wanted nothing to do with Ara Raoul Parseghian, whose Irish beat Alabama 24-23 in the 1973 Sugar Bowl to win the national championship and then a season later beat Bear’s No. 1 Tide, 13-11, in the Orange Bowl that was Parseghian’s coaching finale at the age of 51.


Last month, the 93-year-old Parseghian, still strong willed but in need of a walker these days because of too many hip replacement surgeries, and his Katie enjoyed a reunion with many members of his 1966 national championship team.


Hard to believe that we’re still one month shy of the 50th anniversary of the greatest game in that series – and one of college football’s greatest games ever – the 10-10 tie between then No. 1 Notre Dame and then No. 2 Michigan State on a cold and dreary late November Saturday afternoon at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.


“The Game of the Century,” as it was called in the pre-game hype leading up to it, featured two undefeated teams – Parseghian’s 8-0 Irish and Duffy Daugherty’s 9-0 Spartans.


It was one of those games that you wanted to watch and remember where you were when you did. Yours truly was 14, had just completed his freshman football season in New Jersey and was already dreaming of attending Notre Dame, the school of choice of his Notre Dame “Subway Alumnus” Irish-American father and English-American mother, neither of whom had a college diploma but desired for their daughter and son.


Two seasons before that epic game in 1966, Parseghian, the son of an Armenian son and French mother who was raised a Protestant, had captured my imagination with his fiery coaching style and youthful exuberance that took Notre Dame to within two minutes of a national championship. The school’s president, Father Theodore Hesburgh, had hired Parseghian away from Northwestern in 1963 and told him he wanted wins but not if they came at a price – cheating and low graduation rates. Parseghian never did and almost 100 percent of his players graduated within four years.


Those players loved Ara, and those of us who attended Notre Dame and got to know him through them did the same. We were in awe of Ara, so much so that when it rained at Notre Dame Stadium, a chant “Ara, Stop the Rain” would shower down on the sidelines he stalked. Years after, our friendship grew because we shared a love for the game of golf, which Parseghian, a former caddie master at Firestone Country Club in his native Akron, Ohio, played at scratch.


The 1966 “Game of the Century” featured a combined 25 players who would receive some sort of All-America recognition during their collegiate careers. Seven of those players would be first-round choices in the first combined NFL-AFL draft in 1967 – Michigan State’s defensive lineman Bubba Smith, running back Clinton Jones, linebacker George Webster and wide receiver Gene Washington were drafted 1, 2, 5 and 8, respectively, ahead of Notre Dame offensive guard Paul Seiler (12), defensive end Alan Page (15) and offensive guard Tom Regner (23).


But “The Game” is mostly remembered for how it ended – on a quarterback sneak by Notre Dame’s backup quarterback Coley O’Brien, who had replaced Hanratty after he was knocked out of the game on a vicious but legal hit by Smith. O’Brien, who had learned only a week before that he was diabetic, and the Irish left the field to a crescendo of boos from the more than 80,000 mostly MSU fans in attendance.


Many believed that Parseghian circled his wagons so not to lose, including the legendary Dan Jenkins, who wrote in Sports Illustrated that Parseghian and the Irish “Tied one for the Gipper.” A great line, as Jenkins still admits years later, but one that still produces ire in Ara.


“The game ended in a tie,” Parseghian said. “We didn’t play for a tie.”


Parseghian’s detractors also forget that Michigan State punted the ball back to Notre Dame late in the game from near midfield, and that the Irish, who rallied from a 10-0 deficit to tie the game and just missed a go-ahead field goal in the fourth quarter, were playing without not only Hanratty but their best running back, Nick Eddy, who slipped and fell on ice departing the train the day before and injured a shoulder, and their starting center George Goeddeke, who was injured early in the game.


The tie ended Michigan State’s season at 9-0-1. Notre Dame, meanwhile, went to Los Angeles and avenged its 1964 loss to USC with a 51-0 victory to also finish 9-0-1. The Associated Press and UPI coaches polls ended with the Irish No. 1, the Spartans No. 2 and Alabama, which finished 11-0 after a victory in the Sugar Bowl, No. 3.


Parseghian and Notre Dame would add a national championship in 1973 after their victory over Alabama, but health issues forced him to resign before the Orange Bowl victory at the age of 51. He never coached another game but he has remained around Notre Dame, running an insurance agency, playing golf, broadcasting college football and doing good things for his friends. He honored yours truly by participating in local tournaments for Special Olympics.


At age 70, he began the Ara Parseghian Medical Research Foundation to find a cure for the Niemann Pick Type C disease that took the lives of three of his grandchildren.


“When we started, we were on our own 5-yard line,” Parseghian said. “Now, we’re in the red zone and looking to take it into the end zone.”


The many friends and connections he made through the years came through for Parseghian, including a certain guy he fired when leaving Miami of Ohio to coach at Northwestern in 1956. On Lou Saban’s staff at Northwestern was a young assistant from Ohio who didn’t want to go into the family business. He wanted to coach and asked Parseghian if he could remain at Northwestern as a part of the new staff. After an interview, Parseghian gave the young man some bad career news.


“I guess you could say I fired George Steinbrenner,” Parseghian chuckled.


Yes, that George Steinbrenner, who later joined the family shipbuilding business and eventually became the grizzly owner of the New York Yankees – but also was one of the softest touches for lost and good causes to ever walk the earth.


“George gave us a very nice check to fight Niemann Pick,” the old Notre Dame coach quickly added.


Bears and opponents of many kinds rarely have a chance against Ara Parseghian.