There is no easy way to say good-bye to someone who has had a pronounced influence on your life and those of thousand more.
So the best way I can think of bidding an earthly farewell to Ara Parseghian, a great football coach and even greater human being who passed from Earth on Aug. 2 and now is looking down from Heaven, is to do it with these little stories.
I hope you enjoy them as much as I have in writing them.
WHO’S “THE BOSS”? FOR STEINBRENNER IT WAS ARA
In the summer of 2014, after my father joined my mother and sister in Heaven, I decided to return to South Bend. One of the things I wanted to do was author a book on the 1973 Notre Dame team, which in my senior year at the school won an unlikely national championship that I felt hadn’t received its proper due among all the football national championship teams my alma mater had produced on the gridiron.
Actually, the real purpose of the book was to honor Ara, who had a unique relationship with all the players who had played for him. Whenever I talked with them, they all indicated to me how much Ara had been a part of their lives not only at Notre Dame but in the years afterward. Their coach relished their successes – as family men and whatever profession they chose after graduation. Nor did their coach abandon some of them as they negotiated whatever problems they encountered post Notre Dame.
I wanted that championship book to celebrate them and to celebrate Ara, who, of course, didn’t want to be signaled out. Plus, pretty much every book about Notre Dame football that has been written involved the author spending time with Ara, who had other things he wanted to accomplish, specifically finding a cure through the Ara Parseghian Medical Research Foundation for Niemann Pick-Type C, the disease that took the lives of three of his and Katie’s grandchildren – Michael, Marcia and Christa, the youngest three of the four children of their son Michael and his wife Cindy.
As the conversation came to a close and we made plans to get in touch when I got back to South Bend, Ara dropped this last tasty morsel on my plate.
“Hey, did I ever tell you about the time I fired George Steinbrenner?” said Ara, who probably heard my jaw drop on the other side of the phone line some 670 miles away.
The owner of the New York Yankees?
“The Boss”, who went through managers like President Ronald Reagan went through jelly beans?
After the initial shock passed that Parseghian had once one-upped Steinbrenner, I gathered my senses and said, “No, but you are going to tell me NOW.”
And so Ara did.
“When we went from Miami (Ohio) to Northwestern following the 1955 season, we interviewed some of the staff left over,” he recalled. In 1955, Northwestern had gone winless (0-8-1) under future coaching vagabond Lou Saban.
On Saban’s staff was a 25-year-old assistant named George Steinbrenner. Yep, the one and the same.
“When you leave one college for another,” Ara explained, “you typically interview assistants from the previous staff because they may know something about the players you inherit for your program there. So we interviewed George Steinbrenner.”
After the interview, Steinbrenner – who had played football at Culver Military Academy in Indiana, at Williams College in Massachusetts and then was a graduate assistant to Woody Hayes at Ohio State – didn’t get an offer from Parseghian.
“So I guess, technically, I fired George Steinbrenner,” Ara chuckled.
Steinbrenner spent two years as an assistant at Purdue following his one year at Northwestern and then his father pulled him aside to give him another career path to consider – join him and others in the family’s Great Lakes shipping/tanker business in Cleveland.
“You can be a coach and we’ll support you,” Daddy Steinbrenner supposedly told his son. “But you can make a helluva lot of money with my business partners and me in the shipping business.”
Steinbrenner, who had four children with wife Joan, saw the light. His business savvy soon broadened into his other interests away from the Great Lakes – Broadway, horse racing and sports ownership, specifically.
After I hung up the phone with Ara, I sat there and asked myself how I could incorporate the Steinbrenner tidbit in my book about the 1973 national champions and their coach.
I wondered and wondered and wondered. It drove me nuts.
Then one Saturday morning in the fall of September, as I took a train from New Jersey to Washington, D.C., to see my friend’s sons play football for Catholic University, I stumbled upon my answer.
During the three-hour Metroliner ride, I began making notes about what happened in the world in the 364 days between Notre Dame’s 1972 season-ending losses to No. 1 Southern California (45-23 on Dec. 2) and No. 9 Nebraska (40-6 in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 1, 1973) to Notre Dame’s 24-23 victory over No. 1 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl on Dec. 31, 1973.
And I found this:
On Jan. 3, 1973, two days after the Nebraska loss, Michael Burke, George M. Steinbrenner III and their partners bought the New York Yankees for $8.8 million from the Columbia Broadcasting System, which had bought the Yankees from its previous owners, Dan Topping and Del Webb, for $13.2 million in 1964. Burke, who had been running the club for CBS, was supposed to continue as the team’s president while Steinbrenner, then a 42-year-old chairman of the American Ship Building Company, and others would be limited partners.
As Burke and the other limited partners soon found out, “The Boss” had other plans.
“There is nothing in life quite so limited as being a limited partner of George Steinbrenner,” said one of them, John McMullen, who later owned the Houston Astros and the NHL’s New Jersey Devils.
