The “Era of Ara” Helped Save a Program From Fading Into Oblivion
Notre Dame Football has one of the richest histories in the sport of college football. Despite not winning a national championship since 1988, the Irish are firmly entrenched as one of the elites in the sport. With that in mind, I wanted to take a look at the top ten greatest head coaches in the history of Irish Football. This will be a ten-part series.
2. Ara Parseghian
Ara Parseghian was born on May 21, 1923 in Akron, Ohio. Parseghian did not begin playing football until he was a junior in high school but soon found he had a knack for the game. After initially enrolling at the University of Akron, Parseghian left school and joined United States Navy, serving 2 years during World War II. Upon returning from his military duty, Parseghian enrolled at Miami (OH) University. He played at Miami (OH) for 2 seasons while he worked on finishing his degree. Following his graduation, Parseghian began a professional football career with the Cleveland Browns. After playing for 2 seasons, he suffered a hip injury that ended his career.
In 1950, he returned to Miami (OH) as the head coach of the freshman team. He led the team to a 4-0 record and received a promotion to coach the varsity team following Woody Hayes’ departure after the 1950 season. From 1951-1955 Parseghian led the RedHawks, compiling a 39-6-1 record and defeating 2 Big Ten teams. One of those wins came over the Northwestern Wildcats, a program floundering program at the time. When it came time for Northwestern to hire a coach following an 0-8-1 season in 1955, administration cast their attention towards Parseghian. At the ripe age of 32, Parseghian accepted the head coaching position with the Wildcats for the 1956 season. Over the course of his 8 seasons in Evanston, Parseghian fashioned a 36-35-1 record, including 4 straight victories over Notre Dame. Despite going 7-2 during the 1962 season, Parseghian was told by his athletic director that his contract would not be renewed following the 1963 season. In his later years Parseghian said this about the situation, “I took them to the top of the polls in 1962, and that was not good enough for Northwestern.”
As his final season in Evanston drew to a close, Parseghian began to explore other jobs opportunities. He placed a call to Notre Dame vice president, Reverend Edmund P. Joyce, in November to inquire about the status of interim head coach Hugh Devore. When it became clear that Devore would not be returning in 1964, Parseghian told Joyce that he was interested in the position. However, Joyce did not offer much in return as he had his eye on Missouri head coach, Dan Devine. Ultimately, Father Hesburgh became involved in the search and decided to pursue Parseghian offering him the position in December of 1963. After weighing his options, Parseghian accepted the offer. In some ways it was a historic hire for the university. Dating back to Knute Rockne, every head coach had graduated from the school, and every head coach had been Catholic (Rockne converted in 1925). Parseghian possessed neither attribute. However, Notre Dame’s administration made it quite clear they were more interested in having a coach that could lead the team to success.
With the program coming off of 5 straight losing seasons, playing for their 3rd coach in 3 years, and sporting a 2-7 season the year prior, very little was expected of Notre Dame in 1964. Unbeknownst to the outside world, major change was happening in South Bend. In his initial meetings with the team, Ara made it clear that academics guidelines from the school would be enforced, and no one was to cause any trouble at the bars. Within a few months a player tested each rule, and Parseghian kicked each offender off the team. At that point reality set in that the new coach meant business. Despite the poor record in 1962, in Ara’s eyes the team had plenty of talent. He set out to utilize this talent with some new personnel decisions. At quarterback, John Huarte was named the starting quarterback following spring practice. Over the previous 2 seasons, Huarte had played a combined 50 minutes. Additionally, Jack Snow was moved from fullback to wide receiver. Furthermore, Paul Costa, Jim Snowden, and Pete Duranko were all moved from running back to the line. Both Duranko and Snowden played on the defensive line and played professionally, with Duranko also earning All-American honors in 1966. Off the field, Parseghian also brought fresh ideas to the football program, including computerized scouting reports, having the team stay outside of the dorms the night before a home game, and optimizing their travel schedule. These changes, along with countless other small tweaks in the program, helped set the stage for a magical season in 1964.
The first game of the Parseghian-era came on the road against Wisconsin. Shocking many of the Irish faithful, Notre Dame would go on to win 31-7. The win vaulted the Irish from unranked to #9 in the country. The next 5 weeks saw the Irish roll to 5 consecutive victories, outscoring the opposition 160-28. The Irish slowly climbed the polls and found themselves sitting at #1 heading into a road contest against unranked Pittsburgh. Typical of a Notre Dame-Pittsburgh game, the game was an ugly, tightly contested match-up. Notre Dame jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the 1st quarter. However, Pittsburgh answered back with a touchdown and 2-point conversion to leave the score at 14-8. Notre Dame added a 30-yard field goal just prior to halftime, taking a 17-8 lead into the break. The third quarter saw Pittsburgh add another touchdown, creeping to with 2 points at 17-15. The turning point of the game arrived in the 4th quarter with Pittsburgh driving and facing a 4th and 1 on the Irish 16 yard line. The Irish defense held, forcing a turnover on downs. Pittsburgh would not threaten the remainder of the game, and Notre Dame snuck out with a hard-fought 17-15 victory. Notre Dame thumped Michigan State 34-7 the following week and scored a 28-0 victory over Iowa in the 2nd last weekend of the season.
