A Conversation with Ara Parseghian, Part 1: The Early Years

Leading up to the Era of Ara:

  • Born: May 21, 1923 in Akron, OH
  • Great Lakes Naval Station during WWII
  • 1946-1947: played football for Miami University (OH)
  • 1948-1949: played football for the Cleveland Browns
  • 1950-1955: coached football at Miami University (OH)
  • 1956-1963: coached football at Northwestern University
  • 1964: became head coach at University of Notre Dame

Notre Dame football had humble beginnings; then came Knute Rockne and the small Catholic school in the middle of farm country was on the map.

Rockne is still the winningest coach in Notre Dame history, but there were some pretty big gaps in Notre Dame's glory days with Rockne, Frank Leahy and what became known as the "Era of Ara".

Ara Parseghian came to town in 1964 and left with a record of 95-17-4, making him the most successful Notre Dame coach of the modern era.

Ara retired after 11 seasons, but stayed in South Bend, going into private business and working as a color analyst for both ABC and CBS.

In a one-on-one interview for "A Conversation with Ara", Ara talks about his childhood, his love of football and his fight for a mysterious disease that killed three of his grandchildren.

The conversation begins with the early years.

"When I grew up it was during the days of the Depression and it had a big impact on me," says Ara.

A big impact on the son of an Armenian father who escaped genocide by the Ottoman Turks when he was 12. His mother was an orphan from France.

His parents met through a friend, exchanged letters, married and settled far away from their beginnings in Akron, Ohio.

With an older brother and younger sister, Ara says he was an athlete from the start.

"I was the guy who played all the sports, whenever baseball came, whenever basketball came, whenever football came," he says.

He hid the fact that he played football from his mother, who didn't want her son playing contact sports, and he hid it well.

"I was clean, had showered up and came back, and of course she never caught on to that. It wasn't until there was a picture of me with my team in the paper. My mother, you know, started to go ballistic," Ara says.

But Ara's brother convinced his mom that Ara should play, although she still had reservations.

"She came to a couple of games and she got nervous, and she did go under the stands, fearful of my being injured," Ara says.

High school led Ara to the Great Lakes Naval Station during World War II, where he played for Paul Brown of the Cleveland Browns. He also coached the new guys.

"I would take them through preparation for anywhere from four to six to eight weeks, depending on how soon they needed them out in the, particularly the Pacific."

Post-war Ara played college ball at Miami of Ohio where he met his wife Katie.

Then he played for Paul Brown and the Cleveland Browns.

"I wound up being with the Browns in 1948 after my college days," Ara says.

Then in 1949, Ara was injured. The injury led Ara to do something he never dreamed he would do: coach.

He coached freshman at Miami of Ohio and was soon elevated to head coach where he stayed for five years before moving on to Northwestern.

Northwestern was on the brink of dropping out of the Big Ten, but gained success under Parseghian, even beating the Irish four straight times.

Football had been de-emphasized at Notre Dame in favor of academics, and the glory years of Rockne and Leahy were long gone.

With a losing football team and Studebaker, the city's largest employer, closing its doors in December of 1963, fans and residents alike needed a boost.

"This opportunity at Notre Dame opened up in 1964 and I was fortunate enough to get the Notre Dame job," Ara says.

Somewhat of a prophesy for a kid from Akron, whose goal was to play football, not coach. "In my graduation, the book had underneath my name, the prophesy: 'will become the head football coach at Notre Dame,'" says Ara.

If you'd like to see Part 2 of "A Conversation with Ara Parseghian," click here. Ara talks about his years at Notre Dame and how he was able to take a 2-7 team to 9-1 in his first year, using kids who rode the bench under previous coaches.

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