Notre Dame is rich in college football culture. Between “Touchdown Jesus”, the “Play Like a Champion” sign, Notre Dame Stadium and the famed Rudy, few schools in the nation can match the tradition South Bend boasts.
A building block of Notre Dame football was Coach Ara Parseghian, who led the Fighting Irish to a pair of National Titles during his time with the program. However, the roots of Coach Parseghian can be traced to Oxford, Ohio, where Parseghian played for Miami and went on to be the head coach of his alma mater before moving on to Northwestern and eventually Notre Dame.
The Miami and Notre Dame communities lost an icon when Parseghian passed away early August of this year at the age of 94, but they have honored Parseghian’s legacy as a coach, program builder and advocate.
From the time Parseghian arrived on Miami’s campus in the 1940s, he made an impact as a multi-sport Miami athlete on the football and baseball field, as well as the basketball court. The gridiron is where Parseghian would shine brightest, earning All-Ohio recognition as a running back in both 1946 and 1947.
“As much as he’s [Parseghian] is revered here [Notre Dame], he’s revered way more at Miami,” RedHawk head coach Chuck Martin said Saturday, after Miami’s defeat in South Bend. “He’s a Miami alum. He was a multi-sport athlete at Miami. There’s stories of Ara playing at Miami and what a great player he was.”
Following his Miami playing days, Parseghian spent a short time playing professionally until he returned to Miami. He served on the team’s coaching staff before being promoted to head coach in 1951. As head man in Oxford, Coach Parseghian turned Miami football into a force to be reckoned with — going 39-6-2 in just five seasons.
“He was one of the starting of the cradle of coaches,” Martin said. “We got on an unbelievable run there of Hall of Fame coaches, but he was one of the first to roll through.”
Coach Parseghian would go on to make the “Cradle of Coaches” proud by becoming the face of the legendary Notre Dame Fighting Irish. The Miami grad went 95-17-4 in his 11 Notre Dame seasons, good enough to earn a place in the College Football Hall of Fame in 1980.
The greatness of Parseghian has not been forgotten around the Notre Dame campus since his death earlier this year. Tailgates were marked with blue and gold t-shirts with the simple word “Ara” written across them. The backs of the famed golden helmets of the Irish bore the same legendary name on Saturday, while the game program pictured the former coach on its front page. Every TV timeout, the Notre Dame Stadium video board rolled highlights from his career on the South Bend timeline to remember Parseghian.
For current Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, Parseghian was a mentor from the time Kelly left the Cincinnati Bearcats for the Irish. Shortly after Parseghian’s passing, Kelly opened up about the weekly letters he would receive from the legendary coach.
“He stayed in constant communication,” Kelly said. “I always felt that was his way of mentoring, and I took it as such. It became something I very much looked forward to because they were, for me, an opportunity to reflect on his wisdom.”
Beyond football, Coach Parseghian left his mark on the world as a man with a heart to serve others by forming the Ara Parseghian Medical Research Foundation. This organization raises money to fund research for cures to Niemann-Pick Type C disease (NP-C). According to the Foundation’s website, NP-C is a genetic disease which attacks the nervous system of primarily children, resulting in death. After three of Parseghian’s grandchildren suffered from the disease, Coach Parseghian took action by starting his organization.
“I think they’ve made incredible strides,” Kelly said. Kelly founded an organization which has joined with the Ara Parseghian Medical Research Foundation to find the cure for NP-C.
“Whether it’s helping his family and finding a cure for an insidious disease like Niemann-Pick or being involved in our community, or Notre Dame, whatever you’ve asked for him — that’s why we’re going to miss him dearly.”
With such a man in the mind of both programs, the Fighting Irish and RedHawks took the field late Saturday afternoon. As many expected, the Irish easily defeated the Red and White, yet the fight Coach Martin’s team showed made the game special in his eyes.
“I think both teams played the game the right way,” Martin said. “I think we honored him [Parseghian]. We talked about it this week — we owe it to Ara Parseghian to play football the right way today no matter what the score is. At halftime, it was ugly and our kids bulled their neck and came out and competed.”
From a Notre Dame’s perspective, the Irish are enjoying yet another winning season as a result of the cornerstones laid by men like Parseghian and his proven commitment to the program year in and year out.
“He never lost his ability to stay in touch,” Kelly said. “Just as our lady watches over Notre Dame, it seemed as though Coach rserseghian was always watching over Notre Dame football.”