With 1 game remaining, the only thing that stood in Notre Dame’s path to a national title was a 6-3 USC squad. The way the game began, it wouldn’t have been surprising to find out that many Irish fans across the country were popping champagne as the Irish raced out to a 17-0 lead at halftime. The mood quickly shifted after halftime as USC received the kickoff and drove for a quick touchdown to make the score 17-7. To make matters worse, Notre Dame committed several uncharacteristic mistakes in the quarter, fumbling the ball on the USC 9 yard line and committing a holding penalty to wipe out a touchdown. Despite the miscues, Notre Dame still retained a 17-7 lead heading into the final period. USC added another touchdown in the 4th quarter to pull within 4 points at 17-13. After the Irish stalled on their next possession, USC returned the ensuing punt to the Irish 35 yard line with just over 2 minutes remaining in the game. Like clockwork the Trojans marched towards the end zone and scored the go-ahead touchdown with 1:43 left in the game. With the weight of the world on their shoulders, the Irish could not generate a last second miracle, falling 20-17 to their archrival. The loss derailed the exhilarating season. Finishing the year at 9-1, Notre Dame stood at #3 in the final AP Ranking. John Huarte captured the 1964 Heisman Trophy. Stunningly, Parseghian’s first team set 27 Notre Dame records and tied 2 others. Despite the gut-wrenching loss to the Trojans, Ara Parseghian had engineered one of the greatest turnaround seasons in the history of college football. Though the Irish did not play a ranked team all season, achieving a 9-1 mark after the previous several seasons was a remarkable achievement.
Coming off 1964, much was expected of the Irish, reflected by their #3 preseason ranking. After defeating Cal 48-6 in the opening weekend of the season, Notre Dame traveled to Ross-Ade Stadium for a clash with #6 Purdue. Purdue emerged with a 25-21 victory. Immediately after the game, Parseghian was beside himself that the Boilermakers had cracked his sideline signals and that he had failed to adjust. However, a few weeks later it was discovered that there was a phone in the Purdue booth upstairs that was hooked into the visiting team’s phone line. While it can never be proven that Purdue skirted the rules, it does seem a bit fishy. Notre Dame would go on to win its next 6 games, including a 28-7 victory over #4 USC. The winning streak set up an important meeting with #1 Michigan State at Notre Dame Stadium. Taking a 3-0 lead into halftime, the #4 Irish surrendered 12 points in the 2nd half as Michigan State emerged with a 12-3 victory. On the day, Notre Dame finished with a total of 12 yards. To close out the season, Notre Dame traveled to face Miami (FL). Despite outgaining the Hurricanes 175-87 in total yards, the game ended in a 0-0 tie. Notre Dame missed a 27 yard and 30 yard field goal on the day, while Miami advanced only as far as the Irish 42 yard line. After another strong start to the season, Parseghian’s team faltered at the end of the year for the 2nd time in a row. Finishing with a 7-2-1 record, the Irish claimed the #9 ranking in the final AP Poll.
As the calendar turned to 1966, the Irish were again projected to be one of the top teams in the country. Returning 9 starters on offense, the two additions to the starting lineup were quarterback Terry Hanratty and wide receiver Jim Seymour. Defensively, Notre Dame had plenty of talent at each level. Alan Page, Pete Duranko, and Kevin Hardy started along the line. Jim Lynch led the linebackers, and Tom Schoen highlighted the defensive backfield. To begin the year, Notre Dame welcomed #8 Purdue to town. Disaster struck early in the 1st quarter as Rocky Bleier fumbled on the Boilermaker 5 yard line and saw Purdue return the fumble 94 yards for a touchdown. Wasting little time in responding, Notre Dame answered back with a 97 yard kick return for a touchdown by Nick Eddy. Hanratty and Seymour connected for 3 touchdowns on the day as the Irish emerged with a 26-14 victory. After defeating Northwestern the following week, 35-7, Notre Dame would not surrender another offensive touchdown for 6 weeks. On the flip side, the offense poured in 275 points total over the same 6 week period, averaging 45.8 points per contest. The win streak included a 38-0 drubbing of #10 Oklahoma in Norman.
Standing at 8-0, Notre Dame held the #1 ranking as they readied to face #2 Michigan State on the road. The game was billed as the “Game of the Century” and rightfully so. Both teams had NFL prospects on both sides of the ball. They were clearly the two best teams in football, evidenced by the fact that the game was going to be nationally televised. The trip seemed doomed from the start as star running back, Nick Eddy, slipped on ice getting off of the train in East Lansing and was unable to play.The bad luck continued in the 1st quarter when Terry Hanratty and starting center, George Goeddeke, were lost for the game with injuries. To make matters worse, the Spartans jumped out to a 10-0 lead as Irish fans began to fret. However, Notre Dame answered back late in the 2nd quarter with a 34 yard touchdown pass. After the 3rd quarter was scoreless, Notre Dame tacked on a field goal on the 1st play of the 4th quarter to tie the score at 10. On the ensuing Michigan State possession, Tom Schoen intercepted a Spartan pass, giving the Irish excellent field position. Unfortunately, the Irish offense continued to struggle. After stalling on the drive, Notre Dame set up for a 41 yard field goal. Off the foot of Joe Azzaro, the field goal attempt initially appeared that it would sneak inside the goal posts; however, at the last second, the ball drifted just inches right of the post. Michigan State took over possession but were very conservative with their play calling. With just over 4 minutes remaining in the game, the Spartans seemed content with a tie and punted the ball back to Notre Dame with about a minute left on the clock. Standing at their own 30 yard line with a backup quarterback, Parseghian opted to run out the clock to ensure the 10-10 tie. Though roundly criticized for not trying to win the game, Notre Dame emerged from the historic clash with its #1 ranking still intact.
