Oct. 22, 2010
By Skip Myslenski
NUsports.com Special Contributor
He was fervent, a dervish, a master motivator and more, a young and bright coach on the front end of a career that would land him in the College Football Hall of Fame. He was compelling, commanding, charismatic and more, a zephyr full of hope landing in a place that was wallowing in defeat. On the Cleveland Browns in the late '40s he had played for one legend, the incomparable Paul Brown. In 1950 at Miami (Ohio) he had coached under a budding one, the curmudgeonly Woody Hayes. They were his touchstones, especially Brown. But here, in 1956, Ara Parseghian inherited a 'Cat program that a year earlier had gone 0-8-1 and ignited talk that Northwestern didn't belong in the Big Ten.
"The whole place was in disarray," he remembers and then he tells this story. There was one man, he says, who did the recruiting and brought the players to the coaches. "I don't know what the coaches did. I really don't," he then goes on. As a result, he continues, there would be arguments between the recruiter and the coaches, arguments over just which players should be signed. That was one thing he changed immediately. "Coaches," he declares, "should be making the decisions on who the players should be. That worked a heck of a lot better for us."
Changed too were the aims, the ambitions, the aspirations of the program, and that meant even further changes in demands made and expectations held. As a result, he says, "We had some players turn in their notebooks." He remembers that he retained enough to have 38 of them on his team, but a Sports Illustrated story later said that number got as low as 23. No matter. Both figures are miniscule and that is why what then happened was borderline miraculous.
Those 'Cats, Parseghian's first, defeated Wisconsin and Purdue and Illinois, and finished their season 4-4-1. The Era of Ara, which we celebrate this Homecoming Weekend, had begun.
Tom Williams played for those 'Cats of '56 and wrote, when asked his memory of Parseghian: "The look on his face when he realized what he had inherited from his predecessor. He cut the squad down to bare minimum."
Frank Caizza was another who played for that team and he wrote, when asked the same: "When I asked Ara why he kept chewing me out at practice he said when I stop that is when you worry!"
Fred Conti was a third in that group and, on the same topic, he wrote: "Coach would kick field goals and extra points using his right foot and then his left foot. He was a great motivator. He hired great assistant coaches."
Here is one more memory from that first season. At Miami (Ohio), his previous job, he had a lucky brown suit that he wore to every game. It came with him to Evanston and all through that year, a year of surprise, he continued to wear it. "Then," he says with a laugh, "we had that disastrous '57 season (going 0-9) and out it went."
That '57 season was a hiccup, a mustache on the masterpiece Parseghian would draw during his time with the 'Cats. The next year they opened with a victory over No. 10 Washington State, defeated No. 19 Michigan and No. 5 Ohio State while taking four of their next five, but then floundered to the finish with three straight losses. "Depth was always a big factor for us," he remembers. "We'd be good the first six games of the season, but then injuries would take their toll."
Still, before the start of '59, he was profiled positively in Sports Illustrated and then led his team to a 45-13 season-opening win over No. 2 Oklahoma. A week later No. 5 Iowa fell and then came victories over Minnesota and Michigan, Notre Dame and Indiana before injuries derailed them again. There were also wins over the Irish the next three years and in 1962, the last of them, there were the arm of Tom Myers and the hands of Paul Flatley carrying the 'Cats to six straight wins and the No. 1 ranking in the land. (They would then lose two of their last three.)
But those are just facts and figures, dry numbers that hardly reflect his genius and the genesis he wrought while with the 'Cats. Just consider that last team, the one that was no less than an aerial circus, and realize that it was an anomaly, a rare sighting in an age where smash mouth was all the rage and the quarterback was often consigned to do little more than hand the ball off. "In those days," he recalls, "you'd face a team with a good throwing quarterback in maybe only half your games."
"I never tried to force a particular offense on a team. I let them tell me what we were going to do. If we had powerful running backs, we'd run the ball. If we had a guy who could throw the ball, we were going to throw it. So we went to the pro mode attack because Tommy could throw the ball and Paul had great hands."
"He wasn't tied to convention, that's a good way to put it," remembers Myers, one of the honorary 'Cat captains this Saturday. "He could adapt to the players he had. If he had someone who could pass the ball, he'd do that. That's the same reason Paul moved to flanker his senior year. He'd been a halfback, but he could catch the ball. Ara's thinking was if I have a throwing quarterback, I have to put Flately out there. He didn't make the players adapt to him. He adapted to them, so to speak. . . He was able to be flexible with his system. He didn't force his kids to play one system. . . He had a philosophy of adapting to, of maximizing the talent he had. He put people where they were best suited to play."
And when did Myers know that '62 season would be special?
