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Through most of their youth, Parseghian and his brother Gerard—two years his senior—were cultivated as carefully as hothouse orchids. "Ara was the quietest boy in the family," says his mother, who still speaks with a soft French accent. "I never once thought he'd grow up to be an athlete." As young Parseghian grew to school age he became more boisterous and his parents became stricter. Not unreasonably, they wanted their sons to grow up intact. Their father impressed upon them the profound advantages of an understanding of the arts—books, music, painting and the dance. The boys, on the other hand, affected a fashionable dumbness that they felt fitted in nicely with the times and their crowd. But with their father's prodding and their mother's predilection for berets, they had their work cut out for them around the gum mines.
With the inevitability of fate, the day came when Gerard returned home without his beret. Some older boys had taken it and Gerard, remembering his parents' admonitions, had not fought back. His father patiently explained that he must always defend himself—and sent him out to reclaim his beret. "I saw Ara listening to all this and I should have known what would happen," says the elder Parseghian. Within a few days, 8-year-old Ara had beaten up an 11-year-old bully and the victim's father marched militantly up a long hill to Parseghian's house to complain. "I just asked him if he expected an 8-year-old boy not to fight back," says his father.
Thus the restrictions were gradually relaxed. Parseghian began going down to the Akron YMCA at Bowery and Center streets to play basketball. "Years afterward, I didn't know which I loved more—basketball or football—or which I wanted to coach," says Parseghian. He coached both the freshman football and basketball teams in 1950, "and he still has an exceptional shooting eye," says Bill Rohr. Only one sport was ruled out for the Parseghian boys: football. "Mom was afraid we'd get hurt," says Parseghian. Gerry never did play football, and Parseghian restrained himself—fretfully—until he was a junior in high school. Then he went out secretly for the South Akron High team and promptly won a first-string assignment as a guard. The crisis came when he had to get his parents' written permission to play the game. The announcement that he had been playing touched off a long siege of scolding, pleading, counterpleading and pained reasoning. At length, Parseghian's parents signed the paper—reluctantly. "I still cannot go to see the game," says his mother. "My heart gets too excited. My heart beats too much."
Parseghian's playing career was checkered with interruptions and injuries. After graduating from South Akron, he enrolled at Akron University, then quit to join the Navy, and eventually won a starting fullback assignment on the pro-laden wartime Great Lakes Naval Station team, though he had only two years of high school experience. But he injured an ankle just before the season opened and never played a game for Great Lakes. After the war he enrolled at Miami of Ohio, where he earned Little All-America laurels under Sid Gillman, now coach of the Los Angeles Rams. But it was Paul Brown who had made a profound impact on Parseghian as coach at Great Lakes, and when the Cleveland Browns drafted him after the 1947 season, he quit school with six semester hours to go to join them. "I was 24 or 25 years old then and didn't have too many years left," he says. "The money looked pretty good to me and I wanted to give the pros a whirl."
The money also enabled him to think about getting married. In September 1947 he'd seen Kathleen Davis in a restaurant in Oxford, Ohio—"and it was just one of those things that hit you like that! Bang!" he says. He wooed her rather impetuously and doggedly. "I thought he was a little bossy," Mrs. Parseghian says now. "This was one field in which he didn't like competition. He didn't want me to go out with other boys." They married in December 1948—and now have three children—9-year-old Karan, Kristan, 7, and Mikie, 4.
Parseghian played one full season with Cleveland, then, in the second game of his second season, received the hip injury that ended his playing days. The association with Paul Brown, though brief, has had a lasting effect on Parseghian. Superficially he appears to be Brown's complete opposite—intense, volatile, highly emotional, while Brown is cool, aloof and firmly self-disciplined. "But he's a very intense person, too," says Parseghian. "More so than you'd ever believe. I know I say a lot of things Paul said because he said them while I was playing for him. But I don't say them like Paul says them. I wish I could. There's no one I know who controls the psychological aspect of football better than he does."
Parseghian first earned an opportunity to apply Brown's methods in 1950 when Woody Hayes, then head coach at Miami, recommended that the athletic board hire him as an assistant. Parseghian guided Miami's freshman team to a perfect four-game season, and when Hayes left to become head coach at Ohio State in 1951, Parseghian succeeded him at Miami. The tension between the two men apparently started then. Some—including Hayes—have said that it was Hayes's recommendation that landed Parseghian the job; others just as intimate with the situation insist Hayes pointedly refrained from recommending Parseghian. The latter, for his part, believes the whole matter is exaggerated. "We don't love each other—no!" he says. "We've had our arguments and personal differences but he was always good to me when I was coaching for him. He gave me the opportunity to start at Miami. I think he's a very emotional person. He's impulsive. He has just as much intensity to win as I have. But I think we're friends. We wouldn't slash at each other's throat. He probably doesn't approve of the way I do things and maybe I don't approve of the way he does things. But you'll find these differences all over the country. I think our personal combat has been grossly magnified."
In five years at Miami, Parseghian's teams won the Mid-American conference championship twice, finished second three times, were undefeated and untied once, and carved a 39-6-1 record. "It helped for him to have a good record," says Stu Holcomb, North western's athletic director. "With that record, nobody doubted he could win."
Parseghian was actually the third Northwestern coach within an 11-month period. In February 1955 Bob Voigts, who had taken NU to the Rose Bowl in 1949, resigned. He was succeeded by his chief assistant, Lou Saban, who earned only one tie in nine games in 1955. In a massive upheaval caused by alumni unrest, NU Athletic Director Ted Payseur resigned under pressure, and Holcomb was hired to replace him. He found the place in a shambles. NU had won only one Big Ten game in three years. Teams were dropping off the schedule because the crowds were dwindling, football players were dropping out of school and there was the business with the student editors who demanded that NU drop out of the Big Ten. Holcomb knew he had to move swiftly. Saban withdrew as coach several days after Holcomb took over. A week later Parseghian was hired. Then he went to work on the schedule—the beefy one that is being played this year. The point was to convince people NU wasn't dropping out of big-time football.
Parseghian's problem was finding players who could survive such a schedule. He had to move quickly simply to stop the flow of NU players to other schools, to persuade players like Cvercko, Willmer Fowler and Sam Johnson—all recruited by Saban—to remain with him. "The first time I met Ara I knew that this was a man with confidence, this was a man I could play for," says Cvercko. Ultimately only four of Saban's men survived through 1958, their senior year, but by that time Parseghian had enjoyed some small success in recruiting.