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Notre Dame Senior Years: Parseghian

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)
Record: 8-2
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?

  • These are great, Lou.

    Can someone explain to me why Notre Dame refused bowl games for all those years?

  • GreekActor1,

    Bowl games were basically glorified exhibition games back then because the national champion was crowned at the end of the regular season.

    Take 1953, for example. Unbeaten and untied Maryland was voted the national champion at the end of the regular season, while 9-0-1 Notre Dame finished No. 2. Maryland then lost in the Orange Bowl to Oklahoma — a team that Notre Dame defeated during the regular season. Didn't matter. It's not a case of ND sliding from 2 to 1 because of Maryland's loss because the champion had already been voted upon.

    In 1965, the AP did decide to hold a vote after the bowl, but then in 1966 and 1967 it went back to deciding the national title at the end of the regular season. That's why in 1966 Notre Dame didn't have to go to a bowl to win it all. It was irrelevant that No. 3 Alabama defeated Nebraska 34-7 in the Sugar Bowl to finish unbeaten and untied. ND at 9-0-1 had already been declared the national champ.

    Starting in 1968, the AP decided it would vote on its champion after the bowl game. The UPI (coaches poll) wouldn't do it until 1974. Thus, even though ND beat Alabama 24-23 in the 1973 Sugar Bowl to win the AP national title, Alabama still claims a "national title" in 1973 because it was declared the national champ by the UPI at the end of the regular season.

    The AP changed in 1968, so it was no coincidence that in 1969 ND decided to stop its policy of not going to bowls. That also happened to be the same year ND changed its academic calendar. It used to be the first-semester finals occurred in January after Christmas break, so "bowl time" used to be "study time." But by 1969, finals were taken prior to Christmas break.

  • Here's a story I did a few years ago on that history.

    Belle Of The Bowl
    Four decades ago, Notre Dame ended its postseason ban
    By Lou Somogyi

    From the 1925 Rose Bowl against unbeaten Stanford until the 1970 Cotton Bowl versus No. 1 and undefeated Texas, the University of Notre Dame had a policy of not participating in bowl games.
    The answer on why is easy.
    From the time the Associated Press poll began in 1935 (and even prior) right through most of the 1960s, bowl games were like glorified exhibitions in the grand scheme of final rankings.
    • Notre Dame won four national titles in the 1940s without playing in a bowl. Head coach Frank Leahy’s 1947 national champion Irish were declared No. 1 even though unbeaten and No. 2-ranked Michigan walloped USC, 49-0, in the Rose Bowl.
    An informal AP poll afterward had 226 writers vote Michigan No. 1 while 119 selected Notre Dame — but it was irrelevant because the national title was determined before bowl games were played.
    • In 1953, Leahy’s final season, Maryland was declared the national champ over No. 2 Notre Dame prior to the bowl games. However, the Terrapins then lost in the Orange Bowl to Oklahoma — a team Notre Dame had defeated in Norman. Again, it didn’t matter, so Maryland remained No. 1.
    • The pendulum swung back in Notre Dame’s favor in 1966. That year, Ara Parseghian’s 9-0-1 Irish were declared the national champs over 11-0 Alabama. It didn’t matter that the Irish didn’t go to a bowl while the Crimson Tide crushed Nebraska in the Sugar Bowl, 34-7.