"In our first game against South Carolina we did pretty well, and I kind of had a sense of underlying excitement and expectations. Then, in our third game, we went to play Minnesota, who'd been the Rose Bowl champion the year before. They had (defensive linemen) Bobby Bell and Carl Eller (both now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame). It was hot, the place was packed with Minnesotans, it was a back-and-forth game, we'd score, they'd score. I was on the sidelines at the end of the game behind Ara and Alex Agase (an assistant coach). After we held them (and won by 12), we started running across the field to our locker room and I remember Alex yelling to Ara, 'Ara, we got ourselves a damn good football team.' That's when I thought to myself, 'We do. We do.'"
Myers, recalling that season, recounts how his parents were near Parseghian's by the 'Cat bus after they had defeated Ohio State in Columbus. When Parseghian's mom saw her son, his parents later told him, she looked at him and said, "Now, Ara. You be good to these boys. They were very good to you today."
Paul Flately wrote, when asked his memory of Parseghian: "If Ara saw lightning in the sky, practice was over. Players would tell Ara, 'We just saw lightning!'"
Chuck Logan was a teammate of Flately in '62 and he wrote, when asked the same: "If you ran a play and it was successful, he would run it until the other team stopped it. This could be as many as five or six times in a row."
Kent Pike was also on that team and he wrote, when asked his memory: "Ara arguing with the ladies in the apartments next to the practice field during early morning two-a-day sessions. Players sided with the ladies--too early!"
"That's likely," Parseghian says with a laugh when asked about that. "There was only an alleyway between our fence and the building, so we were almost directly below them. But that left us open to being spied on too. I heard that happened. I heard a guy came in and paid quite a bit of money to use an apartment just in the afternoons. I think it was Purdue."
He had his rules and his regulations and this was necessary. "You had to have a degree of discipline. Without that you can't make progress," he says. But Ara Parseghian went beyond them, wasn't tied to them, was willing always to punch down the boundaries of conventional thinking and explore new ways of getting things done. His adoption of the pass in the day of the run was an example of this, yet hardly the only one.
"I don't know if you remember, but back in those days coaching was forbidden from the sidelines," says Myers, beginning another tale of how Parseghian would disdain the norm. "The coach couldn't yell out plays to you. You couldn't come over and talk to the coach even during a time out. But we were using hand signals. It was relatively new and illegal basically, but we did it and other people did too. . . I remember once, in my sophomore year, I was interviewed after a game and was complimented on an out pattern or something that I threw. I said, 'You have to give credit to Ara. It was a great call by Ara.' They put it in the paper and the next day he pulled me aside and said, 'What're you doing telling the press I'm calling plays?' I went, 'Oh. They put that in the paper?'"
Back then too the psychological side of sport was little regarded and any talk of it was viewed as nothing more than mystical claptrap. But before the start of his fourth season with the 'Cats, here was Parseghian saying: "In my opinion, psychology in football is far more important than anyone believes, including the coaches. . . Strategy is very important, I'll grant you. But the ability to put this thing together morale wise is more important than anything else to me."
"My position was, 'If you can't control the head, you can't control the body,'" he now explains. "It's hard work to be successful and I wanted to win them over so they'd be willing to pay the sacrifice to maximize their abilities and help the team."
He had the requisite-and-expected signs spread throughout the locker room urging his players to do just that. ("The difference between mediocrity and greatness is a little extra effort," was one. Another was, "Progress is our most important product.") But he also engendered a spirit and camaraderie in most-unusual ways. He would have his team play a game of tag instead of running wind sprints. He and his assistants and his linemen would choose sides and have a touch football game. He would challenge his punters to contests and even run patterns as a wide receiver so his defensive backs could get a crack at him. "Practice is awful hard," he says now when asked about his approach. "I just wanted to lighten the load and maintain interest."
"He was not, I don't know how to put this, but he was not a guy who kibitzed with his players. He wasn't buddy-buddy with any particular player," says Myers. "But when it was appropriate, he liked to joke, he liked to run patterns. In a kidding way, he'd push a player aside and say, 'Let me show you how it's done.' Tom Pagna (an assistant) was the same way. They loved to run through plays and do this juking and jiving and stuff. He was all business. He was strict. He knew when to put the hammer down. But he also knew when to lighten up."
Jack Cvercko, who played for Parseghian from '60 through '63, is another of this day's honorary captains. When asked by e-mail about his old coach and his singular methods, he replied: "Speaking for myself I think the greatest thing about playing at Northwestern was the family atmosphere on the team and coaches. There was much more emphasis on execution than on strategy. I do not recall any particular psychological ploys that were used. I think we all wanted to do what the coaches asked of us. I do remember preparing to open at Oklahoma in 1960. The temperature the first day of practice was in the 90s. Ara said it's 100 in Norman. After two days the thermometer disappeared from its place on the practice field. . .
"Tag was a whole different game. We did not consider it fun. It was full field gassers and we ran 'til many were dropping. Particularly when we were getting ready to go to Oklahoma. We did play tag football before the start of fall practice. On one occasion I ran over Ara and caused a split above one eye the day before Picture Day. He had many one-sided profile pictures that day. ("I'd forgotten that, to be honest," Parseghian says when asked about this.)