With Michigan State out of the way, Notre Dame had to face #10 USC on the road to close out the season. For the 2nd time in 3 seasons, Notre Dame headed west to take on USC with a national championship within their grasp. Starting quarterback, Terry Hanratty, was sidelined for the game due to the injury he sustained against Michigan State. Unlike the heart wrenching loss in 1964, the Irish jumped out to an early 14-0 lead and kept their foot on the gas pedal all day, leading to a 51-0 romp over the #10 Trojans. Backup quarterback, Coley O’ Brien, finished the day 21/31 with 255 yards passing and 3 passing touchdowns. The week following the trouncing of USC, Notre Dame held a commanding lead in the AP Poll over Michigan State and undefeated Alabama. Michigan State could not play in a bowl game that season as the Big Ten rules at the time dictated a team could not go to back to back Rose Bowl games. Thus, Michigan State’s last game was the tie against Notre Dame. Alabama was able to play a bowl and faced #6 Nebraska in the Sugar Bowl. Though the Crimson Tide did defeat Nebraska to finish the year undefeated, Notre Dame was rightfully crowned the 1966 National Champions at the conclusion of the season. As an objective measurement of their dominance during the season, the 1966 team outscored its opponents 362-38. Following a trend set by Rockne and Leahy, Parseghian secured his 1st national title in his 3rd year with the school. The title was Notre Dame’s 1st title in 17 years and officially ushered in the “Era of Ara.”
After winning a national title at Notre Dame, the only logical expectation from the fan base was to win another title the following year. Despite losing 3 of 4 starters on the defensive line, several offensive linemen, and Nick Eddy at running back, Notre Dame was the preseason #1 heading into the year. After walloping Cal 41-8 to open the year, Notre Dame lost a heart-breaker to #10 Purdue by the score of 28-21. The Irish took their frustrations out on Iowa the following week, defeating the Hawkeyes 56-6. Next up, #5 Notre Dame welcomed #1 USC to town. Coming into the game, USC had not won at Notre Dame Stadium since 1939. Although USC was ranked #1, Notre Dame was favored by 12 points. All signs pointed to an Irish victory. In the first half Notre Dame controlled much of the action and went into halftime with a 7-0 lead. However, the wheels fell off in the 2nd half. Notre Dame committed 9 turnovers and allowed OJ Simpson to rush for 160 yards and 3 touchdowns, resulting in an embarrassing 24-7 loss for Parseghian’s squad. For the remainder of the season, the Irish would hardly be challenged. Over the last 6 games, Notre Dame defeated: Illinois, Michigan State, Navy, Pittsburgh, Georgia Tech, and Miami (FL). Five of the 6 victories were by double-digits with lone nail bitter coming against Miami (FL) in the season finale. Though the Irish lost to the 2 ranked opponents they faced during the 1967 season, they ended the season ranked #5 in the AP Poll with an 8-2 record. Hardly the follow-up act Parseghian was hoping for, but nothing to be ashamed of either.
Entering his 5th season on the Notre Dame sidelines, expectations were again high for Parseghian and his team. Holding the #3 preseason ranking, the Irish faced a stiff test against #5 Oklahoma right out of the chute. After falling behind 14-7 in the 1st quarter, Notre Dame outscored the Sooners 38-7 the rest of the way to capture a decisive 45-21 victory in the season opener. The schedule only intensified in week 2 as #1 Purdue traveled to South Bend to take on the #2 Fighting Irish. Little did the fans know, but they were about treated to an offensive explosion. The Boilermakers raced out to a 23-7 lead midway through the 2nd quarter and took a 23-14 lead into halftime. Miraculously, neither team scored in the 3rd quarter. Despite their best efforts, Notre Dame could not contain Purude for an entire half and permitted 2 more touchdowns in the final quarter. The end result was a 37-22 loss to their in-state rivals. On the day, the teams combined for 55 1st downs and 933 yards of total offense. Though the defense struggled to stop Purdue, the onus fell on the offense. Seven times on the day the Irish offense moved past the Purdue 30 yard line and did not score a single point, a seemingly inconceivable stat. Following the setback, Notre Dame went on a 3 week tear through the Big Ten, defeating Iowa 51-28, Northwestern 27-8, and Illinois 58-8. #5 Notre Dame concluded their run against the Big Ten with a contest with unranked Michigan State. From the opening play the Irish were on their heels as the Spartans recovered an onside kick. Trailing 21-17, Joe Theismann, who was pressed into duty several weeks earlier following a knee injury to Terry Hanratty, drove the team 50 yards to the Spartan 2 yard line. Unfortunately, the drive would go no further. Three running plays went nowhere and set up a crucial 4th down. On 4th and goal, Theisemann threw to Jim Seymour in the end zone. Controversy reigned as the Spartan defender committed an obvious pass interference penalty. However, no penalty was called because the back judge had slipped and fallen, and he did not see the infraction. Michigan State took over on downs and ran out the clock, handing Notre Dame a 21-17 defeat. Ara again rallied his team as they ripped off another 3 game winning streak, defeating Navy, Pittsburgh, and Georgia Tech in consecutive weeks to set up a season finale showdown against #2 USC. After throwing a pick-6 on the 2nd play of the game, Theismann would lead the Irish to a 21-7 lead at the end of the 1st half. USC answered back in the 2nd half with 2 touchdowns to knot the score at 21. After missing 2 field goal attempts in the 4th quareter, Notre Dame had to settle for a 21-21 tie with the Trojans. The curtain fell on the 1968 season with a 7-2-1 record and a #5 ranking in the AP Poll.
