Sunday, Dec. 16, 1974 was not a particularly good day for football fans and sportswriters in Michiana, that area on God’s Great Earth where Northern Indiana and Southwest Michigan meet.
The Chicago Bears had just finished a miserable 4-10 season with a 42-0 loss to the Washington Redskins in our nation’s capital when I settled down in front of my television set in Niles, Mich., a city of perhaps 10,000 residents 90 miles from Chicago, to do some prep work for the next working day.
That loss was the final nail in the coffin for the head-coaching career of Abe Gibron, who grew up halfway between Niles and Chicago in Michigan City. The Bears would fire Abe two days later.
Despite its existence in the home state of the Detroit Lions, Niles is in “Bears Country” and, for the most part, it is in “Fighting Irish Country” because it was about 10 miles from the University of Notre Dame campus. Niles has a healthy dose of football fans that root for the football teams at Michigan and Michigan State as I found out when the Niles Daily Star, an 8,000-circulation newspaper hired me to oversee its one-man sports department (me again) four months after I graduated from Notre Dame.
That day, I remember, while my eyes moved back and forth from my reporter’s notebook to the keyboard of my typewriter, my ears listened, though not to closely, to the play-by-play account of the second game of the NFL doubleheader when its telecast was suddenly interrupted by local bulletin.
“This from Notre Dame,” the on-air reporter reported. “Head football coach Ara Parseghian has submitted his resignation and will step down following the team’s Orange Bowl game against No. 1 Alabama. We’ll have more details on the 6 o’clock news.”
I immediately jumped out of my chair and called the Notre Dame Sports Information Office, where I had worked as a student assistant. Roger Valdiserri, its director, was fielding phone calls from around the nation so I was transferred to his able assistant, Bob Best, who didn’t give me time to ask why Parseghian, then just 51 and seemingly in the prime of his coaching career, was stepping down.
“Hang up the phone and get down here NOW,” Best barked and I obliged. When I got to the office, which was a floor above Parseghian’s office in the still-new Athletic and Convocation Center east of Notre Dame Stadium, I learned that Ara was stepping away from coaching for at least a year because of health issues.
Well, that year away has become the rest of Ara’s lifetime that Sunday reached 94 years and counting. It was celebrated with wife Katie, his children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, close friends and former players at the family’s Granger, Ind., home about five miles north of the school he still loves and that still loves him. Forever, Ara is our coach, even if some of us never played for him at Notre Dame but wished we had.
But you see, in a way, the guy writing these words did play for Ara. The kids in my neighborhood in Livingston, N.J., used to gather on my family’s front yard, listen to the radio accounts voiced by the late Van Patrick of Notre Dame’s game that day, and then try to recreate those same plays. There was only one ground rule: Since it was my front yard, my football and I had a No. 7 football jersey, I would be John Huarte, the quarterback who won the Heisman Trophy before he won his monogram at Notre Dame.
Our “game” on Nov. 28, 1964, however, got cut short when things started going badly for the Ara’s first team, which was 9-0 after going 2-7 team the season before. By the time Notre Dame’s 17-0 lead in its season finale at Southern California was evaporating, the radio and I had moved indoors. When USC finished off its 20-17 upset, I was in tears.
To console me, my parents took me to my favorite restaurant, Tod’s, for my favorite $5 steak. It didn’t go down well that day.
But from that day forward, I was going to do everything I could to get to Notre Dame, not to play football but to get an education and to get to know Ara Raoul Parseghian.
From 1970 through 1974, our paths would cross often – occasionally on campus, sometimes on the practice field and most times in that building across from where Ara and his staff worked their miracles, including my senior year when we won a national championship.
Ara’s teams won with class, on the occasion they lost with the same, always graduated in four years, very rarely got in trouble with the local law, and never, ever got called on the carpet by the NCAA police. Can you imagine that today?
On Mondays before practice, Ara would come upstairs from his office to the sports information office to record answers to questions written by Roger so that out-of-state broadcasters could have sound bytes and sportswriters could have quotes for their accounts of Notre Dame’s upcoming game.