"Woody (Hayes) was another story. Before the game in 1958 he was quoted as saying Northwestern was nothing but a bunch of Ohio State castoffs. Among them were Andy Cvercko (his brother), Gene Gossage, (All American) Ron Burton and others. They ended his Big Ten winning streak, 10-0 (actually, 21-0)."
"Put it this way," Parseghian will say when asked about his fractious relationship with Hayes. "Woody hired me (at Miami) as his freshman coach in 1950. We got along fine. Then he got the Ohio State job, which was really fortunate for me. Some guys wait five, 10, 15 years to get a head job. . .and in less than nine months I was a head coach. Woody was very strong in his recommendation of me to succeed him, but the next thing you know, I'm at Northwestern and on his schedule. It was a competitive thing. From that point on, when we played Ohio State, it was a special game."
Does he remember the castoff crack?
Parseghian laughs. "Woody may have called us castoffs. I don't remember reading that," he then says. "But we stole a few (Ohio recruits) from him and one of them was Ron Burton. Woody worked like hell to get him. Then he beat Woody."
Here, simply and quickly, is a measure of the frenzy that surrounded the 'Cats during that Era of Ara. When they hosted Notre Dame or Ohio State or Wisconsin, he recalls, "They would put up stands in the north end zone and we'd fill the thing. I remember (then-athletic director) Stu Holcomb told me once we gave Ohio State a bigger check than they gave us."
It was earlier this year that current 'Cat coach Pat Fitzgerald, then vacationing in Naples (Fla.), picked up the phone and called Ara Parseghian, who was in Marco Island. "He's one of the, if not The, greatest coaches in our program's history. To have our program ranked number one, I felt there was no better person to learn from than him," he remembers. "So I reached out to him to see if I could spend some time with him on spring break. Coach was gracious enough to allocate about four hours and it was four of the best hours of my life. Just listening, like any student would."
What did he learn?
"What didn't I learn is probably the better question. Just his approach to coaching, his philosophy, what made his stay here so successful, unfortunately some of the reasons why his departure happened, and then some of the things he learned at the institution he went to after here (Notre Dame). Just a lot of great stuff."
Anything that he has applied this season?
"Yeah. Just listening to the way he described his relationship with his players is something we all aspire to have. I believe his young men just played their hearts out for him and to see the response that we've seen from his players coming back to support him this week tells the tale of why he was such an influential leader. He had great relationships with the young people who played for him. He really influenced them."
"We strived to be very fair with every player and I'm proud that, when they come back, they say there was fairness involved," Parseghian himself will later say. "What also comes through is they thought they were well prepared, that they didn't get caught by surprise."
The surprise, which came in November of 1963, was on Parseghian himself and here is where this fairy tale takes a turn. The 'Cats, after ascending to No. 1 a year earlier, had entered this season as Big Ten favorites. But as they struggled to a 3-4 conference finish, a writer at the now-defunct Chicago American, he remembers, "Kept on my case. I don't know the hows or whys, but he wrote a piece suggesting that I had one more year on my contract and there wasn't going to be another.
"I went to the powers-that-be, if you will, to see if there was any validity to the story and I didn't get a very positive response. I figured then I better start looking around. I had no intention of leaving until this occurred. It was a surprise to me. I don't want to make a big deal of this. But I was basically told when I inquired, 'You have tenure here. You can't coach forever.' I said, 'Ooops.'"
That pushed him to contact Miami (Fla.), whose coach Andy Gustafson was retiring, and soon he had a meeting set with the Hurricanes. Then he called the Rev. Edmund Joyce at Notre Dame, which was being guided by interim coach Hughie Devore. "I see you have an interim coach," he said to him. "If you're contemplating a change, throw my hat in the ring. If you're not, forget this phone call."
Joyce, at the time, was non-committal, and so Parseghian proceeded as planned and boarded a plane in Chicago for his trip to Miami. Then, on a stopover in St. Louis, he checked for messages and learned he had one from Joyce. "I forget what excuse I used," he remembers, but he cancelled his meeting with the Hurricanes and the Era of Ara was on its way to South Bend. "I didn't think I had a chance for that job," he says all these years later. "I was as surprised as anyone that I had the opportunity."
He is 87 now and both his hips are synthetic as is one of his knees. But, over the miles that separate him from Evanston, he sounds as vibrant as he did back in 1956. So, yes, we have to ask, does he ever still miss it?
Ara Parseghian chuckles at the thought, but then he says: "I could still coach mentally, but I couldn't coach physically. It's just so demanding. The first year or two (not coaching) were pretty tough. But I had the opportunity to go to pro ball and I just chose not to do it." So in the end, not surprisingly, he even knew how to do the hardest thing of them all. He knew how to walk away.
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