Today is the seventh part of our countdown from 11 to 1 of the best fourth seasons by a Notre Dame head coach, beginning with Knute Rockne’s tenure that started in 1918. Not included are Hunk Anderson (1931-33) and Tyrone Willingham (2002-04), who were axed after their third seasons.
Ara Parseghian set such a high bar his first three seasons that top-10 and even top-five finishes suddenly were perceived as letdowns.
No. 5: Ara Parseghian (1967)
Final Associated Press Ranking: No. 5
It says something about a coach’s tenure when a No. 5 finish in the rankings is considered one of his more disappointing seasons.
Then again, by the time Ara Parseghian was a “senior” in 1967, he already had graduated magna cum laude as Notre Dame’s head coach.
• Parseghian’s 25-3-2 record after three seasons was virtually identical to a Notre Dame icon from 20 years earlier, Frank Leahy, who was 24-3-2 his first three years.
• Both won consensus national titles in their third year, 1943 for Leahy and 1966 for Parseghian, despite a late-season smudge by both.
• Both had sensational debuts with No. 3 finishes in the Associated Press poll, with Leahy finishing 8-0-1 in 1941 and Parseghian 9-1 in 1964 (but he did win a share of the national title when the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame presented the Fighting Irish the MacArthur Bowl).
• Both turned their first quarterback into Heisman Trophy winners, Leahy with Angelo Bertelli and Parseghian with John Huarte.
The tougher part for Parseghian came after the consensus title in his third season. In the spring of 1967, he admitted in the May 15, 1967 edition of Sports Illustrated something you will almost never see anywhere: a head coach acknowledging that he and his staff had a down year in recruiting.
Ohio State with Woody Hayes cleaned up that year in the Midwest, and once those players became eligible (the NCAA didn’t allow freshmen to play at the varsity level until 1972) as sophomores in 1968, more than a dozen of them started for the national champs. Notre Dame signed 31 players in 1967, but …
“Suddenly we woke up in April [when signing was held back then] and realized we hadn’t signed many of the boys we were really after,” Parseghian told SI. “Some of them we were after for two years. Concerned? You’re damn right I was concerned. I was alarmed.”
Indeed, of those 31 players signed, only one would play in the NFL — quarterback Joe Theismann, who arrived at a generously listed 6-0, 163-pound Plan B (or even C or D) option from New Jersey.
More pressing in 1967 was the immense graduation losses from the 1966 champs, including stalwart linemen such as Alan Page and Pete Duranko on defense, Tom Regner, Paul Seiler and George Goeddeke on offense, and running back Nick Eddy, who finished No. 3 in the Heisman balloting.
Nevertheless, Sports Illustrated informed the Irish staff that it would rank the Irish No. 1 in its first-ever preseason college football edition scheduled for September. Linebackers coach John Ray pled for the writers not to do that because it’s not as fun to be the target, and Parseghian echoed that “no one wants to be No. 1 in May.”
That attrition was felt during a 2-2 start with losses to Purdue (28-21) and eventual national champ USC (24-7). Notre Dame yielded 14 more points in those two setbacks alone than it did the entire 1966 campaign (38). It also was demoralizing because back then the lone goal for Notre Dame was the national title. The Irish didn’t even lift their bowl ban until 1969.
Also, back then the AP ranked only a top 10 and the loss to USC marked the first time since Parseghian’s opener four years earlier that Notre Dame fell outside that standard.
Led by the junior passing combination of quarterback Terry Hanratty and wideout Jim Seymour, and a defense spearheaded by first-team All-Americans Kevin Hardy (tackle) and Tom Schoen (safety), Notre Dame then ran the table the final six weeks to finish 8-2 and No. 5.
The one “quality” win at that time came in a night game finale at Miami. The Hurricanes, led by defensive end Ted “The Mad Stork” Hendricks, were Sports Illustrated’s preseason No. 3 pick (they would finish No. 16 in the UPI poll). Irish linebacker Bob Olson broke up a late two-point conversion to seal a 24-22 victory.
Years later, Notre Dame running backs coach Tom Pagna cherished one of the quotes from that game from a Miami defensive lineman: “In the fourth quarter, I was really hanging and figured they’re not as used to the heat as I am. But they’d break the huddle, sprint to the line and bust a gut coming after you. I knew then why they were Notre Dame.”
With an 8-2 record and No. 5 finish now considered a “letdown,” Parseghian realized more than ever that he was at Notre Dame.
From 1967-72, Notre Dame was 0-4-2 against top rival USC, and even lost three straight to Purdue from 1967-69. This led to some chatter that Parseghian “couldn’t win the big one,” even though his 1970 team ended the season with a 24-11 victory against No. 1 Texas in the Cotton Bowl, snapping the Longhorns’ 30-game winning streak.
But this is what happens once excellence is achieved. Critics carp about not doing more with more. In basketball, North Carolina’s Dean Smith (head coach from 1961-97) was mocked for winning “only two” national titles. Even Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski sometimes is criticized for not winning more than four. The great ones often become a victim of their own success, and “the big one” always is the one you lose.
Parseghian won a second consensus national title in 1973 with an 11-0 finish and concluded his marvelous career at the tender age of 51 (Brian Kelly’s current age) the next year with a 13-11 victory versus 11-0 and No. 1 Alabama in the Orange Bowl.
After last year’s success, it’s imminent that Kelly will have to bear the slings and arrows in years to come of not winning the “big one” until Notre Dame does finish No. 1. How will he cope with it?