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William Barry Furlong
September 21, 1959
Ara Parseghian, Northwestern's youthful coach, conquers himself and the enemy with a mixture of suffering and amateur psychology
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September 21, 1959

'it's A Naturalness. It's Me'

Ara Parseghian, Northwestern's youthful coach, conquers himself and the enemy with a mixture of suffering and amateur psychology

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It is the brief, frenetic, superhuman effort, its psychological motives and its emotional aftermath, that intrigue Parseghian. "There are great ranges here to be explored," he says, "ranges above and beyond what we realize. Emotional peaks—the ability to do things you just wouldn't realize you could do." Parseghian is not notably bookish about psychology; he has read few works on the subject. But he is an empiricist, examining and re-examining with deep introspection his own experiences. Once, when he was at Miami, the home of a friend caught fire. Parseghian raced to the scene, saw three or four men struggling futilely with a heavy fire hose, picked it up himself and dragged it into position. "How did I do it—something three men couldn't do? Why did it happen?" he asks. He knows the physiology of the event—"the old adrenaline began flowing." But why? How long could it sustain him? How much physical effort above the normal could he have brought to the job? What motives would be needed to duplicate that effort? Parseghian is apt to go through this sort of searching self-analysis after almost any experience he considers important.

Parseghian not only has the questions but he has his own self-contained laboratory—a highly volatile metabolism—in which to seek the answers. After an important game he frequently cannot sleep for 32 hours or more. "It takes me a long time to unwind," he says. On Saturday night he looks at the movies of the game. Then about midnight or 1 a.m. he goes to bed—but not to sleep. "At 2 or 3 o'clock I get up, get out the car and start driving around, just driving around because I can't sleep," he says. "Then maybe I'll come back and lie down again, then get up and have a cup of coffee and go out and get the paper." On Sunday morning he plays with his three children. At noon he's back in his office, starting on 10 hours of work in preparation for the next game. Not until Sunday night can he sleep—and sometimes not well then.

In more critical personal moments he meets the challenge, then approaches a near-physical collapse. Some years ago his son Mikie, now 4, fell down and cut his lip. "Ara couldn't drive him to the doctor," recalls Parseghian's mother. "He was too upset. He had to hold Michael while Kathleen did the driving." Just about a year ago Mikie began choking on an ice cream stick. Parseghian picked him up by the heels and pounded the stick loose. Then, while Mikie romped away to play, Parseghian sank to his knees in a state of near collapse and for many moments was unable to summon the strength to rise. "You wonder what happens to you," he says broodingly. "You wonder what happens."

In football he doesn't always wonder, however. For his players, his own best therapy is a calculated program of fun and informality. Both come easy for him. He has a sense of humor that leans to the prankish and an informality that is as pervasive as laughter. His players call him "Ara," never "Coach" or "Mr." "He empathizes with us well," says Andy Cvercko, an accomplished and intelligent tackle who graduated last June. "He's found the line that commands respect without reserve." During practice, Parseghian substitutes an elaborate game of tag for wind sprints (with the losers jogging a lap around the field). He leads calisthenics himself ("He's very conscious of his weight; he can't go by a scale without getting on it," says Tom Healion, Northwestern's trainer) and sometimes he runs pass patterns to give defensive backs the joyful catharsis of racking up the coach. From time to time he and his assistants choose up sides among the linemen for a touch-football game. "Then toward the end of the week we taper off physically to build up psychologically," he says. "I learned this from Paul Brown, this tapering at the end of the week—I mean really tapering. The boys get all enthused and the mental aspect builds up because they're not working as hard physically."

