Editor's Choice

Ara Parseghian’s Leadership Extended Well beyond Coaching Football Champions

The leadership of Ara Parseghian, who died on Aug. 2 at age 94, included winning two national championships as the University of Notre Dame’s head football coach during 1964-74, championing medical research and showing respect for religious differences.

Parseghian won national football titles in 1966 and 1973 at Notre Dame, despite accepting the daunting task of guiding the storied program in 1964 after it failed to achieve a winning season since 1958. He left coaching at the pinnacle of his profession at the relatively young age of 51 when he said nearly a quarter of a century as a head college football coach that also included stints at Northwestern University and his alma mater, Miami of Ohio, had left him “physically exhausted and emotionally drained.”

He proved himself to be someone who could turn teenagers entering college into accomplished young men by the time they graduated. One example is Academic All-American, 1973 national football champion and former Super Bowl winner David “Ghost” Casper, who thrived in business after his playing days ended.

I will never forget Parseghian graciously giving me an interview a number of years ago as I researched and wrote an inspirational book, “Holy Smokes! Golden Guidance from Notre Dame’s Championship Chaplain.” He vividly recalled details of the famous 10-10 tie between No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 2 Michigan State University played on November 19, 1966, in a titanic clash described by media as the “Game of the Century.”

That game marked the first for Parseghian’s cigar-smoking football chaplain, Rev. James Riehle, who ultimately was part of four national championship football teams at Notre Dame. The coach shared his favorite stories about the chaplain, whose life and advice is featured in each chapter of the book.

Parseghian’s leadership was tested because his 1966 team had a number of key players injured before or during the Michigan State contest. But backup quarterback Coley O’Brien, who later became an attorney in Washington, D.C., and held jobs with NASA and in the U.S. Senate, led the Fighting Irish on a comeback from a 10-0 deficit that knotted the score in the fourth quarter.

With Notre Dame on the road in East Lansing, Michigan, and inexperienced players in pivotal roles, Parseghian called plays conservatively at the end of the game as the clock ran out against the Spartans and its fearsome defense. Two of the Michigan State defenders were future NFL stars “Bubba” Smith and George Webster.

Parseghian’s decision to run the ball to avoid an interception while Notre Dame was deep in its own territory in the waning seconds positioned the Fighting Irish to keep its No. 1 ranking, particularly after it crushed the University of Southern California the following week, 51-0.

Criticism of Parseghian after the Michigan State game focused on him settling for a tie at a time when college football had yet to adopt overtime to ensure each game had a winner and a loser. The coach later jokingly told the chaplain it was his fault Notre Dame did not win that day.

“We used to kid about that from the time of 1966 all the way up until the time that he passed away,” Parseghian told me when I was researching and writing my book.

Parseghian won his second national championship by once again assessing the skills of the players on his team astutely in leading them at a key moment in a critical game. In the 1973 Sugar Bowl against undefeated and top-ranked University of Alabama, the Crimson Tide had Notre Dame pinned near its own goal line on a wet and slippery field.

With Parseghian’s history of having played conservatively late in the 1966 game against Michigan State, no one likely expected him to call a risky pass play against a tenacious Alabama defense. But he opted to trust his seasoned starting quarterback Tom Clements, who dropped back into his end zone and threw a long pass to a backup tight end near the sideline for a key first down.

The call was especially bold because Notre Dame had Casper, an All-American tight end. However, the element of surprise proved effective as the unlikely target of the pass held onto the ball to preserve a 24-23 upset victory.

Parseghian’s legacy also includes teaming up with his family to form a medical foundation in 1994, after his three youngest grandchildren were diagnosed with a deadly children’s disease. Still remembered and respected from coaching at Notre Dame, Parseghian helped to raise tens of millions of dollars to battle the Niemann-Pick Type C (NPC) Disease that claimed the lives of his grandchildren Michael, Marcia and Christa Parseghian.

Known as a master motivator and strategist in compiling a 95-17-4 won-loss record at Notre Dame, Parseghian and his family applied the same dedication in forming the Ara Parseghian Medical Research Foundation as a non-profit organization to seek a treatment for the disease.

On the foundation’s website is a quote from Parseghian, who said, “This is an organization of volunteers drawn by the urgency of the cause and compelled by the value of a child’s life.”

Notre Dame began a partnership with the foundation in the spring of 2016 to provide required long-term administrative support. As a result, Notre Dame launched the Ara Parseghian Medical Research Fund and now coordinates fundraising, recruiting of medical researchers, grant administration, marketing, interaction with NPC families and hosting an annual science conference.

In 1994 when the foundation launched, the disease was little known, had no treatments and only attracted two medical researchers at the first science conference hosted by the group. Since then, the foundation has raised over $45 million, supported more than 75 scientific labs around the world and hosted an annual conference that now attracts 75-plus NPC researchers.

Cindy Parseghian, the mother of the Michael, Marcia and Christa Parseghian, co-founder of the foundation and a Notre Dame trustee, said the donors, volunteers and researchers have combined to achieve “significant gains” in understanding NPC disease and in developing effective treatment for the affected children.

Coach Parseghian also thoughtfully provided a quote that appears on the top of the back cover of my book: “Fr. Riehle was a good friend and integral part of my teams’ successes, including two national football championships. Paul Dykewicz’s well-researched and enjoyable book highlights his valuable contributions. You’ll discover in these pages how fun, faith and effort can lead to happiness and success.”

Both Parseghian and Fr. Riehle were portrayed in the move RUDY, about a walk-on football player who the coach kept on the team after seeing the undersized, 5’7” student- athlete give great effort on each play during a multi-day try out. Fr. Riehle appeared as himself in the movie’s scene in which he led the pre-game prayer and blessed each player before the team took the field – just as he had done for decades as Notre Dame’s head sports chaplain.

Parseghian, a Presbyterian who coached at a high-profile Catholic university, told me he asked his players and coaches of various religious beliefs to attend the pre-Mass game together as a team and invited each to pray in his own way.

My editorial intern this summer is University of Notre Dame student-athlete Daniel Plantamura, who told me he played on the Fighting Irish rugby team in an annual game against the University of Arizona for the Parseghian Cup, with all proceeds from ticket sales going to fund NPC research.

“It is an honor to continue the legacy of Ara Parseghian by combining his love of sport and his drive to help those in need,” Plantamura said.

With Parseghian’s lofty accomplishments as a top football coach, medical research fundraiser and man of faith, he exhibited examples of admirable leadership for future generations to emulate.

Paul Dykewicz is the editorial director of Eagle Financial Publications, editor of StockInvestor.com and DividendInvestor, a columnist for Townhall and Townhall Finance, a commentator and the author of an inspirational book,Holy Smokes! Golden Guidance from Notre Dame’s Championship Chaplain,” with a foreword by legendary football coach Lou Holtz. Visit Paul’s website at www.holysmokesbook.com and follow him on Twitter @PaulDykewicz.


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