    The Times Are A Changin’
    In 1969, Notre Dame’s administration under president Rev. Theodore Hesburgh C.S.C. changed the no-bowl policy because of the confluence of three factors.
    First, the academic calendar changed at Notre Dame. It used to be the first semester didn’t end until late January, meaning the students had to use the Christmas and New Year break from school to study for upcoming final exams or do research for term papers.
    In 1969, the first semester ended on Dec. 16, and Christmas break lasted until Jan. 5. This respite made the logistics of preparing for the Jan. 1 bowl much more palatable. Players were no longer bogged down with studying for final exams.
    Two, the $340,000 financial windfall from a major bowl was too enticing to bypass.
    Finally, bowl games began to provide an opportunity to stake a claim to a national title, or a higher ranking.
    A glimpse into the future occurred in 1965. Even though the Michigan State Spartans were declared the national champs by the UPI once the regular season ended, Alabama was given the nod by the AP when it decided to vote — at least that year anyway — after the bowl results. Because the Spartans were upset by UCLA in the Rose Bowl and No. 4 Alabama defeated No. 3 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, the Crimson Tide won a split of the national title when the AP voted them No. 1
    Beginning in 1968, the AP decided to take its final vote after the bowl games for good. Meanwhile, Notre Dame set four bowl parameters for itself:
    1. The goal was to go to one of the three major bowls — Orange, Cotton or Sugar. (The Rose Bowl was tied in with the Pac 10 and Big 10 winners, and the Fiesta Bowl did not yet exist). In 1969, there were only 10 bowl games, whereas today there are 35.
    2. The Irish would either compete for the national title, or enhance their standing by playing a higher-ranked foe. Remarkably, in six of the nine bowls Notre Dame played from 1969-80, the opponent was either unbeaten, ranked No. 1 or both.
    3. Money from the bowl would be used to fund minority scholarships, a vital issue to Father Hesburgh, who received the Medal of Freedom from President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 for his work on Civil Rights Legislation.
    4. The football players would have the right to vote on whether they wanted to play in the bowl game.
    Although Notre Dame’s 45-year ban on bowls was lifted, even its head coach, Ara Parseghian, was in the dark when it came to postseason experience. In nearly 20 years as a head coach, he had never been to a bowl.
    “When we finally decided to go in 1969, we were all novices,” recalled Parseghian years ago in an interview with Blue & Gold Illustrated. “All precedents were set in 1969. How many players are we going to take? Will the administration and athletic department go too? What about the wives? I remember being on the phone with other schools on how to do this.”

    Accepting The Bid
    On Nov. 17, 1969, Notre Dame officially accepted the bid to the Cotton Bowl to play the Southwest Conference champ, either No. 2 Texas or No. 4 Arkansas, both undefeated and awaiting their showdown on Dec. 6.
    The other bowl option the players had to vote on was the Sugar Bowl, where No. 13 Mississippi of the SEC would be the home team representative. The easy choice for the players was the Cotton because of the better challenge the higher-ranked Longhorns provided.
    “The precedent has been set now,” said Parseghian after the vote. “If a bowl invitation came up in the future, our kids wanted to go, and the opposition was a challenge to us, I feel we’d go. We wouldn’t go if we were third ranked and our opponent was 15th.”
    When No. 1 Ohio State was upset by Michigan in late November, and then Texas defeated Arkansas 15-14, suddenly the 8-1-1 and No. 9-ranked Irish found themselves matched against the No. 1 Longhorns.
    The first practice for Notre Dame in Dallas was scheduled for Dec. 26, but it had to be canceled because not enough players showed up from their various flights around the country — a testament to the school’s lack of bowl experience.
    The game turned into a classic. The Irish stunned the partisan Texas crowd by taking a 10-0 lead and were ahead 10-7 entering the fourth quarter. Quarterback Joe Theismann’s second touchdown pass of the afternoon, 24 yards to Jim Yoder with 6:52 left, pushed the Irish ahead, 17-14.
    Texas answered with a 17-play, 76-yard drive, twice converting on fourth down, including fourth-and-2 from the Irish 10 on a brilliant diving catch by Cotton Speyrer. The winning score came with only 1:08 remaining.
    One of Notre Dame’s stated goals of returning to the bowl scene was to enhance its ranking. Indeed, despite the 21-17 loss to No. 1 Texas — already declared No. 1 by President Richard Nixon after the win at Arkansas — the 8-2-1 Irish moved up from No. 9 to No. 5 in the final AP poll.
    It was the first time ever Notre Dame — or maybe any team — advanced in the polls after a defeat. It has happened at Notre Dame only two other times.
    One was in Lou Holtz’s debut game in 1986 when the Irish weren’t ranked in the preseason AP Top 20. After opening with a 24-23 loss to No. 3 Michigan, the Irish were elevated to No. 20.
    The second was in 2000, when Bob Davie’s No. 23 Irish fell to No. 1 Nebraska in overtime. The loss moved up Notre Dame two spots to No. 21.
    Nevertheless, the novelty of bowls took some getting used to — even for longtime South Bend Tribune sports editor Joe Doyle, a Notre Dame graduate who covered the program more extensively than anyone.
    Wrote Doyle after the 1970 Cotton Bowl: “The No. 5 national rating was a big bonus, even though there is still the notion here that the final vote should be taken at the end of November. Somehow or other, the Irish didn’t treat it as intensely as if it were a regular season game, and Texas probably didn’t either.”
    Even then, bowls seemed anti-climactic.