Entering the 1969 season, a significant change occurred within the Irish Football program. School officials elected to end their 44 year postseason ban. The decision was made in part to provide the team a better opportunity to secure a National Championship. In years prior, the AP Poll would release its final rankings before bowl season, rendering bowl games meaningless. However, beginning in 1965, the final poll was released after bowl season. This prompted Irish officials to make the change to avoid losing out on a title due to bowl game inactivity.
On the field, Ara returned junior signal caller Joe Theismann. In addition to Theismann, senior guard Mike McCoy, who would be the 2nd overall pick in the 1970 draft, headlined the offense. Notre Dame began the season ranked #11, thumping Northwestern 35-10 to begin the year. Next, the team traveled to face the pesky Boilermakers. Riding a rare 2 game winning streak in the series, #16 Purdue defeated the Irish 28-14. Purdue quarterback, Mike Phipps, became the only quarterback since 1900 to defeat Notre Dame in 3 straight seasons. The story of the day was the Irish defense’s inability to contain the Boilermaker offense, allowing them to go 12/19 on 3rd down conversions. The loss dropped the Irish from the polls, as Ara was left scratching his head about how his team would ever beat Purdue. The loss also amplified the belief among many fans that Ara could never win the “Big One.” Although Ara led the Irish to several big wins during his first 5 seasons, his record against ranked opponents stood at 5-6-2 after the Purdue loss.
In Ara’s assessment the entire team, including Theismann, were extremely flat the following Monday at practice. According to Parseghian, the head coach and player had a long talk on the practice field on Tuesday about the quarterback’s play. Whether due to the conversation with Parseghian or something else, Theismann displayed noticeable poise and confidence in the pocket the next game out against #14 Michigan State, throwing for 294 yards and 3 touchdowns. Thanks to his outstanding effort, Notre Dame blew past Michigan State 42-28. After defeating Army 45-0, #15 Notre Dame welcomed #3 USC to town. During the opening 30 minutes of play, Notre Dame was constantly on their heels. USC entered Irish territory 5 times but could not score. On the flip side, Notre Dame began 7 of its 9 drives inside their own 25 yard line. The teams entered halftime knotted at 0. Things quickly changed in the 2nd half as Notre Dame used an 11 play, 74 yard drive to score a touchdown on the opening possession of the 2nd half. However, USC answered right back with a 10 play, 75 yard touchdown march. USC added another touchdown early in the 4th quarter following a Theismann interception to leave the score at 14-7. The Irish used their ensuing drive to travel 61 yards in merely 5 plays. Yet the Trojan defense stiffened with their backs to their goal line. After holding for 3 plays, the Trojans sacked Theismann for a 15 yard loss on 4th down. USC could not generate much on their next drive and lined up to punt from their own 33 yard line. To the delight of the Irish sideline, Mike McCoy blocked the punt, allowing Notre Dame to recover the ball on the USC 7 yard line. Notre Dame finally punched the ball into the end zone on a 4th and 1 play to tie the score at 14. USC’s next drive quickly stalled, and the Trojans punted the ball right back to the Irish. Notre Dame took advantage and quickly advanced as far as the 14 yard line. However, a clipping penalty pushed the ball back to the 40 yard line. The next play resulted in a 9 yard pass, bringing Notre Dame back to the 31 yard line. This set up a 48 yard field goal attempt with just under 2 minutes remaining for Notre Dame. Unfortunately, the ball fell just short and hit the cross bar. USC was unable to score after the turnover, resulting in a 14-14 final.
Notre Dame would win its remaining 5 games and accepted a bid to the Cotton Bowl to face undefeated and top-ranked Texas. Texas quickly found out they were in for a battle as Notre Dame struck first with a field goal in the 1st quarter. In the 2nd quarter, Notre Dame extended its lead to 10-0 after Joe Theismann connected with Thom Gatewood for a 54 yard touchdown. At this juncture, a stop by the Irish defense would have given the team all the momentum for the 2nd half. Instead, the defense wilted and allowed a 74 yard touchdown march just before halftime, resulting in a 10-7 Notre Dame lead at halftime. Following halftime, neither defense surrendered a point in the 3rd quarter. In stark contrast, the 4th quarter saw a flurry of points. With 10 minutes left in the quarter, Texas edged ahead of Parseghian’s squad, 14-10. Notre Dame responded with an 80 yard touchdown drive, culminating with a 24 yard touchdown pass with 6:52 remaining, leaving the score 17-14 in favor of the Irish. Needing one stop to secure an upset victory in their 1st bowl appearance in nearly half a century, the Irish defense allowed Texas to methodically cover 76 yards. The drive culminated with a Texas touchdown with 1:08 left in the game. Notre Dame did not have enough time to respond and lost the game, 21-17. Voters took notice of the valiant effort from Notre Dame, moving the team from #9 to #5 in the final AP Poll as the team finished with an 8-2-1 record.
Entering the 1970 season, the team was lacking the star power fans had grown accustomed to the previous years under Parseghian. Looking back on the 1970 season, Ara stated, “I was confident in our quarterback, but I wasn’t sure what to expect from the team in the early going. Before the season started, I knew we had some spots that didn’t look good and then there were some areas of depth concern. But as the season progressed, this group came together as well as any I’ve coached.”
