Ara's Early Life:
Highlights from the Era of Ara:
Some football seasons are rougher than others, like this one.
It seems people either love or hate Notre Dame football. But its storied past is still written and talked about across the country, from Knute Rockne and the Gipper to Frank Leahy and the "Era of Ara."
Ara still lives in Michiana and is the winningest coach in the modern Notre Dame-era.
Throughout the one-on-one interview, Ara talks about his childhood, his love of football and his fight for a mysterious disease that killed three of his grandchildren.
In this part of the conversation, Ara discusses his time as Notre Dame coach, and why he thinks he was able to take a program in chaos and return Notre Dame to its glory days.
Many believe the "Era of Ara" brought the program back from the brink of collapse, but Ara is humble about those accolades and doesn't want to take credit for saving Notre Dame football.
And all these years later he is still confident that "old Notre Dame will win overall."
The man credited for returning Notre Dame football to glory never wanted to be a coach.
He played for his high school in Akron, during World War II for the Navy, then Miami of Ohio and finally, in 1948, played for the Cleveland Browns.
But then things changed.
"I got injured in 1949," Ara says. "I played in all the games. As a matter of fact the Cleveland Browns went undefeated."
Then he coached the freshmen at Miami of Ohio and within a year was the varsity head coach at the ripe old age of 26.
He stayed five years then went to Northwestern, a team so dismal there was talk it would be dropped by the Big Ten.
He turned things around in Evanston and after eight years set his sights on a team Northwestern defeated four straight seasons: the Fighting Irish.
"I remember picking up the phone and calling Father Joyce, basically saying, 'I see you have named an interim coach in Hughie Devore. If you're contemplating a change, I'd like to throw my hat into the ring,'" says Ara.
So Ara and his family moved to South Bend.
Ara said he never hesitated, in spite of being an outsider by Notre Dame standards (a non-Catholic), or that Notre Dame had a losing record once football was de-emphasized in favor of academics.
"I felt there were a lot of characteristics that I was presented with at Northwestern that were here at Notre Dame. For example, high admission requirements, the number of scholarships being limited, I'd gone through that, I did that."
His goal: take a demoralized team that had gone just 2-7 the year before and turn things around by building their confidence. While taking into account what he calls the "X factor."
"So when I went out for spring practice, there was talent there. There were some good football players there. They were misplaced."
Ara demanded they go to class, shook things up and moved people around.
"One of the reasons I became a reasonable coach, I started out playing guard and center when I was a junior, so I was a defensive lineman and offensive guard, then when it got to be my senior year I became a running back."
And he surrounded himself with talented coaches.
"We discussed every player, every day. We did not want a good football player sitting on the bench. We would switch positions. We had a number of guys who wanted to be quarterbacks, and wound up in the defensive secondary."
He also had John Huarte, a quarterback who'd been beaten down by coaches for three years, take the starting position.
"Here's a guy sitting on the bench that won the Heisman Trophy, guys that had been in the backfield became offensive All-Americans."
Guys who that first season went 9-1were carrying Ara off the field after the first game, and guys who were awarded the MacArthur Bowl as the nation's best team.
That plaque from 1964 proudly hangs in Ara's den, in company with footballs from two national championships.
When asked how it feels to be seen as the person who saved Notre Dame football, Ara simply says, "Oh gosh, you know, I don't feel like I saved Notre Dame football. I mean Notre Dame football was going to come back one way or another."
So then why did he retire when he did?
"It's an interesting question, because I was only 51 when I stepped aside, but I'd been a head football coach for 25 years. Talk about good fortune," Ara says. "I think it took a physical toll on me, I don't think there's any question about it. And I knew what was happening to me and I knew that if I wanted to be around a while, I would probably have to step aside."
Although he still cheers for the Irish, Ara doesn't go to the games anymore.
"Well I shouldn't say completely no. I've been to some of the games, but right now I find it much more comfortable to watch the game at home where I can say whatever I want to say, I can swear at the officials if I so choose," he says, laughing.
Ara is 86 years old and when he came to Notre Dame in 1964 he was paid $20,000 a year. Even with inflation, it comes nowhere near to what a lot of college coaches are making today.
Ara says he has no regrets about retiring in 1974 because 20 years later, he faced a battle much larger and much more important than football.
Three of his grandchildren were faced with a mysterious disease called Niemann-Pick.
On Thursday, in Part 3 the "Conversation with Ara", Ara talks about the toll losing his grandchildren has taken on the family and the foundation he founded that is looking for a cure.
If you'd like to see the first part of Maureen's Conversation with Ara, just click here.