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Ara Parseghian’s forgotten importance in Northwestern football history

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Without Parseghian, Northwestern might not still be in the Big Ten.

Chicago Sun-Times

Mike Deneen is Inside NU’s historian. This is his story on the life and success of Ara Parseghian, focusing on the legendary coach’s role in Northwestern history.

Last week, the football world lost legendary former Northwestern and Notre Dame head coach Ara Parseghian. There was a great outpouring of appreciation and grief on social media and across the web, which may have surprised many college football fans unfamiliar with Parseghian’s legacy. Like former Oakland Raiders coach John Madden, he was a prodigy that achieved great success and retired at a young age. Unlike Madden, Parseghian did not have a 30-year broadcasting career or a video game franchise to keep his name and face in the public eye.

When people think of the greatest names in college football coaching history, they tend to think of long-time coaches like Bear Bryant or Woody Hayes. Among Notre Dame fans, Knute Rockne is the name most associated with the program. At Northwestern, most fans believe that football success has only happened with Gary Barnett and Pat Fitzgerald. But although his name faded from the headlines, Parseghian’s impact on college football was profound and deserves to be remembered.

In 1956, Parseghian inherited a Northwestern team that was winless in its previous season, and a football program so consistently mediocre that the Daily Northwestern opined about the possibility of the Wildcats leaving the Big Ten. Despite this, he took NU to a No. 1 national ranking and left Evanston with a winning record (36-35), something no other coach has done since.

DANGEROUS TIMES FOR PRIVATE SCHOOLS

Parseghian came to Northwestern during a very crucial time in the program’s history. The team was coming off a winless season under one-year head coach Lou Saban (no relation to Nick). Professional football, which had struggled to gain popularity since the 1920s, was beginning to grow — largely due to the new technology called television. In the first half of the 20th century, private schools thrived in college football, similar to the lacrosse landscape of today. However, by the 1950s, college football was becoming a “farm system” for the NFL, a trend that favored large state institutions with less restrictive admissions requirements. The NFL was especially dangerous for private colleges in urban areas; programs such as University of San Francisco, NYU, and Fordham all dropped the sport during the early 1950s, in part due to competition from nearby pro football franchises. Many around Northwestern at the time believed that it was time for NU to leave the Big Ten, if not drop football altogether.

A low point came midway through the 1955 season, as winless NU had just been beaten 49-0 by Ohio State. More bad news came when beloved alum Otto Graham, still playing his final year with the Cleveland Browns, publicly announced that he would not pursue a coaching career when he retired at the season’s end. Instead he decided to stay in Cleveland and work in the insurance industry. Many Northwestern fans had dreamed that Graham, the former All-American who won seven pro football titles in ten years, could bring magic back to the program as its head coach.

On November 1, 1955 — only seven years after the Wildcats won the Rose Bowl — the Daily Northwestern ran a front page editorial recommending that NU withdraw from the Big Ten.

“We have nothing to look forward to but continual defeat in the Big Ten,” it said. “Would there be any shame in playing schools such as Stanford, Vanderbilt, Princeton, Marquette, Rice, Holy Cross, Penn, Southern Methodist — all privately endowed institutions such as ourselves?” In the context of the times, they had a point. The large state schools had no scholarship limits, so they could recruit all the top talent. With lucrative TV contracts still decades away, revenue was dependent almost entirely on attendance and alumni donations.

Into this tumult stepped the 32-year-old Parseghian. Ultimately, Otto Graham’s decision to stay in Ohio turned out to be one of the biggest breaks in NU football history.

CRADLE OF COACHES AND THE BIRTH OF A CAREER

Before his coaching career began, Parseghian was a standout player at Miami University in Ohio and — briefly — for the Browns. A defensive back and halfback, he played alongside future Hall of Famers Graham and Marion Motley in Cleveland in 1948 and 1949, winning two All-American Football Conference Titles. However, he was seriously injured in the second game of the 1949 season and forced to retire.