    Bowl Fever Spreads
    The following year (1970) 9-0 and No. 4 Notre Dame had another vote to take for its bowl destination. It could either play No. 1 Texas again in the Cotton Bowl, or choose the more appealing, warmer Orange Bowl to play No. 3 Nebraska, the Big 8 champion.
    The temptation of South Beach was there for the players — but Parseghian made it clear in his presentation to the team that there was unfinished business against the nation’s top-ranked Longhorns. Toppling Texas is what the Irish needed to achieve to win the national title.
    Unfortunately, when the Irish lost 38-28 in the regular season finale at USC, they dropped to No. 6 in the AP poll, all but eliminating their chances of finishing No. 1. Yet it still almost came to fruition.
    • The Irish stunned the Longhorns, 24-11, ending their 30-game winning streak.
    • Hours later, No. 2 Ohio State lost to 8-3 Stanford in the Rose Bowl.
    • If 10-0-1 and No. 3 Nebraska would lose to No. 5 LSU in the Orange Bowl that night, then Notre Dame would be the national champs. Alas, the ‘Huskers rallied in the fourth quarter for a 17-12 victory.
    “Not even the Pope could vote Notre Dame No. 1,” joked Nebraska head coach Bob Devaney after Parseghian campaigned on behalf of his Irish.
    Nebraska did capture the vote easily, receiving 39 first-place votes and 946 points to Notre Dame’s eight first-place votes and 814 points. But Jan. 1, 1971 was one of the great days in college football history because of the way three different bowls had a bearing on the national title.
    The thrill of bowl fever caught on for the Irish … until the next year.

    Spoiled By Success
    With an 8-1 record and only one more game remaining in the 1971 regular season, Notre Dame had the option to go to the Gator Bowl — which was not one of the three majors originally stipulated.
    After having played the No. 1 team each of the previous two years in the Cotton Bowl, competing in a lesser bowl was too blasé for the Irish players, and Parseghian sensed something was up when the coaches were requested to leave the meeting room and the ballots would not be signed.
    The bowl novelty had subsided among the Irish players and a published story cited how the University didn’t turn as much of the previous bowl receipts over to minority scholarships as intended, mainly because of the expenses incurred on the trip.
    Parseghian was miffed when the team declined the invitation. When buyer’s remorse set in, a second vote was taken. However, the first rejection influenced a second one.
    “We were kind of egotistical because we were the pre-season No. 1 and we weren’t playing for the national championship,” reflected defensive end Walt Patulski, a 1971 co-captain and the winner of the Lombardi Award that year en route to becoming the No. 1 pick in the NFL. “…You look in the annals of sport, I don’t know if that happened at any other place.”
    The week before the regular season finale at LSU — a 28-8 Irish loss — the Irish players received some heat for their choice.
    “The coaches’ wives and kids were picketing us,” Patulski said. “They had little signs out in front of the practice field about going to a bowl. The coaches couldn’t believe our decision.”
    “It was kind of a shock to me at the time,” Parseghian said. “It was the first time we weren’t going to play in a major bowl, and we weren’t necessarily going to improve our standings.”
    Neither Parseghian nor the administration sought veto power.
    “My attitude was. ‘If you don’t want to go to a bowl game, then I don’t want to coach you,’ ” Parseghian said. “If you don’t want to go in the first place, what are your chances of winning?
    “The decision in those days was in their hands. Even if the margin had been 51 percent in favor, I don’t think I would have wanted to take them because you still have, basically, a split team.”
    The same occurred in 1975 under first-year head coach Dan Devine. Coming off a 34-20 loss at Pitt that dropped the record to 7-3, Irish players turned down an invitation to the Cotton Bowl. According to 1975 co-captain Jim Stock, the vote was taken the morning after Pitt’s Tony Dorsett romped for 303 yards rushing against the Irish, so the mood was somber and bitter.
    “I wanted to go to the bowl and voted for it, but we didn’t have a lot of senior starters (seven), so the other seniors didn’t see the point,” Stock said. “A lot just wanted to stay home for Christmas … and with finals coming up, there was an attitude of ‘Let’s go home.’ ”
    Incensed by the choice, Devine vowed the decision would no longer be left in the players’ hands.
    As a result, the following year (1976) 8-3 and No. 15 Notre Dame “caved in” for the first time on its original bowl goals when it decided to play in the Gator versus 7-4 and unranked Penn State. The Irish won 20-9, and the next year it went on to capture the national title with a stunning 38-10 victory versus No. 1 Texas in the Cotton Bowl, a return to its roots.
    Over the last dozen years, some longtime Notre Dame followers have mocked the Irish for going to venues such as the Independence Bowl in 1997 at 7-5, the Insight Bowl at 6-5 in 2004, and the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl at 6-6 in 2008.
    The bowl scene has come a long way at Notre Dame in the last 40 years.
    It wasn’t until 1974, Parseghian’s final season, the UPI (the coaches poll now known as ESPN/USA Today) also decided to declare its national champ after bowl games.
    That’s because in 1973, even though Notre Dame defeated No. 1 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl to claim the AP crown and overall consensus title, the Crimson Tide was still declared a national champion by UPI.
    Consequently, Alabama still counts 1973 as a national title season. Texas does the same with 1970 (UPI) despite losing to Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl.
    Fortunately, entering the bowl scene also helped produce many of Notre Dame’s own greatest moments.

