SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Ara Parseghian was remembered as a championship football coach, mentor, tireless fund-raiser for medical research and gentleman of the first order during his funeral Mass and a memorial celebration that followed on Sunday.
Parseghian, who brought Notre Dame’s proud program out of the doldrums of the early 1960s to win two national titles, died Wednesday at 94 .
Former Notre Dame football Lou Holtz and former basketball coach Digger Phelps were among the speakers at the memorial. Country music artist Vince Gill, who with his wife Amy Grant are friends of the Parseghian family, performed two songs.
Holtz told attendees that the late school President Rev. Theodore Hesburgh once said hiring Parseghian was one of the smartest things he had ever done and that Parseghian once said his years in South Bend were the greatest of his and his family’s lives.
“Had Ara Parseghian not shown up, so many people would have missed him because of his insight, his love of his family and his caring for people,” Holtz said. “A lot of people can be successful. But Ara was significant. Significant is when you help other people be successful and, of course, that lasts many a lifetime.”
Parseghian, who coached at Miami University, his alma mater, and Northwestern prior to coming to South Bend, had 25 consensus All-Americans and a Heisman Trophy winner play for him at Notre Dame. He won national titles in 1966 and 1973 and posted an .836 winning percentage before he retired in 1974 at age 51.
It was noted at the memorial that Parseghian’s playbook always had the saying “We have no breaking point!” written on the last page. Parseghian lived that mantra outside football, as well.
Notre Dame President Rev. John Jenkins, who presided at the funeral, spoke of the grace with which the Parseghians faced devastating illnesses that touched the family. Parseghian and his wife of 68 years, Katie, lost three grandchildren between the ages of 9-16 to Niemann-Pick disease from 1997-2005. Parseghian helped create a foundation that has raised more than $45 million for research on the disease.
Parseghian also was a past national chairman for the Multiple Sclerosis Society. His daughter, Karan Burke, died in 2014 after battling MS for four decades.
“Such losses crush many people. They did not crush Ara” and his family,” Jenkins said.
Peter Schivarelli, manager of the band Chicago, remembered the opportunity Parseghian gave him to try out for the team as a walk-on in the 1960s. Though never more than a backup, Schivarelli said, Parseghian treated him as well as any All-American. Years later, Parseghian arranged for members of Chicago to stand on the Notre Dame sideline during a game against Southern California.
The band never forgot Parseghian’s kindness, Schivarelli said, and for the last 23 years has donated one dollar from every concert ticket sold to Parseghian’s foundation.
Phelps spoke of Parseghian’s sense of humor. In 1965, Phelps, then a high school coach in Pennsylvania, wrote a letter to Parseghian saying he wanted one day to be head basketball coach at Notre Dame and emulate the work Parseghian was doing with football. Phelps was hired in 1971 and came to find out that old note to Parseghian had been deposited in the coach’s “crazy letter file.”
When Phelps’ basketball team ascended to No. 1 in the national polls in January 1974, Parseghian acknowledged the achievement by inviting him to the stage at an event celebrating the ’73 football championship.
“He was a big brother and mentor,” Phelps said. “He was incredible being who he was, especially in letting me know how to coach here at Notre Dame. He told me every game you play is the other team’s Super Bowl. Your kids have to be ready, and above being ready, because the other team is coming after you.”
Nephew Tom Parseghian’s eulogy at the funeral described Ara as the son of Armenian immigrants in Akron, Ohio. Ara’s father saw no value in activities not academically centered. So Ara’s brother forged their father’s signature on a permission slip so Ara could play sports in school.
Ara grew into a fierce competitor as an athlete and coach, his nephew said, but it’s the gentleman the people who knew him will remember best.
“In 1964,” Tom Parseghian said, “before being offered the job, Father Hesburgh asked him a question: ‘Ara, will you adhere to the standards of integrity we expect here at Notre Dame?’ He verbally answered that question that day, and he continued to answer that question for the next 53 years.”