The team roared through its first 7 games of the season unchallenged. The closest game was a 24-7 win on the road over #18 Missouri. Heading into week 8, Notre Dame held the #1 ranking and welcomed a 7-2 Georgia Tech team to Notre Dame Stadium. Entering the game, the Notre Dame offense was averaging 41 points per game, yet found themselves tied 0-0 with the Yellow Jackets at halftime. Ultimately, Parseghian’s bunch gritted their way to a 10-7 victory, though they lost the #1 ranking after the unimpressive win. The offense struggled to find their way the next week against #7 LSU. An Irish field goal late in the 4th quarter proved to be the difference in the game, allowing the Irish to escape with a 3-0 victory. Prior to the season finale, the Irish accepted a bid for a return trip to the Cotton Bowl to face #1 Texas. Thus, Notre Dame merely had to defeat a 5-4-1 USC team in their season finale to set up a de facto national title game in the Cotton Bowl.
Turning in one of the sloppiest performances ever for a Parseghian-coached team, Notre Dame turned the ball over 8 times against USC. Despite Theismann throwing for a school record 526 yards, Notre Dame fell 38-28 to the Trojans. Many outsiders felt the Irish would roll over against the Longhorns with almost nothing to play for. Texas struck the initial blow with a field goal in the 1st quarter. Undeterred, Notre Dame responded with 21 straight points and held a 24-11 lead at halftime. Contrary to the flurry of activity in the 1st half, both teams went scoreless in the final 30 minutes of the game, and Notre Dame claimed a 24-11 victory. The Irish victory snapped Texas’ 30 game winning streak.
Even with the historic upset of Texas, many Notre Dame fans forget how close the 1970 team came to securing a national title on the season’s final day. With #1 Texas out of the way, #2 Ohio State was upset in the Rose Bowl, and #3 Nebraska trailed LSU 12-10 late in the Orange Bowl. Unfortunately, the Cornhuskers were able to score a late touchdown to defeat LSU, leaving Notre Dame at #2 in the final AP Poll with a 10-1 record. Summing up the 1970 season, Parseghian remarked, “Enthusiastic, resilient, talented, a lot of energy, great leadership: That’s how I would define this team.” On the year, the team averaged 510.5 yards per game, a school record to this day. Furthermore, the offense averaged 257.8 rushing yards and 252.7 yards passing, 1 of only 2 teams in Notre Dame history to accomplish this feat. Though they did not win a title, the 1970 squad will remain one of the best Irish teams to ever take the field.
Coming off one of the best statistical seasons in program history and a monumental upset over #1 Texas in the Cotton Bowl, the national media had high expectations for the Irish. Although they lost Joe Theismann to the draft, Notre Dame returned a plethora of talent on the defensive side of the ball. Walt Patuski, Clarence Ellis, and Mike Kadish would all be selected in the 1st round in the following year’s NFL Draft. Beginning the year ranked #2, Notre Dame continued the yearly tradition of pounding Northwestern in the opening game. In week 2, Notre Dame went on the road to face Purdue in a driving rainstorm. Both offenses struggled to move the ball that day, and Purdue went into halftime with a 7-0 lead thanks to a successful 65 yard screen pass that went for a touchdown. In the 4th quarter, Notre Dame was driving for a game-tying score and stood at the Boilermaker 5 yard line when disaster struck. The sloppy conditions caused a bad exchange between the center and quarterback and allowed Purdue to recover the ball with just less than 3 minutes remaining. Thankfully, the Irish defense held and forced a 3 and out quickly. Miraculously, the Purdue punter fumbled the snapl, and Notre Dame pounced on the ball in the end zone. With the score 7-6, Parseghian ordered a 2-point conversion. The conversion succeeded on what became known as the “Genuflect Play,” and Notre Dame squeaked out an 8-7 victory.
Over the next 3 weeks, Notre Dame allowed a grand total of 2 points and ran their record to 5-0 with wins over Michigan State, Miami, and North Carolina. Next, the team welcomed an unranked USC team to town. Stunningly, for as good as Ara Parseghian was as a coach, he had not defeated the Trojans since 1966. The losing streak would continue as USC walked out of Notre Dame Stadium with a 28-14 victory. Following the USC loss, Notre Dame rattled off 3 more victories, including wins over Navy, Pittsburgh, and Tulane. Notre Dame declined a bowl invitation during the 1971 season, making their game against #14 LSU the season finale. The team did not go out on a great note, losing 28-8 against the Tigers. Despite outgaining LSU, 4 Irish turnovers, as well as their inability to convert 3 separate 4th and goal attempts in the game sunk any chances of victory. Finishing at 8-2, the 1971 team finished the year at #13 in the polls, breaking Parseghian’s streak of 7 consecutive Top 10 finishes in the AP Poll while at Notre Dame.
Coming off of a disappointing season in 1971, fans were unsure what to expect in 1972. Eight starters on the 1971 defense needed to be replaced. Furthermore, sophomore quarterback Tom Clements received the starting nod at quarterback, despite never having taken a snap for the varsity team. Ara was blunt in his assessment of the team prior to the season saying, “This is the biggest rebuilding job I have faced since coming to Notre Dame.” Some publications went as far as forecasting a 6 win season at best for the young Irish.
