While most fans are gearing up for this year's football season, I wanted to put in a good word for an outstanding new book called Resurrection: The Miracle Season that Saved Notre Dame by Junction Boys author, Jim Dent.
The good folks at St. Martin's Press were generous enough to mail me an advance copy of this book, but I would have bought a copy anyway. If you have a relative who is a diehard Notre Dame fan, this is your book if you're looking for a Christmas/birthday present.
Like many younger Notre Dame fans, I was vaguely familiar with the Ara Parseghian era, but maybe not quite as familiar with the intricacies of Ara's time at Notre Dame as I was with, say, Tyrone Willingham's time at Notre Dame (pretty depressing statement there). I hadn't realized that Notre Dame had gone through quite a rough patch during the late 1950s and early 1960s prior to Ara's arrival. ND cycled through three different coaches in ten years (seriously, the parallels to today are remarkable...more on that in a minute though), and each was worse than the next. Terry Brennan was sort of the Larry Coker figure who inherited some loaded teams from Frank Leahy and steadily eroded the program, and then Joe Kuharich came in and ran the program into the ground. Hugh Devore served as a one year interim in 1963 and basically mailed it in for the year until Ara was finally brought on board from Northwestern.
Believe it or not, two antiheroes (I think I would get struck down by lightning if I refered to them as villains) who emerge in the book are Father Hesburgh and Father Joyce. According to the book, a lot of the things that are said today about Monk Malloy and Father Jenkins (most of which are probably untrue) are things that were actually done at the time by Hesburgh and Joyce. Reducing scholarships, taking action against coaches for bending the rules, hiring football coaches who wouldn't be seen as "above the university" like Leahy was. They wanted a coach who wouldn't make Notre Dame football bigger than the school itself. No joke, this was the stuff that was said about ND football in the 50s and 60s prior to Ara. Practically a carbon copy of what we hear about ND football today right down to the angry fans harassing Hesburgh to restore the program.
And then Ara shows up and the rest is history. I know what I'm about to say might be met with some eye rolls from the old school alumni, but while I was reading about Ara and his rise in the coaching world, I thought of one name in today's coaching world: Urban Meyer. I know, I know, get off the Urban Meyer thing. He's not on the ND radar screen and may never be. I am a Charlie Weis supporter, so I don't want to keep bringing up Urban Meyer's name. But the similarities are there. Both guys were disciples of coaches who had a reputation for producing great college and pro football coaches. Ara grew up in Ohio, is a descendant of the Paul Brown coaching tree, and also coached under Woody Hayes at his alma mater, Miami (Ohio). Urban grew up in Ohio, has ties to the Woody Hayes/Earle Bruce coaching tree, and learned at the knee of Lou Holtz (who was an assistant under Woody). In terms of pedigree, both guys basically came out of the same coaching family. The Ohio college football tree that has produced dozens of elite coaches in the college and pro game.....Don Shula, Paul Brown, Ara, Woody Hayes, Chuck Noll, Bo Schembechler, Stoops, Saban, Meyer, Les Miles, Tressel, etc. Even Pete Carroll was an Ohio State assistant.
Now pedigree is important of course in football, but Urban Meyer and Ara Parseghian also had an innovative spirit that kept them always one step ahead of the game. Ara introduced a wide open passing attack to Notre Dame when he arrived in 1964 that completely changed the face of Notre Dame football. He was also a master of detail with impeccable organizational skills. ND went from a dysfunctional team to the most organized and well-coached team in the country literally overnight.
You could say the same thing about Urban Meyer at every stop he has been. He took the spread option to three different places and utilized it before other teams could catch on to it. Now that teams are catching up to it, he's already in the process of adjusting. And one of the things that we've all read about Urban Meyer for years is that he is a master of detail who pays attention to every facet of the game. Maybe it's absurd to compare a young coach like Urban Meyer to a living legend like Ara Parseghian, but that's the one name that popped into my head on multiple occasions.
The other thing that was reinforced in my head while reading the book is that DEFENSE is where it's at in college football. Yes, Notre Dame had great offensive football teams in the Era of Ara, but go back and look what his defenses did. They didn't give up an inch! In 1964, our opponents scored 77 points on the season. Compare that to 1963 when our opponents scored 159. The same standard applies today. If they can't score, they can't win. If your defense is forcing three and outs all day long, your offense is going to have great field position and opportunities to score all afternoon.
Anyway, the book is terrific, and the stories about Ara and Huarte and Snow and company are outstanding. Pretty amazing that John Huarte went from a guy who had never earned a letter to the Heisman Trophy winner in 1964. Jim Dent is one of the best authors out there, and the research that went into this book was remarkable.
Ara Parseghian saved Notre Dame football. He took over a program that was circling the drain and very nearly won the national championship in his first season in 1964. Two national championships later in 1966 and 1973, and Ara will always be remembered as one of the all time greats at ND.
Enjoy the book! It is a treat. Hopefully Charlie Weis produces another season like 1964 in 2009.