Parseghian keeps his promise to ND

Originally Published: August 20, 2009
By Jim Dent | Special to ESPN.com

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from Jim Dent's new book, "Resurrection: The Miracle Season That Saved Notre Dame." Resurrection also serves as the basis for a new documentary, "Echoes Awakened: The Year That Changed The Face of Notre Dame Football."

Ara Parseghian pressed the gas pedal and started driving again, all the way to the Rockne Memorial Building, where the coaches offices were located.

"That is when I got excited," he remembered. "That is when I felt that surge of electricity up my spine. Because I suddenly realized that I had taken on a huge responsibility for upholding this wonderful tradition at Notre Dame. I had grown up during a time when Notre Dame football was held in the highest esteem. I listened to all of the games on the radio. I knew just how great Notre Dame football could be again."

[+] EnlargeAra Parseghian
Getty ImagesAra Parseghian led Notre Dame to two national championships in his 11 seasons as head coach.

Striding up the steps to the building, Parseghian said to himself, "Oh, my God, you've got Rockne and Leahy here, and I am walking into a national institution."

In the foyer, he spotted the bronze bust of Rockne in the corner. He approached it, placed his hand on Rock's head, and said, "You are responsible for starting all of this, you know."

Even before setting up his desk, or making sure the phones worked, Parseghian's most pressing duty at that time was calling a team meeting to explain his philosophy on just about everything. Many changes needed to be made, and the faster the better. He knew the team had basically quit on Hughie Devore late in the 1963 season, and the hangover might be lingering.

He did not know exactly what he would say, or where he would begin. He put nothing on paper. Instead, he thought about all of his years in football, going back to grade school, and all that he had learned. It was time to bring the team together.

The next day, they gathered in the auditorium inside the Administration Building beneath the Golden Dome. Parseghian first introduced the recently hired coaching staff to the players. This was probably the best group in college football: Paul Shoults (defensive backs), John Ray (linebackers), Joe Yonto (defensive line), Tom Pagna (offensive backfield), Doc Urich (offensive line), Dave Hurd (offensive line), John Murphy (prep team), and George Sefcik (freshmen).

Pagna had played for Parseghian at Miami of Ohio and coached under him for three years at Northwestern. Effectively, Pagna was the offensive coordinator in an era when no such designation existed. John Ray had been the starting center on Notre Dame's 1944 team before joining the war effort as a paratrooper. His past five seasons had been spent as the head coach at John Carroll University in the greater Cleveland area, and his teams in 1962 and 1963 went undefeated. He would coordinate the defense.

After introducing the coaches, each player was asked to stand up and give his name, position, and hometown.

Then it was time for Parseghian to embark upon the speech that everyone had been waiting to hear. He felt a chill rushing down his spine as he stepped to the lectern. "I have been around football all of my life," he began, "and I will tell you that the only condition I have is that you listen to me, and you listen to the coaches. If you do that, I promise you, we will win.

"You know what it takes to win. Just look at my fist. When I make a fist, it's strong and you can't tear it apart. As long as there's unity, there's strength. We must become so close with the bonds of loyalty and sacrifice, so deep with the conviction of the sole purpose, that no one, no group, no thing, can ever tear us apart. If your loyalty begins to fade, it becomes a little easier to go out and have a beer, to slack off a little in practice, to listen to someone who will tell you that you should be playing on the first string in front of someone else. If that happens, this fist becomes a limp hand.

"How do we accomplish success? You have to make a believer out of me that you want to be football players! And I must make you believe I am the best capable leader for you! What will I promise you? I will promise you that you will be the best-conditioned football team that Notre Dame has ever had. You will have absolutely the best strategy in football. I will constantly study and update our techniques. I will also promise you that my door will always be open to you and I will talk to you about anything. I will work as hard as I can. I promise never to criticize you publicly, but I expect the same in return. I will be fair with you, as will each member of this staff, but I insist that you respect us. I don't want you to put any of us on a pedestal. Call us by our first names if you like."

For more than an hour, every eye on the room was riveted on the new coach. No one so much as sneezed. After Parseghian finished, nobody moved. He had captured their attention and spoken the football gospel like no coach since Rockne.

