Sept. 17, 2016
by John Heisler
They came back more than 80 strong Friday night.
These members of Notre Dame’s 1966 national championship football team returned to campus to celebrate the reality that it has been five decades since they earned that crown. They brought their wives, their kids, their grandkids, their friends—and they packed the Heritage Hall concourse on the second floor of the Joyce Center.
They laughed and kidded each other. As master of ceremonies Tom Weyer asked with a wink, “How many Notre Dame players from this team went to the pros? Is it 217?”
They shared stories and maybe an adult beverage. They sang the Victory March and the Alma Mater along with George Goeddeke, who still has a twinkle in his eye a half-century after he and his teammates did battle on the fields.
Goeddeke’s best line came in the highlight video, as he praised the protection provided to quarterback Terry Hanratty by the Irish offensive line, “He could have had a smoke and a Coke and a sandwich.”
They watched a touching video tribute to team members who have passed away—to the tune of Cathy Richardson singing “Here Come the Irish.”
They listened to former Notre Dame track star Bill Hurd—who made a cameo appearance in ’67 with the Irish football team—play a nifty jazz saxophone number.
But, more than anything, they came to see Ara.
Remember that the seniors on that ’66 team came to Notre Dame only to see their freshman season in 1963—with an interim coach—end with a dismal 2-7 record. That same fall President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and Notre Dame’s final game at Iowa was cancelled.
A few weeks later Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., and Rev. Edmund P. Joyce, C.S.C., hired Ara Parseghian to be the new Notre Dame coach.
“He turned this campus around on a dime,” noted 1966 Irish captain Jim Lynch.
And so while Lynch ticked off all the amazing statistical advantages he and his teammates built over 10 games (204 to 119 in first downs, 2,116-793 in rushing yards, 3,925 to 1,876 in total yards and an especially dominant 362-38 in points), it was more than obvious Friday night that so many of those Irish players feel like they still owe some debt of gratitude to Parseghian for the manner in which he flipped the Notre Dame football fortunes and helped make them champions.
Weyer noted that a popular song in late 1963 was “Oh What a Night” by the Four Seasons: “We thought that song was about when they hired Ara.”
Ara and his wife Katie sat at a front table and player after player came by to greet him. It almost resembled a receiving line at a wedding. Parseghian, still sharp as a tack at age 93, seemed to enjoy every minute of it.
The highlight of the evening became an interview with Parseghian led by 1967 Notre Dame graduate Mike Collins (the former WNDU and WSBT news anchor and now the public address announcer at Notre Dame Stadium) and ’66 grad George Blaha (he’s been the radio voice of Michigan State football for 39 years).
Collins and Blaha quizzed Parseghian about all sorts of things, from the Michigan State game to the USC finale a week later, and everything in between—and here are some of Ara’s thoughts:
--On the crowded sidelines at the Michigan State game: “I think Duffy (Daugherty, the Michigan State coach) gave everybody in East Lansing a sideline pass. At one point I look around and I see this guy standing right next to me. I said, ‘What are you doing here?’ He says, ‘Same thing as you are, watching the damn game.’”
--On the number of injured Irish players in the Michigan State game: “Half the ball club was on the sidelines with me.”
--On the ’66 team: “This was a great football team. They’ve been short-changed on recognition and adulation compared to some other championship seasons.”
--On Duffy: “Nobody could have a bad relationship with Duffy. I remember talking to him on the field before the game. I wished I could be that calm. Maybe he knew something I didn’t know.”
--On the week before the Michigan State game: “We had a press conference every day. It would be very much like a Super Bowl today, except in college.”
--On John Huarte becoming the Heisman Trophy winner in 1964: “I don’t think you’ll ever see this again in college football. A non-letterman from the year before becomes the Heisman winner in one year. Part of that was coaching!”
--On the 1966 team achieving four top-four team statistical rankings in 1966: “I figured if we got one unit in the top 10 we were doing okay. Try and find anybody with stats like we had that year.”
--On the 51-0 win at USC to end the year: “We proved the kind of champions we were. We knocked USC on their butts.”
--On the student body chanting “Ara, stop the rain”: “Heck, I couldn’t stop the fumbles, much less the rain.”
And the former coach’s competitiveness has never been lost on anyone in the room. As one attendee noted, “Mention the tie, and he’ll kick your (butt).”
Lynch, who offered opening and closing remarks, had this to say:
“I’m especially honored to welcome you, and not just because it’s been 50 years since we won the national championship. I’m especially proud because of the way we won the national championship
“All of this was accomplished with the team knowing we were part of something much bigger. We believed in the lore of Notre Dame, we believed in the traditions of Notre Dame and we believed in the history and the legends of Notre Dame.
“We all know it’s important to win football games at Notre Dane. We maintain it’s infinitely more important to play out the game, win or lose, in the true spirit of college sports. In the end we were just a bunch of tough kids and, because of Ara Parseghian, our team had a terrific will to win and, more importantly, we had a refusal to be beaten.
“I’m very, very proud of the decision I made to come to Notre Dame.”
The Parseghians didn’t walk away empty-handed. Ara received a national championship ring and Katie a pendant—and then from a back hallway came a large, framed shadow box with a blue jersey, the number 66 and the capital letters ARA on top.
At the end of the interview segment, Collins asked: “Everybody stand for one of the greatest coaches in the history of college football.”
That motion required no second—the response was unanimous.
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been part of the Notre Dame athletics communication team since 1978.