Beginning the season ranked #13, Notre Dame’s young talent quickly came together, opening the season on a 4 game winning streak. The defense pitched 2 shutouts, while the offense scored 35 points or more in 3 of the games. The youngsters finally tripped up against a 2-3 Missouri squad in week 5. Notre Dame turned the ball over 3 times and fell behind by as much as 16 points before scoring 12 points in the final quarter to make the final 30-26 in favor of Missouri. Rebounding from the tough loss, Notre Dame went on to defeat TCU 21-0, Navy 42-23, Air Force 21-7, and Miami 20-17. In the Miami contest, the Irish held on for dear life in the final quarter as the Hurricanes scored 2 touchdowns and lined up for a game-tying field goal as time expired, only to see the ball narrowly drift outside the goal posts. After the Miami game, Notre Dame’s record stood at 8-1. Their regular season finale would come against undefeated #1 USC. Besides USC, the only other undefeated team left in the country was Alabama. This meant that an Irish win over the Trojans could send them soaring upwards from their #10 ranking. Throw in a bowl win over a #9 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl and suddenly there was a path to a national title. That dream quickly died in the opening seconds at the Los Angeles Coliseum. From the opening kickoff, the rout was on as Anthony Davis took the ball to the house to spot USC an early 6-0 lead. On the day, Davis would score 6 touchdowns as USC rolled to a 45-23 victory. The win also extended USC’s unbeaten streak in the series to 6 games. To wrap up the season, Notre Dame suffered an embarrassing 40-6 blowout loss to the Nebraska Cornhuskers. The game would serve as Parseghian’s largest margin of defeat ever as coach of the Irish and left a bitter taste in many fans’ mouths. Dismissed by many at the time, Parseghian stated, “From these ashes, Notre Dame will rise.”
Despite the two blowout losses to close the season, you could make an argument that the season was one of Ara’s better coaching jobs. As mentioned before, the 1972 team was barely expected to be above .500 by some. Yet, they were one bad game away from potentially playing for a title against Nebraska. An 8-3 record would stand as the worst ever in Parseghian’s 11 year career in South Bend, and the #14 AP Poll ranking would be the lowest the Irish ever finished under his watch.
After back to back seasons of finishing outside the top ten in the AP Poll, Notre Dame fans were starting to get antsy. Though he was in no danger of being fired, Parseghian was beginning to felt a great deal of pressure both from outside sources as well as internally. During the spring of 1973, the team practiced 20 times in 30 days. Every Wednesday and Saturday brought full-pad scrimmages as the team sought to move on from the ending of the 1972 season. When summer rolled around, a peculiar thing was happening on the practice field. Two defense freshmen were running with the 1st-team, something nearly unheard of at the time at Notre Dame. Both Luther Bradley (safety) and Willie Frye (defensive end) claimed starting spots heading into the season. #8 Notre Dame breezed past Northwestern 44-0 in their opening contest. Week 2 brought a relatively easy win on the road over Purdue by the score of 20-7. In week 3, Notre Dame slipped past Michigan State, 14-10, in a low-scoring affair. Standing at 3-0, Notre Dame blitzed Rice 28-0 and Army 62-3 during weeks 4 and 5 of the season.
Next on the schedule was Ara’s personal bugaboo, the USC Trojans. USC entered the game as the defending national champions, riding a 23 game winning streak, and holding the #6 ranking in the country. Notre Dame had not defeated USC since 1966. On USC’s first offensive snap, Luther Bradley delivered a jarring hit on Lynn Swann, causing his helmet to fly off and Pat Haden’s pass to fall incomplete, which set the tone for the day. After Notre Dame scored first on a field goal, USC answered back with Anthony Davis touchdown. In the 2nd quarter, Notre Dame opened the period with another field goal. Just prior to halftime, Tom Clements scored on a 1-yard run to give the Irish a slim 13-7 lead. Notre Dame received the opening possession of the 2nd half. On the team’s first play, Eric Penick took a misdirection handoff 85 yards to the house as Notre Dame stadium erupted in a frenzy. USC added a touchdown in the 3rd quarter, but Notre Dame went right back down the field to add on another field goal. At the end of the 3rd quarter the score stood at 23-14 in favor of Notre Dame. In the final 15 minutes neither offense generated much, and the Irish emerged with a 23-14 victory. On the day, the Irish defense held firm against the run, permitting only 60 yards. On the flip side, the offense dominated the trenches, recording 316 yards on the ground.
With their rival in the rearview mirror, Notre Dame rolled through the remaining 4 games in the regular season. In order, they defeated Navy 44-7, #20 Pittsburgh 31-10, Air Force 48-15, and Miami 44-0. Notre Dame ended the year ranked #3 and accepted a bid to face #1 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Though the two teams had never met in football before, the tension surrounding the game felt like two old rivals were gearing up to play. Paul “Bear” Bryant was still upset that he did not get a chance to play Notre Dame or Michigan State during the 1966 postseason to claim a national title. On the other hand, Ara was growing increasingly agitated listening to the Crimson Tide fan base deride him for his play-calling against the Spartans in 1966 and claiming that the Irish were not the rightful champions during 1966. Throw in the “North vs. South” and “Catholics vs. Baptists” angles and suddenly this game took on even more weight than it already had. In later years, Parseghian recalled that Notre Dame President Rev. Theodore Hesburgh came up to Ara at one of the social events prior to the game. Ara remembers Hesburgh making the remark, “You know Ara, I’ve never asked you for anything in the years you’ve been at Notre Dame, but it would please me immensely if you would win tomorrow.” That was the first and last time Parseghian ever received such a comment from Hesburgh.