Unable to play, Parseghian hoped to remain in football. He got his chance at his alma mater, when Woody Hayes reached out to the injured Parseghian and offered him the job of head coach for Miami’s freshman team (under NCAA rules, freshmen were not eligible to play varsity until 1972). Parseghian’s squad went 4-0 in 1950, and he was chosen to lead the varsity program when Hayes took the head coaching job at Ohio State in 1951.

At the young age of only 27, Parseghian was a head football coach. Although not considered a “major” program on the field, Miami already had a reputation as a launching pad for successful head coaches. Notable coaches that had already played or coached at Miami were Paul Brown, Red Blaik, and Sid Gillman. Over the next few decades that list would include notable names such as Bo Schembechler, Jim Tressel, Gary Moeller, Randy Walker, and Hayes. Miami would become known to the football world as “The Cradle of Coaches.”

PURPLE RESURGENCE

Ironically, Parseghian’s first game at Northwestern wasn’t as head coach of the Wildcats. To begin his fifth season as head coach, he led his Miami University team into Evanston for the 1955 season opener. The Redskins (now Redhawks) had gone 8-1 in 1954, winning the MAC Championship. Northwestern was led by new head coach Lou Saban, who replaced legendary Rose Bowl coach Robert Voigts. The game was an omen of the season to come: Miami beat NU 25-14. The Wildcats would finish 0-8-1 and be outscored 241-66. Miami, on the other hand, went undefeated in 1955, surrendering only 47 points all season and finishing with a top 20 ranking.

Stu Holcomb replaced longtime Northwestern athletic director Ted Payseur in late 1955, and one of his first acts was to fire Saban and his entire staff (side note: one of those assistants was a guy by the name of George Steinbrenner). Holcomb, who had connections to Miami, pegged Parseghian for the job.

Despite inheriting a program that had just suffered four consecutive losing seasons, Parseghian was confident that things could and would change. Upon his arrival, a reporter asked him if Northwestern could compete in the Big Ten. “If I didn’t think we can, I wouldn’t be here,” he said. Early on, his biggest impact was his ability as a recruiter, bringing in future NFL stars such as Irv Cross and Fred Williamson. Parseghian recruited his home state of Ohio heavily; among his best finds was halfback Ron Burton, who led the team in all purpose yards in 1957, 1958, and 1959. In 1960, he became the first-ever draft pick of the newly-formed Boston (now New England) Patriots.

The Wildcats saw immediate results on the field in 1956, going 4-4-1 on the season. That was the team’s best record since 1951, and the season ended with a three-game winning streak. Optimism around the program was quickly dashed in 1957, as NU struggled to a dismal 0-9 record. The Cats were plagued by injuries, and Parseghian gave lots of playing time to talented yet inexperienced players such as Burton. They were outscored 271-57, and to casual observers, the program seemed to be back where it started a couple years earlier. Rumblings about whether Parseghian was the right man for the job began to appear, but Holcomb never lost faith in his coach, telling the Daily that the team would “come along.”

Holcomb’s confidence was rewarded in 1958, as the team jumped out to a 4-0 start, including a 55-24 win over No. 19 Michigan. Two weeks later, the Wildcats beat Ohio State 21-0 in Evanston to reach a 5-1 mark. OSU entered the game undefeated and ranked No. 3 in the country, but was shut out by Northwestern’s stingy defense, Fans stormed the field after the win, tearing down the south goal posts, while the players carried Parseghian off the field. NU was ranked No. 4 in the nation and things were looking up, but in a pattern that would become all too common, injuries decimated the team for the final month of the season. The Wildcats lost their three remaining games to finish 5-4.

THE SOONER FOOD POISONING KERFUFFLE

Northwestern made headlines in its opening game of 1959, hammering second-ranked Oklahoma 45-13 in front of over 50,000 ecstatic fans in Evanston. Oklahoma, then of the “Big Seven” conference, was an elite program in the 1950s under legendary coach Bud Wilkinson. The Sooners won 47 consecutive games from 1953-57 and claimed national championships in 1950, 1955, and 1956. Although NU was becoming regarded as an up-and-coming football program under Parseghian, its demolition of OU raised a lot of eyebrows nationally.