In a later conversation, I told Ara what I had found out, and then I reminded him about all the great, charitable things Steinbrenner had done that not everyone knows.
“I know,” Ara Parseghian told me. “George Steinbrenner gave our medical foundation a nice check to fight Niemann-Pick.”
Yes, “The Boss” made sure he took care of “THE BOSS.”
MEMORIES OF ARA
Where do you begin when you sit down and tell the story of Ara Raoul Parseghian, the legendary Notre Dame football coach who passed away Aug. 2 at the tender young age of 94?
Maybe the best way to honor the College Football Hall of Fame coach, who in my opinion is Notre Dame’s greatest coach – yes, greater than Rockne, Leahy and Holtz – and the best example of what a college football coach should be:
A winner on the field, someone who never cheats to get victories, someone who stands by his players and loves each of them enough to make sure they get their degrees.
Someone who loved his wife and family even more than his football players and staff. A man who got out of college football at age 51, except for his time as a broadcaster for ABC and CBS, to spend time with them while spending the rest of his life doing for others. A true humanitarian, Ara Parseghian lent his name to a medical foundation that sought to find a cure for a disease, Niemann-Pick Type C, that ultimately claimed the lives of three of his grandchildren. While doing that, he continued his fight to find a cure for multiple sclerosis, which took the life of his and Katie’s first born, their lovely daughter Karan.
How do you tell others who Ara Raoul Parseghian really was and how he impacted lives, including one of a kid from New Jersey who never played for him but had the pleasure of learning from him?
Where do you start?
Well, over the next couple of days, I’m going to try by adding a little thread each day. When I am done, I hope you will know a little more about my friend. The last time we spoke, I dropped him off the autobiography “Steve Spurrier HBC” written by Spurrier and my friend Buddy Martin. Ironically, Parseghian almost was Spurrier’s football coach at Florida. He and Florida had talked about their opening before Parseghian went to Notre Dame and Florida hired Ray Graves. Both turned out pretty well, don’t you think.
Well, the last time I talked with Ara, it was the day after God summoned Arnold Palmer to Heaven’s first tee. On Monday, Sept. 26 of last year, I sat with Ara for the final time, and at age 93, he was as feisty as ever. Sept. 26 also was the night of the first Presidential Debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
“You know why Arnold died yesterday?” I asked Ara before looking toward Katie, his bride of 69 years.
“No, why?” they both asked.
“Because Arnold didn’t want to be around to watch this (excrement deleted) both of you will be watching,” I replied.
They both roared with laughter.
Thanks, Coach, for that memory and these that will follow.
WHAT ARA AND DICK NIXON HAVE IN COMMON
Football, the sport that brought them together, rarely was on the menu when Ara and the late South Bend Tribune sports columnist Joe Doyle, who knew everything about Notre Dame football history because he was the first and last word for it, had their almost daily breakfast meetings at Milt’s Grill in downtown South Bend.
If football was ever brought up in the discussion, it was quickly tabled by Parseghian, who orchestrated the turnaround of Notre Dame’s storied program in 1964 and won three MacArthur Bowls (the National Football Foundation’s version of national championships) before retiring at the age of 51 following the 1974 season.
No, Ara wanted to talk, to be challenged, about what was happening in the real world. And like his teams did on autumn Saturdays, he came prepared. By the time Doyle joined him, Parseghian had read several newspapers cover to cover. That’s right, he read the newspapers, not some graduate assistant assigned to the task now. Parseghian formed his opinions about persons, the world’s problems and politics, especially when they intersected, and if you think he was fiery on the sidelines, you should have seen him in action at Milt’s, according to Doyle.
Like his boss at Notre Dame, the late Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, a charter member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights from the time he was appointed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1957 and its chairman from 1969 through 1972 when President Richard M. Nixon replaced him, Parseghian wasn’t a fan of Nixon or his administration’s record on civil rights, Vietnam and other policies.
Ironically, Ara’s last season – 1974 – was Nixon’s last season in the White House. Parseghian resigned at the end of the regular season and then went out a winner when his team gave him a 13-11 victory over Paul “Bear” Bryant and his No. 1 Alabama team in the Orange Bowl.
Nixon resigned in disgrace over Watergate, ironically, on this date, Aug. 9, 1974.
(Below is a video of the last moments of the 1973 Sugar Bowl game between No. 1 Alabama and No. 3 Notre Dame. The game on Dec. 31, 1973 was the last outdoor Sugar Bowl played in New Orleans. This is the ABC Sports telecast, with broadcasters Chris Schenkel, Bud Wilkinson and Howard Cosell showing their expertise, and Ara showing his to Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant and the rest of the college football world. Notre Dame won, 24-23, thanks to Tom Clements’ pass to Robin Weber that enabled Notre Dame to run out the clock. But more important, watch how Ara handled himself in the trophy presentation. All class. Vintage Ara.)