Finally, game day arrived on December 31, 1973. Kickoff was slated for 8pm, which forced players, coaches, and fans to nervously fill the morning and afternoon time until they could head to the stadium. Notre Dame put together a masterful drive in the 1st quarter that led to a Wayne Bullock touchdown. Unfortunately, the PAT was missed. At the end of the 1st quarter, the Irish defense had held Alabama to negative yards as they clung to a 6-0 lead. Refusing to be held down for long, Alabama put together a 7 play, 52 yard drive to inch ahead with a 7-6 lead. On the following kickoff, Notre Dame freshman, Al Hunter, returned the ball 93 yards for a touchdown. The Irish tacked on a 2-point conversion and suddenly were back in the lead at 14-7. Alabama added a field goal just before half to leave the score at 14-10. The back and forth continued as Alabama used their 1st possession in the 3rd quarter to slowly work their way 97 yards over 11 plays for a touchdown. The scored remained 17-14 in favor of Alabama late in the 3rd quarter. Notre Dame caught a break late when Alabama fumbled deep in Irish territory. The Irish promptly added another touchdown and held a 21-17 advantage heading into the final quarter. The game was living up to its billing, and the stadium was rife with tension as the 4th quarter commenced. With about 9 minutes remaining in the game, Bryant called for a double-pass from the Irish 26 yard line that resulted in a touchdown. More importantly however, Alabama missed the PAT, which left the score at 23-17. Notre Dame answered back, using an 11 play, 79 yard drive to milk the clock and add a field goal to give Notre Dame a 24-23 lead with 4:26 remaining. Alabama was forced to punt after their ensuing drive stalled, pinning the Irish deep in their own territory. Bryant hoped to regain possession of the ball on his side of the 50 yard line and set up a last second score. His plan was working to perfection as Notre Dame only gained 5 yards total on 1st and 2nd down. Facing a 3rd and 5 from their own 5 yard line, Parseghian elected to call a pass play. However, as Clements worked the line hoping to draw Alabama offside, he inadvertently caused Dave Casper to jump early. The penalty backed the Irish up to the 2.5 yard line. Undeterred, Ara stuck with the same call. In one of the most dramatic plays in Irish history, Irish quarterback Tom Clements dropped back to pass. With a Crimson Tide defender in his face, Clements lofted a 35-yard pass to Robin Weber. Weber, who had caught 1 pass all season, hauled in the ball with 1:56 remaining in the game. The conversion gave Notre Dame a fresh set of downs, and enabled Notre Dame to run out the clock, securing an all-important victory over Bear Bryant and Alabama. The Irish ended the season ranked #1 with an 11-0 record, claiming Parseghian’s 2nd national title in 10 seasons.
After finally securing an undefeated season and national title, the internal pressure Parseghian felt continued to rise. He was slowly losing joy in the victories, while constantly beating himself up when his team lost.
To begin the 1974 season, Notre Dame began the year ranked #3 and opened with a 31-7 rout on the road of Georgia Tech on a Monday night. Jumping to #1 in the polls, Ara continued his personal winning streak in the Northwestern-Notre Dame rivalry intact as the Irish stomped the Wildcats 49-3. In the 3rd week of the season, Purdue came to town. Entering the game, Notre Dame was riding a 13 game winning streak. However, one could not have gathered that from watching them play. Notre Dame committed 2 fumbles and an interception early in the game, allowing the Boilermakers to sprint out to a 21-0 lead after 8 minutes had passed in the game. Losing the game 31-20 removed the chance that the Irish would repeat as national champions. For the remainder of the season the 1974 outfit more closely resembled Jekyll and Hyde than the dominant program the team had become over Parseghian’s tenure.
Following the Purdue loss, the team traveled to East Lansing to take on Michigan State. Notre Dame emerged with a 19-14 victory, capitalizing on 2 Spartan turnovers that lead to Irish touchdowns. Struggling again the next week, the team barely skated by Rice, turning in a 10-3 victory at home. After several uneven performances, Notre Dame defeated Army 48-0 and Miami 38-7 in back to back games. One of the most pivotal games in Irish history took place the following week against Navy. Notre Dame slogged through the first 3 quarters, trailing the Midshipmen 6-0 heading into the 4th quarter. A fumbled punt in the 1st quarter led to a Navy field goal. Navy added another field goal in the 3rd quarter following a conversion on a fake punt. With less than 10 minutes remaining in the game, the Irish offense took over on the Navy 28-yard line following a 15 yard punt return. After moving the ball quickly inside the 10-yard line, the Irish faced a 3rd and goal on the Navy 6-yard line. Thankfully, Clements was able to find Pete Demmerle in the end zone for his only completion of the 2nd half to help the Irish take a 7-6 lead. Notre Dame would tack on a touchdown with 2:12 remaining in the game following a 40 yard interception return by Randy Harrison, helping Notre Dame secure a 14-6 game. While the game was trivial in the grand scheme of things, what took place on the trip home was far more important. After wrestling with the decision for nearly a year, Ara privately decided that he would retire at the end of the year. The Navy game cemented the fact that he simply did not take joy in winning anymore, and the pressures of the job were starting to wear on him physically and emotionally. Following the game, Notre Dame accepted a bid to the Orange Bowl. Though it had not been decided at the time, it appeared as though Alabama, who was undefeated, would be the Irish opponent.