An interesting explanation soon surfaced. Oklahoma team physician Mike Willard claimed that 20 of his players contracted food poisoning before the game. 20 of the 43 members of the Sooners’ traveling party began vomiting on Thursday evening, hours after dining at the Orrington Hotel and visiting the Chez Paree, a well-known Chicago nightclub. Five Oklahoma starters were among the ill, all of whom missed practice on Friday. Rumors swirled that the mob was involved, since the point spread shrank from six to three points after word of the sickness got out. Laboratory tests were done by the Evanston Board of Health and Chicago Board of Health, but the case was never conclusively solved.

The victory was the start of another hot streak, as the Wildcats rolled to a 6-0 record and a No. 2 national ranking, including wins at Notre Dame, Michigan, and Iowa. However, injuries and lack of depth would again hamper Parseghian’s team — it lost the final three games of the season to finish 6-3.

The 1960 season started with a rematch against Oklahoma — this time in Norman. Sooner fans relished the opportunity to avenge the previous year’s “food poisoning” loss in Evanston. They were disappointed with the outcome, a 19-3 win for the Wildcats. This time there were no excuses or explanations, NU simply outplayed the defending Big Seven Champions.

Expectations were high in Evanston for the 1960 season, but the team was soundly beaten in its next three games, scoring a combined total of only seven points. Injuries were again the problem, but this time they happened early in the season, and the Wildcats finished strong at 5-4.

HITTING THE CEILING IN EVANSTON

NU took a step backwards in 1961, in part due to the graduation of key players, finishing 4-5. The program bounced back very strong in 1962, having its best year under Parseghian. The team had an experienced group of quality players, led by the duo of quarterback Tom Myers and receiver Paul Flatley, and it surged to a 6-0 start. Wins included an 18-14 victory over the Buckeyes in Columbus and a home thrashing of Notre Dame before a Dyche Stadium record crowd of 55,752. The victory over Indiana, the sixth of the year, lifted NU to the No. 1 ranking in the nation in early November. This was the program’s first and only No. 1 ranking since 1936, but it was short-lived. Back-to-back losses to Wisconsin and Michigan State cost the Wildcats any shot of the Big Ten title. They ended the season 7-2, and seemed to have reached their limit. Recruiting standards and small budgets perpetually limited the size and talent of the roster, making it difficult to sustain a full season of excellence.

Fans and media had begun to speculate that Parseghian would depart for a head coaching job at either a large state school or the professional ranks. Stanford, another private school that had been struggling, offered him their job after the 1962 season. “I told them frankly that I thought I had a better job here at Northwestern,” he told the media.

Although he was linked to the Cleveland Browns job that offseason, Parseghian returned in 1963 for what would be his final season in Evanston. In a familiar pattern, the team won four of its first five games, then lost three of its final four to finish 5-4. The season included a pair of notable wins for Parseghian. On October 19, Northwestern defeated Miami, his former team, 37-6 in Evanston. Parseghian’s final win as Northwestern coach was against the man who gave him his first coaching job; the Wildcats defeated Woody Hayes’ Ohio State team in Columbus on November 16, 1963. The season-ending game put both NU’s season record and Parseghian’s NU career record over .500, and evened his record against OSU at 3-3. Northwestern has only beaten Ohio State twice since his departure.

Following the 1963 season, Parseghian and his staff were becoming frustrated with the limited budgets at NU. According to the Chicago Tribune’s Teddy Greenstein, the staff was forced to pay out of their own pockets to repaint the locker room. His team loved him, but recognized that he would have to move on. “We knew as a team that he and his staff were big time,” recalled NU alum Mike Buckner, one of Parseghian’s players, in 2014. “He was a master strategist, while having a tough guy swagger,” said Buckner.