At the end, Rassas turned to Carey and said, "Boy, if he'd just come along a few years earlier. We might've won some games."

Carey shook his head and smiled. "I already know that I'd run through a brick wall for him."

As they walked out of the meeting, Parseghian was slapping backs and smiling.

[+] EnlargeJim Dent
Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press

"I cannot wait to get these guys in pads," he told Pagna. "I can't wait to see this team in action. I can't wait for the first day of spring practice."

The Rockne Memorial Building, a.k.a. "the Rock," was constructed in 1938 to provide offices for the athletic staff, along with an intramural gymnasium in the back available to the entire student body. When the two-story edifice was finished, no one would have guessed that this beautifully proportioned brick building was an athletic facility. It hardly resembled the Old Fieldhouse. With its arched loggia and Gothic entrance, it looked more like a liberal arts building. What else would you expect? This was a monument to Rockne and grandeur was required.

A month after Parseghian arrived on campus, the staff was working late one night, watching film and grading the players from the previous season. Others were reading up on Notre Dame history at the behest of their new coach.

"I want you to read everything you can get your hands on," Parseghian told the coaches. "I want you to know Knute Rockne from top to bottom, from the inside out. Same with Frank Leahy. I want all of us to know everything possible before we start the 1964 season."

Parseghian's office in the Rock was situated in the corner with a view of the South Quadrangle from one window and Mary's Lake from the other. It was spacious yet hardly fancy. A long table extended from Parseghian's desk and that is where the staff meetings were held.

One night in mid-February, the phone rang at Parseghian's office and the voice on the other end of the line belonged to Frank Gaul, the senior member of the pep rally committee.

"Coach Parseghian," Gaul began. "We were wondering if you would mind coming over to Sorin Hall for a pep rally. The students would really like to see you." Parseghian could not believe what he was hearing.

"A pep rally in February?" he said. "You've got to be kidding me. We are not even close to the football season yet. It's still basketball season."

"That's right, Coach," Gaul said, "but the kids are pretty hungry. You know that we haven't had a winning season in quite a while."

Parseghian hung up and again was reminded of his enormous obligation to Notre Dame and all of its fans. As each day passed, the pressure mounted, and every time he walked across the campus, he could see the desperation in their eyes.

Through the snow, Parseghian trekked across the campus with Tom Pagna by his side. They were surprised to find more than three thousand students standing in front of Sorin Hall, located next to the Administration Building. The band was playing and the students, standing in ankle-deep snow, were going wild. They were already building human pyramids and chanting, "We Want Ara! We Want Ara! We Want Ara!" Parseghian smiled and turned to Pagna, who winked at him.

"Looks like you'd better talk to those kids," Pagna said. "I don't think they're going away."

The columns of students seemed to stretch forever. Parseghian strode up the steps of Sorin Hall and turned to face the worshiping masses. They bellowed and called out his name and, when Parseghian lifted his right hand for silence, they got louder. Finally, he raised both hands and bent forward as if he were bowing. The noise began to subside.

"I came to Notre Dame to renew the winning tradition," he said. "I really believe that we will win again."

That was enough for the roar to resume. They were jumping and screaming and, in spite of the heavy layer of snow, they were building more shoulder pyramids again. This was as close as free men could come to a prison riot. After several more minutes, Parseghian managed to quiet them down once more.

"I don't know how long it's going to take for us to look like one of those great old Notre Dame teams again," Parseghian said, "but I don't think it's going to take as long as some people think. We will win again."

By now, the cheering was so loud that Parseghian gave up. He turned, waved good-bye, and headed back to the Rock. On his way to the stairs, he stopped and looked Rockne in the eye.

"I told you," he said. "You were the one who started this mess."

From "Resurrection: The Miracle Season that Saved Notre Dame," by Jim Dent. Copyright 2009 by the author and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin's Press, LLC. Resurrection also serves as the basis for a new documentary, "Echoes Awakened: The Year That Changed The Face of Notre Dame Football," for which Dent served as executive producer.