We were supposed to keep the telephone number secret so not to tie up the line, but my buddies back in Dillon Hall and my father back in New Jersey somehow “spoke” with Ara every week. So I must apologize to my old bosses Roger and Bob, who still are going strong after celebrating their 90th and 67th birthdays, respectively, this week.
We all were shocked when Ara suddenly resigned, but when we learned the reasons why, we understood completely and we were happy for him because he could spend more time with his family and to pursue the things that interested him.
Our friendship evolved when I was assigned to cover golf as one of my duties at the South Bend Tribune. One of those interests was his life-long love affair with golf, which he played as just one of the guys at South Bend Country Club. That was more important to him than his handicap, which was scratch. Ara once won the South Bend C.C. Invitational and once played in a charity match against Arnold Palmer. Fewer people know that Ara was once the caddymaster at Firestone Country Club in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, about the time he was attending Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
While his year away from the football sidelines eventually became permanent, Ara found other things to do. He stayed in the lives of his assistants and former players, helping them whenever they needed his help. He worked as a color analyst for college football on ABC and CBS. He has remained connected with football, watching it on televisions on autumn Saturdays. He’s been there whenever his alma mater or Notre Dame has come calling.
As much as Ara knows he has been blessed, he has always been more willing to give back. To that I can attest because I sought his help every year I ran a local golf tournament for Special Olympics, and he showed up every year for lunch to mingle with our players. He’s done that for several charity events in this community and for those who played or coached with him.
During his days at Notre Dame, Ara was a spokesman for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, a disease that inflicted his sister and then his first daughter Karan.
Then 20 years after leaving Notre Dame, at the tender young age of 71, Ara came out of retirement to lend his name to a medical foundation seeking a cure for the Niemann-Pick Type C (NPC) disease afflicting the three youngest of the four children of son Mike and daughter-in-law Cindy.
I remember him saying at the announcement that the Ara Parseghian Medical Foundation would seek the raise money to fund the research that needed to be done. Always a fighter and the coach, Ara equated the battle to an offense getting the ball in the shadow of its own goal posts and having to drive the length of the football field to the other end zone where the cure would be found. Who among us wouldn’t run through a wall to help after that pep talk?
I asked Ara two years ago where the research was and he told me it was inside the opposition’s 10-yard line. Unfortunately the cure that is a couple of plays away from its touchdown will be found too late to save the lives of his grandchildren Michael, Christa and Marcia.
But all the Parseghians remain on board and Notre Dame – its current students and faculty and its alumni – is all in, too, as the foundation has found a home on campus now as the Ara Parseghian Medical Research Fund and another partner in the school’s Center for Rare and Neglected Diseases.
Indeed, our love affair with Ara is never ending. The recent fundraising effort called Notre Dame Day, a global celebration to encourage alumni and friends of the school to give back, saw the Ara’s fund finish No. 1 with $33,400 raised.
It’s why Ara remains, along with the late Father Ted Hesburgh and a few others, one of the most recognizable and most beloved persons in the 175-year history of the University of Notre Dame.
“What you see is what you get from Ara,” says his long-time golfing buddy, South Bend attorney and Notre Dame grad Robert Lee. “He always did the right thing because the right thing came easy for him.”
So on this Sunday, May 22, 2017, we celebrate the 94th birthday of Ara Raoul Parseghian. The Clay Township Fire Department has been put on alert once again because of all those candles on his birthday cake.
I’ve told people for years and strongly believe this: When God brought Ara to Notre Dame, He told Father Ted, “I’m tired of tweeking football coaches. Ara’s the best I will ever produce. He’s yours but you’ll have to accept he’s a Protestant.”
Always knowing a good gift when it was presented to him, Father Ted wasn’t about to argue about that one condition.
After you’ve met and come to know Ara, you wouldn’t argue, either.
Happy Birthday, Coach, and many, many, many more.
Thank you – from all of us.
(And Coach, thanks always for my favorite moment!)