Despite the up and down nature of the season, Notre Dame held the #5 ranking in mid-November when they welcomed #17 Pittsburgh to town. Trailing the Panthers 10-7 with just over 8 minutes left, the Irish methodically covered 55 yards, scoring with 1:27 left in the game to edge Pittsburgh 14-10. On Senior Day, Notre Dame rolled Air Force 38-0. Still standing at #5 in the country, the team traveled West to take on #6 USC. The way the game began, it seemed as if Notre Dame would easily defeat USC as they held a 24-0 lead in the 2nd quarter. What happened over the next 2.5 quarters was one of the more bizarre things one could have witnessed at a football game. USC scored 55 straight points, including 35 in the 3rd quarter, to stun Notre Dame 55-24.
A week later Notre Dame learned that they would indeed be facing the Crimson Tide in a rematch of the previous season’s Orange Bowl. Alabama would be entering the game undefeated and ranked #2. As the team prepared for the bowl, Ara was preparing to announce his resignation as head coach. He met with Father Joyce in early December and told Joyce he was planning to resign following the bowl game. Taken aback by the news, Joyce implored Ara to take a week to mull it over and then decide if he truly wanted to resign. Parseghian came back the following weekend with the same belief and officially announced his resignation on December 15, 1974 citing health concerns and burnout. The news sent a shockwave throughout the Irish community. Many simply could not believe that Parseghian would be walking away, but Ara was set in his decision.
On January 1, 1975, Parseghian led the Irish onto the field for the final time. The rematch against Alabama was another nail-bitter. Notre Dame scored first in the 1st quarter following a muffed punt by the Crimson Tide. The Irish recovered the ball on the Alabama 16-yard line. Five plays later Notre Dame scored on a 4-yard touchdown run to take a 7-0 lead. In the 2nd quarter, Notre Dame put together a 17 play, 77-yard drive that was capped with a 9-yard touchdown run to extend their lead to 13-0. Alabama got on the board late in the 2nd quarter with a 21-yard field goal. Neither team was able to score in the 3rd quarter as both defenses shined. The defensive slugfest continued late into the 4th quarter. Finally, with just a little over 3 minutes remaining, Alabama connected on a 48-yard touchdown pass and converted a 2-point conversion to draw within 2 points at 13-11. After a quick 3 and out on offense, Notre Dame was forced to punt. Alabama took over on their own 38-yard line and in 2 plays had moved to the Irish 38-yard line. On the next play, Reggie Barnett secured an interception, sealing the 13-11 victory for the Irish. At the conclusion of the game, the players hoisted Parseghian on their shoulders and carried him off the field. And with that, the “Era of Ara” concluded.
Ara Parseghian holds a special place in the hearts of many Notre Dame fans. Most importantly, Parseghian saved a program that had been trending downward rapidly since Frank Leahy stepped down as head coach. Pundits wondered if Notre Dame would ever return to the top of college football. Ara quickly proved in his 1st season that Notre Dame still had a hallowed place within college football, nearly winning a title in 1964. If Parseghian did not come along and the football program continued to be led by the likes of Joe Kuharich and Hugh Devore, what would the history of the program be today? Would Dan Devine and Lou Holtz ever had come to South Bend? My own personal belief is that if Ara Parseghian would not have been hired that the Notre Dame Football program would have slowly faded away like the Army and Navy programs did.
Consider these numbers. In 11 years, Parseghian won national titles in 1966 and 1973. He finished ranked inside the top 15 in the AP Poll all 11 years at Notre Dame, finished inside the top 10 in the AP Poll 9 times, and inside the top 5 in the AP Poll 5 times. He helped end Texas’ 30 game winning streak in the 1971 Cotton Bowl and ended USC’s 23 game winning streak in 1973. He has the 3rd most wins ever for an Irish Football coach. His .836 winning percentage trails only Knute Rockne and Frank Leahy for coaches who spent over 5 years on the Irish sideline. The highest number of losses he had in a season was 3. His bowl record of 3-2 may not seem overly impressive until you consider that his teams were not allowed to attend the postseason until the 1969 season. One could argue his teams in 1964, 1966, and perhaps another season or two would have rolled to bowl victories. He lost in the closing minutes against Texas in the 1970 Cotton Bowl. On the other hand, no one can defend the 40-6 shellacking Nebraska laid on the Irish in the 1973 Orange Bowl.
There are 2 large criticisms you can levy against Parseghian. The first is that his 13-11-3 record against ranked teams is less than ideal when compared to other top Irish coaches. However, digging deeper into this record brings me to my next point. Parseghian struggled mightily to defeat the arch-rival USC Trojans. Over 11 seasons, Ara merely went 3-6-2 against them. Four of those losses came against ranked USC teams, which helps contribute to his fairly average record against ranked opponents. Bottom line, if he had performed better against USC, several more of his teams would have had the opportunity to compete for a national title.
Overall, Parseghian was a once-in-a-lifetime coach who came to the Irish in one of their darkest hours. Not only was he a great man, he was also a phenomenal coach. As stated previously, without his 11 years in South Bend, there is no telling what the program would look like today. He brought respect back to the program and caused many to begin fearing the Irish again. For that, he has my eternal respect and gratitude.
Stay tuned to find out who ends up at #1 on my list of “Top Ten Greatest Notre Dame Football Head Coaches.” Below are links to the other profiles in the series.