END OF AN ERA

The news that Wildcat fans dreaded finally came on December 3, 1963 — Parseghian took another job. However, he did not go to a professional or state school team. He went to Notre Dame, a program that had been struggling mightily in recent years. Like NU in 1956, the Irish hadn’t had a winning season in five years, and Parseghian would be their third head coach in three years. Despite its glory days in previous decades, Notre Dame was facing some of the same challenges as other private schools. Catholic schools in particular were struggling, as many dropped their programs during the 1960s and 1970s. Notre Dame went 2-7 in 1963, and the program was at a crossroads. “Many people thought Notre Dame couldn’t regain their glory,” recalls Danny Coughlin, a 1956 Notre Dame alum and longtime sports journalist in Cleveland. “Many of us had given up hope.”

Parseghian’s coaching was able to reach new heights in South Bend, as the administration offered greater support than he received at NU. He now had the depth on his rosters to compete for an entire season — and he got results. The team went 9-1 in his first season, and went on to win national championships in 1966 and 1973. After eleven years in South Bend, he retired after the 1974 season at the age of 51. Since he left, no coach has won multiple national championships at Notre Dame, and most haven’t won any. “Notre Dame has spent the last half century trying to find the next Ara Parseghian,” Coughlin said.

RETIREMENT

Parseghian originally intended to take some time off and then seek an NFL job. However, he instead decided to go into broadcasting. He worked at ABC as a color analyst from 1975 to 1981. Parseghian then moved to CBS, where he was reunited with a familiar face; he was paired with CBS studio host Brent Musburger to broadcast college games. Musburger, a former NU student, covered Parseghian’s teams as a Daily Northwestern reporter.

After his broadcasting days ended in 1988, Parseghian kept busy with charitable work and personal appearances. He founded the Ara Parseghian Medical Research Foundation, which is dedicated to fighting Niemann-Pick type C, in 1994. Three of his grandchildren were diagnosed with the disease. He has appeared many times at Notre Dame events, including the unveiling of his statue in 2007. At first Parseghian, known for his humility, wasn’t thrilled with the idea of being immoratized. But after seeing the statue at the unveiling, he had a change of heart. “Ya know, I sort of like it!” he told Coughlin at the event. In his later years, Parseghian became friends with Pat Fitzgerald, and served as NU’s honorary captain for its 2010 homecoming game against Michigan State.

LEGACY

Parseghian is best known for his work at Notre Dame, but his career at Northwestern was just as impressive and important. He managed to guide NU through some of the most difficult years for private university football teams. During his Northwestern tenure, Marquette and Detroit Mercy dropped the sport entirely, and were soon followed by Xavier. Tulane exited the SEC in 1966 to become an independent — taking the advice the Daily Northwestern editorial staff gave to NU eleven years earlier.

Northwestern’s “Era of Ara” gave Wildcat fans evidence that the program could compete at the Big Ten level. This success helped the program survive the dreadful decades of the 1960s and 1970s, until structural changes in college football would put schools like NU back on a better footing. Scholarship limits began in 1977, preventing the large schools from hoarding all the talent. Once limited to one or two nationally televised games per week, college football changed in the 1980s with the spread of coverage across numerous networks. This allowed more schools to be seen by potential recruits. TV contracts, which have ballooned in value since the 1990s, have also enabled private schools like NU, Stanford, and Vanderbilt to share revenue equally with their large state school conference-mates. Even the spread of bowl games enables more teams to enjoy a post-season experience. During Parseghian’s time at NU, there was only one bowl bid for the entire conference.

By the mid-1990s, Northwestern was able to parlay these factors into a winning program. Gary Barnett, Randy Walker, and Pat Fitzgerald have been able to accomplish feats — such as Big Ten titles and bowl wins — that Parseghian couldn’t in his day. However, none of them would have had their success if not for Parseghian’s time in Evanston. And some of his feats — most notably, that No. 1 national ranking — remain unmatched by his successors.