    A Bowl Bonanza
    Notre Dame’s lost an NCAA record nine straight bowls from Jan. 2, 1995 (a 41-24 loss to Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl) through Jan. 3, 2007 (a 41-14 defeat to LSU in the Sugar Bowl).
    However, once upon a time, Notre Dame was the “Belle of the Bowls” with these three achievements:

    1. Besting The Best
    Beginning with the 1925 Rose Bowl victory versus 7-0-1 Stanford, Notre Dame is 8-3 against unbeaten and/or No. 1-ranked teams in bowl games. In a 20-year run from 1970-89, the Irish defeated five No. 1 teams in bowls. Since 1968, the year the AP poll began voting after bowl games, Florida is second with three, resulting in 1996, 2006 and 2008 national titles.

    2. Once Were Kings
    After its 24-21 victory versus Texas A&M in the Jan. 1, 1994 Cotton Bowl, Notre Dame’s all-time bowl record improved to 13-6. That .684 winning percentage at the time was the best in college football among any program that had participated in at least 10 bowl games.

    3. The Big Five
    In the 20th century, Notre Dame and Penn State were the only two teams to win each of what is or were considered the five major bowls: Rose, Orange, Sugar, Cotton and Fiesta. In the last decade, Oklahoma, Ohio State and Texas joined that fraternity.

  • Lou-great stuff as always!

    That '67 ND frosh class that only produced 1 NFL player (Theismann) had a few other potential stars that were felled by injuries:

    Tony Capers DE Warren, Ohio-by many accounts a star in the making similar to a later Warren, Oh product named Ross Browner. Capers was even named one of the top 10 incoming sophs in the country(frosh weren't eligible back then) by SI. But Capers was injured in his very first varsity contest against Oklahoma(Capers had kicked off for the Irish to start the game)

    Ernie Jackson CB Bartlesville, Ok-was a great HB on the Frosh team as well as a CB (playing both ways). But Ara always looked to put speed on defense first, so Jackson became a CB on the varsity in '68. Ernie started the first 3 games as a soph until the dreaded knee injury(back in the day that always required major career threatening surgery). Jackson came back in the spring (but Ara moved him to HB). Ernie injured his knee yet again that spring and never played another down of football-though he stayed and graduated from ND with his class.

    Mike Kondrla LB Oaklyn, NJ-who knows how good Kondrla would have been. He started his very first game as a soph vs Oklahoma in '68 and made 12 tackles. Late in the game he suffered a knee injury and was never the same player again. I am not sure if Kondrla ever played another down of football for the Irish.

    Larry DiNardo G Howard Beach, NY-had an All American career at ND but also suffered a knee injury during his senior season. DiNardo may have gone on to a pro career if he had been healthy IMO.

  • ronbliey,

    I am willing to bet there is no man on the planet who knows more about Notre Dame's football personnel, especially from the 1940s through 1960s, than you. I thought I was fairly knowledgeable from the Parseghian era on, but your depth and breadth of each player's career is remarkable

    That 1968 Oklahoma game seemed to be a Pyrrhic victory with the loss of both Capers and Kondria. How much more they could have helped we'll never know. The ends from next year's class were No. 1 overall pick Walt Patulski and third-round choice Fred Swendsen. I did hear of Ernie Jackson, and I guess Clarence Ellis basically had to take his place from 1969-71. DiNardo was considered one of the greatest technicians the staff had ever seen along the offensive line. He didn't have prototype NFL size, but football was almost an afterthought for him and he has gone on to become quite a prominent attorney. I saw him about a year ago on NBC News talking about a case.

    I ranked that ensuing 1968 class one of the six best recruiting classes at ND in the post-World War II era. It helped compensate for the much weaker group from 1967 — but the lack of a Theismann-like figure at QB during their senior year in 1971 was felt. Many felt Bill Etter could have been that kind of playmaker, but he too experienced numerous health setbacks, including wrecking his knee in the fourth game of 1971.

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