Even though I knew it was coming, I still can't believe that voice, that charisma and that man are gone. Ara Parseghian left earth Wednesday morning after 94 years to join The Gipper, Rockne and the Four Horsemen around that Golden Dome In The Sky, and I've been thinking about something.
I've been thinking about my list.
Pete Rose is near the top, and the same goes for Al Davis, Oscar Robertson and Bill Walsh. I had more than a few riveting moments with Al McGuire, the prince of quirky during his Marquette basketball days. Then there was Paul Brown, among the legendary souls from Miami (Ohio) University, my alma mater, and I can't forget Hank Aaron. If the owner of the most contagious laugh you'll ever hear isn't the classiest of famous athletes, he's 1a or 1b.
With apologies to the others, nobody surpasses Parseghian as my all-time favorite sports person, and it's not even close. Knute Rockne and Frank Leahy created Notre Dame's football mystique during the first half of the 20th century, and before Lou Holtz came in the 1980s, there was Parseghian resurrecting the previously gasping Irish with energy and a game plan.
The strangest thing is, I knew the third of Notre Dame's quartet of iconic coaches before I really KNEW him, and after we officially met for the first time more than 40 years ago, our bond strengthened for a slew of reasons. If nothing else, it came down to this: Parseghian and I had a couple of mutual loves, and they're both from the Midwest. I'm talking about Miami (Ohio), where we graduated, and Notre Dame, which triggered my admiration for Ara when he began coaching the Irish during the early 1960s. He is huge at both schools. All you need to know is that the campuses of Miami (Ohio) and Notre Dame have statues in his honor at their stadiums, and I've posed at both of them.
That said, let's return to when I was in grade school in South Bend, Ind., Notre Dame's home for the past 175 years. I used to join my two brothers and cousins on Saturdays during the fall for a game of counting the number of cars with out-of-town license plates, heading slowly down Eddy Street toward Touchdown Jesus. The winner got, well, nothing, but it was fun. We always wore Notre Dame stuff, and in particular, Mom dressed us in the types of Irish sweatshirts that she said Ara wore on the sidelines. Then I'd cheer with everybody else in the household for the epidemic of Notre Dame teams that rarely lost under our local messiah who always had things under control.
Not surprisingly, Parseghian ranks among the best college football coaches ever, courtesy of his stints at Miami (Ohio), where he got his start under Ohio State great Woody Hayes, and Northwestern, before he watched his resume explode like crazy during his 11 years with the Irish through 1974. They never lost more than two games during the regular season, and all of his teams were ranked in the top 15. He had that awesome voice, which was a mixture of hoarseness, poignancy and grace. More impressive, he had enough charisma to slide through walls, and what I said about Aaron regarding class as a famous athlete applied to Parseghian on the coaching side.
Which brings us back to the Miami (Ohio) part of the story. If you add Ara to those from the past such as Weeb Ewbank, Bo Schembechler and Brown and those from the current such as John Harbaugh with the Baltimore Ravens and Sean McVay with the Los Angeles Rams, you have an idea of why Miami (Ohio) is called "The Cradle of Coaches. " As an alum, that's enough for me to hug Parseghian's memory even tighter, and I haven't told you about the footballs or the elevator. They all involve Parseghian, who believed in giving more than receiving, which is why he formed the Ara Parseghian Medical Research Foundation in 1994. It seeks a cure for Niemann-Pick disease, which is a blood ailment that took the life of three of his grandchildren.
In other words, Parseghian helped others, even beyond the splendid ways he helped his Notre Dame teams remain potent before he shocked the world by retiring at 51. He never coached again, and some say he left for good to join the TV booth after that 1974 season, because he never recovered from the Irish taking a 24-0 lead in the first half at Southern Cal before the Trojans scored 55 unanswered points for the most shocking Notre Dame loss of my youth. Some say he was upset with the school's administration for suspending six of his key players on rape accusations before the season, even though they never were charged.
Here's what Ara told me: It was Navy. When you coach Notre Dame, you can't lose to the Midshipmen, and Parseghian never did, but after his Irish crushed Navy by an average of 30, 35, 40 points in previous years, they only survived the Midshipmen by a final score of 14-6 in 1974.
"When I got back to South Bend from that Navy game in Philadelphia, I was totally exhausted," Parseghian told me several years ago, adding that after he pulled into the driveway of his home, he barely could get out of his car from fatigue. "That's when I made the final decision it was time to go, and after I discussed it with my wife, she agreed."
That autumn of 1974, I began as a freshman at Miami (Ohio). The following year, while I studied on the upper floor of the student center, the elevator doors opened, and there was Parseghian, looking tan and rested enough in retirement to become an active member of Miami (Ohio)'s Board of Trustees. I thought I would faint. Despite all of my years in South Bend, this was the closest I'd ever been to Parseghian, and after I introduced myself, well, I'll put it this way. Often when you meet one of life's all-time greats, they fall short of expectations. Not Ara. He was more personable than I could have imagined, but he always retained his sense of royalty that didn't offend. Such was the case throughout the many times I encountered Parseghian over the next four decades.
We talked when he came to Miami (Ohio) for this or that. I saw him at Notre Dame for anniversaries and games in general. We chatted over the phone, either when he was at his home outside of South Bend in Granger or during his trips during the winter to Marco Island, Fla.
So it nearly ranked with the death of a parent or grandparent Wednesday morning when that beep came on my cell phone with the inevitable news involving a mentally sharp yet physically failing nonagenarian who recently got an infection in the same hip that had received five operations. Afterward, with the word of Parseghian's passing official, I softly hummed "Notre Dame, Our Mother," the haunting alma mater for the university that was written seven years after Parseghian's birth in Akron, Ohio, in 1923.
I'm still humming that tune, because I'm reminiscing while looking at two footballs signed by Parseghian. They arrived at my house outside of the Atlanta area during Memorial Day weekend in May after a knock on the door. It was the UPS man, and he left a large box containing those gifts out of nowhere from Ara, with help from Miami (Ohio) president Greg Crawford, a former Notre Dame official who also is a lifetime Parseghian fan. For the first time in over a century, Miami (Ohio) and Notre Dame play each other in football this season. So, with that September game approaching in South Bend, Ara signed a football from each school for me, and he added something on the Miami (Ohio) one.
Ara wrote . . .
My favorite sportswriter