The Daily Northwestern

Football: Parseghian preaches purple

Jonah L. Rosenblum

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In the sports world, people come and go, but in college football, the name Ara Parseghian has proven timeless. Thirty-six years after his great coaching career came to a close, his name is still synonymous with football greatness.

There is something else timeless about the man. He gives the impression that 87 years of life, including 24 as a college football head coach, have hardly worn on him. Approaching his tenth decade, Parseghian is as vivacious as ever.

This past weekend, Parseghian returned to Evanston, where he coached Northwestern from 1956 to 1963, to watch the Wildcats take on undefeated Michigan State.

While the 36-35-1 record he compiled at NU hardly seems impressive compared to the success he had at Miami (Ohio), where he went 39-6-1, and Notre Dame, where he went 95-17-4, his tenure saw a remarkable turnaround in Cats football history, including two weeks as the No. 1 team in the country, a feat the team has yet to repeat.

When Parseghian arrived at NU, the team was coming off an 0-8-1 year and four straight losing seasons.

“It goes back to what that group was able to accomplish while they were here,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “Student athletes and what Coach was able to accomplish when he led our program and brought back the pride and really established a winning tradition.”

Parseghian attended an NU scrimmage Friday and spoke to the players. His message was clear, according to senior defensive tackle Corbin Bryant.

“Focus, focus, focus on every play, one play at a time, one game at a time,” Bryant said. “Don’t worry about the past, the future, just focus on the now. I think we really took that into account, and I think all of us collectively enjoyed seeing a part of history come up here and talk to us about we need to do.”

Parseghian said he told the players a story from his time at NU. According to Parseghian, Michigan coach Bennie Oosterbaan approached him once at a Big Ten meeting and told him the Cats would never beat the Wolverines. Why? Because NU had no tradition. At the time, Oosterbaan’s comments were understandable, if a little arrogant. The Wolverines had defeated the Cats in six consecutive match-ups.

So in 1958, on the Sunday before his team played Michigan, Parseghian gave his team a choice.

“If you want to take the week off because we don’t have any tradition, that’s OK, and you can come back the following week after we take our licking,” Parseghian said. “Or you have an option of being out there on Monday, I’ll be there, you take your choice.”

The players showed up on Monday and on gameday, defeating Michigan 55-24.

In his speech to the current players Friday, Parseghian stressed the mental component of the game.

“The mind controls the body,” Parseghian said. “Nobody is going to come out here and lay down for you.”

Although the Cats were unable to win for their old coach Saturday, losing 35-27, Bryant imagined Parseghian would have been proud of how they played.

“I’m sure he was proud of us, saw that we played a good game, and saw some promising things just like we saw today when we watched the film,” Bryant said.

Fitzgerald said Monday that he hadn’t spoken with Parseghian following the game, but planned on calling him later in the week. According to Fitzgerald, Parseghian and his players’ appearance helped make for an incredible homecoming weekend.

“It was a real special weekend, one that I’ll never forget the rest of my life,” Fitzgerald said. “To see that group collectively at our walk-through on Friday, to have Coach share his thoughts with the team, and then to be a part of the reception on Friday night is something that will go down as one of the most special moments in Northwestern football.”

Until Fitzgerald became coach of the Cats, Parseghian was the last NU coach to compile an overall winning record.

In 1963, after a fallout with NU athletic director Stu Holcomb, Parseghian departed for Notre Dame. The Cats would not beat the Fighting Irish again until 1995, when Pat Fitzgerald was a linebacker for NU. Coincidentally, when the Fighting Irish coaching spot opened up this summer, there were rumors that Fitzgerald was a candidate for the job. Parseghian urged NU not to let history repeat itself.

“I wouldn’t let him get away from here,” Parseghian said. “He’s got all the qualities you need to become a very successful coach.”

Most importantly, Parseghian said that Fitzgerald is very organized and prepares his team well for games.

“If there’s one thing that comes through in my former players, they all feel like they were well-prepared, there were no surprises,” Parseghian said. “You get the same feeling with this Northwestern team. He’s a great motivator. This team wants to play for him.

“I think Pat is the perfect guy for Northwestern,” he said. “You’re going to see a continuation of Northwestern’s rising up in the conference. They are recognized now.”