Longtime Irish coach Parseghian dies at 94

Ara Parseghian, who returned the Notre Dame football program to national prominence in the 1960s and ’70s, died Wednesday. He was 94.

Before Parseghian arrived in 1964, Notre Dame struggled through five consecutive seasons without a winning record. The 1963 team won just two games.

Parseghian’s impact was immediate. The Fighting Irish won their first nine games during his initial campaign, and only a 20-17 loss to archrival USC in the season finale prevented them from winning a national championship. His quarterback that year, John Huarte, won the Heisman Trophy.

Over the decade that followed, the Era of Ara would secure a privileged place in the storied history of Notre Dame football. Parseghian led the Irish to national championships in 1966 and 1973, joining Frank Leahy (four) and Knute Rockne (three) as the only coaches in school history to win multiple titles. Notre Dame’s epic 24-23 victory over Paul “Bear” Bryant’s top-ranked Alabama team in the 1973 Sugar Bowl capped a perfect 11-0 season and is considered the high point of Parseghian’s career. During his 11 years, Notre Dame went 95-17-4. Only Rockne (105) and Lou Holtz (100) won more games for the Irish. All of Parseghian’s teams finished in the Top 15 in the AP poll. He announced his resignation before the 1974 Orange Bowl at the age of 51, saying he would leave coaching for at least one year because of physical and emotional exhaustion. He would never coach again.

A native of Akron, Ohio, Parseghian was heavily influenced by Paul Brown, Sid Gillman and Woody Hayes, three of the game’s greatest coaches. During his stint in the U.S. Navy during World War II, he was a fullback on the 1944 Great Lakes Naval Training Center team coached by Brown. After the war, he was Gillman’s halfback for two years at Miami (Ohio) while also lettering in baseball and basketball. He then rejoined Brown with the Cleveland Browns, playing two seasons (1948-49) before his professional football career was cut short by a hip injury. He returned to his alma mater in 1950, serving as the freshman team coach for Hayes.

A year later, at the age of 27, Parseghian was named Miami’s head coach after Hayes departed for Ohio State. Parseghian posted a 39-6-1 record during five seasons at Miami. In 1956 he was charged with breathing life into a moribund Northwestern program that had fielded an 0-8-1 team the year before he arrived. Like he would do at Notre Dame later, Parseghian worked wonders with the Wildcats. His 1962 team was ranked No. 1 in the nation for two weeks. In eight seasons at Northwestern, he went 36-35-1, including a 4-0 mark against Notre Dame, catching his future employer’s attention.

Parseghian concluded his coaching career with an overall record of 170-58-6 and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1980. He served as an analyst on college football broadcasts for both ABC and CBS from 1975-88.

Personal tragedy fueled Parseghian’s philanthropy. He worked as an advocate for research into cures for two diseases that devastated his family. He served as the national chairman for the Multiple Sclerosis Society, helping raise money and awareness for the disease which struck his sister, brother-in-law and oldest daughter, Karan. Three of his grandchildren – Michael, Christa and Marcia – died before the age of 17 from Niemann-Pick Type C (NP-C) disease, a rare genetic neurodegenerative disorder that primarily afflicts children and has no cure. In 1994, when the three children were diagnosed, Parseghian’s family established the Ara Parseghian Medical Research Foundation, which has raised over $ 45 million for NP-C research.

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