Ara’s Wisdom

Notre Dame coaching legend Ara Parseghian, who died Aug. 2, 2017, at the age of 94, left behind a vast trove of wisdom about football, and life. Here, from our 2010 interview with Ara,  are his views on a variety of football topics, including what made his teams able to capture national championship in 1966 and 1973.

Here’s Coach Parseghian on….


The importance of the first game of a season

“When you come in (as the new coach), you better bring a unity to (the team).  That’s why I felt that the most important game, for me, was the first game of a season, particularly when I was at Notre Dame. There are no warm-up games. You have to be ready.

“(In 1964) I knew that we were going to open up against Wisconsin.  Wisconsin had been a nemesis for us at Northwestern, and knocked us out of the Rose Bowl a couple of times. So we’re going back up there to play again.  That first game, it’s so important.  I’m telling you, this is what you’ve got to do if you want to be successful.  You’re out there with two-a-days, you’re working your butts off, pushing the kids and in the process you’re not only affecting the physical, you’re affecting the mental.

“You’re getting them prepared mentally as well as physically….and planting in their minds that you ARE good…you CAN win….and if you do these things we WILL win.  A positive attitude….that’s what we did here.  So, if I go out and tell you all that and you get beat 40-0, where does that put you?  You have another game coming up and now you don’t know what to believe. I was well aware of the fact that if I’m preaching something that makes you believe in me, as I believe in you.  But if we get whipped, then can you still believe in what I’m telling you?”

Preparing a team mentally as well as physically

“We’d approach it from a mental standpoint.  I said, ‘your opponent has a breaking point.’ I don’t know if it’s going to be 7 points, 10 points, 13 points….when they get behind, they’re done.  But we have no breaking point. We preached that it’s an unpredictable game, you might fumble the opening kickoff.  That can happen. But we have no breaking point, and that thinking solidified the unit.

“We would tell the players, ‘We’ve got the spirit, the history of Rockne at ND…football all through the years….Leahy…the successful national championships…..and so we’re telling them, there’s no circumstance we can’t overcome.  We can fall behind 21-0, but we can overcome that. I’ve seen teams as they get in the game and fall behind, and you can see it start to melt. But not if you have unity.

“We built a unity, and that’s what it’s all about.  You teach spirit, the cause, the preparation.

“If you build that mentality into them, that makes them tough.  That’s the other thing we did with our teams — we were physically tough – both on offense and defense.  We played by the rules, we were well conditioned, and we played with enthusiasm.”

New Notre Dame Coach Brian Kelly

“What I like about Brian, he played on both sides of the ball, he’s coached on both sides of the ball and he’s coached at three different places, which is good. This guy has the experience of being a head coach, almost 20 years worth.  And being successful everywhere he’s been.  He’s knowledgeable in all aspects of the game.  And he understands what it takes to motivate a team — he’s a good motivator.

“People tend to misjudge the importance of the mental aspect of the game…There’s inner strength, you know.  The body is well conditioned, but the mind controls the body. You mind’s going to tell you what you’re going to do with your body. And when you have a whole effort that’s going to come from every player, the dedication that they have to show. That is when it’s so important, that the mind is going to tell the body ‘we’re going full force.’

“And I think this guy (Coach Kelly) has that ability, to get the players thinking that way.”

Preparing players for anything they might encounter

“You have to be aware of the thought processes going on through those kids’ heads all the time. In my (season-)opening speech, I talked to them about various things — things that were going to happen to them….’We’re going to be out on the practice field and this is going to happen.’ Then I would talk to them about the press. ‘Someone is going to be talking negatively about your buddy on the team…or even yourself….or somebody is going to come and tell you that so-and-so who is an alumnus is criticizing you.’  I try to let them know a little bit about it so when it happens it’s not that big a shock.

“That’s why we had that theme of ‘we have no breaking point. And there’s no circumstance we can’t overcome.’ That helps with the mental part of the game, which is so important because that controls the physical. If you really don’t think you can win – you’re not going to.”