Impeccably organized, Ara Parseghian knew exactly where to find the letter Digger Phelps had written him in 1965 as a high school basketball coach in Pennsylvania professing his love for Notre Dame.
Parseghian kept Phelps’ note in the “Crazy Letter File.” So at a dinner on campus after he was hired in 1971 – just as his letter six years earlier vowed – Phelps asked Parseghian if he remembered their correspondence.
“And Ara pulls out his keys, hands them to (longtime sports information director) Roger Valdiserri and says, ‘Rog, it’s in the third drawer of the file cabinet by my desk in the coach’s office – can you go get it?’ ” Phelps said Wednesday.
Flabbergasted at Parseghian’s memory, Valdiserri did just that.
“I remember thinking it was amazing to know where that letter was after so many years,” Valdiserri said. “But that was Ara. He was an automaton.”
The automaton thrived as a coaching icon, influencing lives from the day he took over at his alma mater, Miami (Ohio), at 27 through eight seasons of football renaissance at Northwestern to his final game at Notre Dame, where he restored the luster with a tenure that produced two national championships. Ara Raoul Parseghian, a tough son of a gun his father named after a mythological Armenian king, died Wednesday revered as college football royalty. He was 94.
“You put yourself in a position to believe it’s never going to happen, he’s never leaving us,” said Phelps, Notre Dame’s basketball coach from 1971-1991. “He became a big brother and a mentor to me. I had the greatest respect for him and always was so excited to be around him.”
Nothing proved more exciting than Phelps getting a sideline pass to watch Parseghian coach during Notre Dame’s 1973 Sugar Bowl victory, which capped an 11-0 season and his second national title. After Phelps’ team ended UCLA’s 88-game winning streak 18 days later, giving Notre Dame the No. 1 football and basketball teams in the country just as he presaged in his letter, Parseghian invited him to the football banquet.
“Ara was a family man and anybody working at ND he treated like family,” Phelps, 76, said. “Nothing against the other coaches, but the place hasn’t been the same since he left.”
Parseghian abruptly announced his resignation before the 1974 Orange Bowl at age 51, leaving Notre Dame with a 95-17-4 record and an imprint of integrity. On the Mount Rushmore of Notre Dame football coaches, Parseghian would be carved next to Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy and Lou Holtz. Parseghian’s teams never lost two straight regular-season games.
He proved you can dominate college football with dignity.
“As time goes by, I’m always more thankful I was able to be coached at Notre Dame by Ara, who was an even better person,” said Tom Clements, Parseghian’s quarterback on the 1973 national champions.
As much as Clements’ clutch pass to tight end Robin Weber in the 24-23 Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama became part of Notre Dame lore, the 10-10 tie with Michigan State in 1966 was the game most associated with Parseghian. It was a distinction he accepted, grudgingly.
“He got a little tired answering that question,” Valdiserri said. “He always felt it was important to say, ‘I didn’t go for a tie, the game ended in a tie.’ ”
Details mattered to the meticulous leader of young men. He never made more than the highest-paid Notre Dame faculty member nor did he make home visits to recruits, which Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler used against him. He took losses so hard friends and former players recalled it taking until the following Thursday for him to recover emotionally. The only thing firmer than Parseghian’s handshake was his word, a principled approach he applied to everything he did.
Gerry DiNardo, a Big Ten Network analyst and All-American guard at Notre Dame in 1974, appreciated the way Parseghian encouraged his players to think beyond the field during a fascinating time in America.
“We were dealing with Vietnam and race issues, and Ara was so approachable about those things in a day and age when a lot of people said we shouldn’t talk about that,” DiNardo said. “That didn’t mean you didn’t get yelled at when you missed a block. It was a program you could win a national championship and still have an opinion.”
Later in life, Parseghian enjoyed sharing his opinions on sports and politics at a South Bend, Indiana, restaurant with a small circle of friends called the “Romeo Club.” Valdiserri was among those who sat in the same booth every week.
“We’d meet every Wednesday … and today is Wednesday,” Valdiserri said, his voice trailing off. “I’m sorry. I spent half my life with that man.”
As close as anybody to Parseghian, Valdiserri one day in the 1980s asked his buddy, who by then had ventured into broadcasting and the insurance business, whether he still could coach.
“He said mentally, yes, physically, no,” Valdiserri said. “He got a scare and his family made him get out of it.”
Family commitment occupied Parseghian’s final years as he tirelessly pursued answers in the wake of tragedy. The patriarch suffered the loss of three grandchildren to Niemann-Pick Type C, a genetic disorder in which cholesterol attacks the central nervous system and causes death. In 1994, he established the Ara Parseghian Medical Foundation, but the disease remains incurable, taking the lives of grandchildren Christa, Marcia and Michael before they turned 17.
In 2013, Parseghian also lost his daughter, Karan, after a long battle with multiple sclerosis.
“I don’t know how that family ever endured all those tragedies,” Valdiserri said.
Somehow, Parseghian persevered, keeping his spirits high and his mind sharp – as anybody who interviewed him in his later years can attest. DiNardo laughed recalling a BTN interview at Parseghian’s house in which he recited exact plays from consecutive Northwestern victories over Oklahoma in 1959 and 1960. The next day, Parseghian called DiNardo to apologize.
“He said, ‘Sorry, I’m a dumb (expletive), Gerry. I thought you were coming here to talk about Notre Dame or I would’ve prepared,’ ” DiNardo said.
Nobody prepared young men for Saturdays or life after football more thoroughly than Parseghian. No era at Notre Dame blended intellect and intensity any better than his.
“I wrote him a note recently that was short and sweet,” DiNardo said. “It just said, ‘Thank you. You changed my life.’ ”
From former players to colleagues to acquaintances fortunate enough have crossed paths with Parseghian, so many people could say the same thing.
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