Essentially a conservative coach who prefers a ground-hugging "possession" offense, Parseghian has a lively imagination and a rare sense of timing. Last season he came up with a dazzling series of widespread pass patterns that apparently violated his deepest convictions about football strategy. "They worked for four touchdowns and broke up two ball games the first six times we tried them," says Alex Agase. The reason? He knew when and how to use them. In NU's first two wins last year, over preseason favorites Washington State (29-28) and Stanford (28-0), the Wildcats controlled the ball for two-thirds of the time and divided their plays on a conservative, low-risk basis of nine running plays for every pass. Then, with Parseghian's habits and preferences fairly well established in the minds of scouts, NU went up against Michigan and erupted in a pass-happy series of spread-formation plays out of an unbalanced line that stunned the Wolverines—"because we thought they were looking for a conventional attack out of the conventional T formation," says Parseghian.

Most of his football strategy came along with Parseghian from Miami. He also imported another commodity of somewhat mystical value: a brown suit "that's getting a little shiny," says his wife. "I'm not superstitious in the normal sense of the word," he insists. He is not superstitious just as he is not pessimistic. He only happens to wear a brown suit to every game. He only happens to have worn a brown suit to every game since his second year at Miami (when his record rose from 7-3 to 8-1). For many years it was the same brown suit, altered for style and girth. (Parseghian has put on about 10 or 15 pounds since his playing days and now stands 5 feet 9� inches and weighs 205 pounds.) When he moved from Miami to Northwestern, Parseghian decided that "a new job deserved a new suit"—a brown one. Then Northwestern lost all but one of its first six games under Parseghian. He fumbled around in the trunk, found the old brown suit and carried it hopefully down to the stadium and on a road trip. The Wildcats promptly won their last three games. His long losing streak the next season, brown suit and all, finally convinced Parseghian that no superstition in the world could save a game. Nevertheless, he still keeps the old brown suit in his locker, just in case.

Another item of athletic significance in the Parseghian wardrobe is Mrs. Parseghian's mink coat. Before the start of last season, her husband promised her he would buy her one if NU won five games. "At the time, five wins seemed like asking for the moon," says Mrs. Parseghian. NU won five of its first six games—and no more. "What kills Ara is that I just got it," she says. "If we'd won one more, it wouldn't have been so bad."

Mrs. Parseghian accepts the burden of her seasonal widowhood calmly. She has painted most of the rooms in their three-bedroom, brown-and-white prefabricated home herself and after months of "gentle urging" failed to arouse the carpenter in her husband, she built the shelves in the garage. "Ara isn't too happy with them esthetically," she says, "but at least they're there." Their house, on a quiet, suburban, looped-end street called Lockerbie Lane in Wilmette, has a spacious lawn that Parseghian attacks regularly and intensely. "Although now," his wife owns, "he tends to work on the front lawn and encourages me to work on the backyard where it doesn't show."

Working on the lawn is a physical and nervous outlet for Parseghian. When he is sitting around, says his wife, he can get worked up merely by watching a boxing match on TV. His other physical outlet is golf—"at which he'll cheerfully beat your brains in," says one friend. His game, once regularly in the low 70s, has suffered somewhat from a hip injury that ended his football playing career. "I have restricted inner rotation on the right hip," he says clinically. "I used to be able to hit the long ball—I mean really the long ball—but no more."

Parseghian clearly inherited his temperament from his French-born mother and his looks from his Armenian-born father. The elder Parseghian, Michael, a sturdily built man in his mid-60s, was born in Moosh, Armenia, now a part of Turkey. In his teens he moved to Smyrna, Turkey, enrolled at the Border Mission school and learned English as well as French, Italian, Greek and Turkish Aramaic. When barely 20, he moved to Athens, got a job, and—to escape Turkey's atrocities in the Balkans-came to the U.S. He arrived in December 1916, was drafted in March 1917 and sent to France as a liaison man between French and American officers. Back in Paris on leave, he met Amelie Bonneau, fell in love, proposed and arranged to bring her to the U.S. after the war. He did—a year after he returned to Akron and landed a job in the travel bureau of the First National Bank because of his linguistic ability. He is now manager of foreign exchange and of the travel bureau in the bank. On May 21, 1923 Ara was born among the "gum mines," as the rubber plants of Akron are called. He was named after an Armenian king of about the ninth century B.C. who became something of a legend in Armenia's struggle to be free.

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