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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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Ara Parseghian, head football coach at Northwestern University, is a fervid, black-browed, abundantly discursive and original individual who is convinced that the secret to coaching success lies in the endless application of psychology to the athletic arts. "In my own opinion, psychology in football is far more important than anyone believes, including the coaches," he says. "Too many of us—I don't know that I shouldn't include myself in this—are all X and O conscious. If we have all the Xs and Os in the right spot, then such and such a thing happens. But it's not the Xs and Os. It's the personnel, the people who do the job and how they feel about doing their job. Strategy is very important, I'll grant you. But the ability to put this thing together moralewise is more important than anything else to me. If you don't control the mind first, you don't control the body—and that," says Parseghian, his voice only slightly less urgent, "is the simplest way of saying it."

As he spoke, Parseghian's own body was slumped in a chair, at peace but not at rest. His hands, arms and legs were constantly in motion, punctuating sentences and thoughts with conviction. At 36, boyishly handsome Ara Parseghian, now in his fourth year as head coach at Northwestern, has won distinction as one of the classic worriers in American football. "Before a game, his tension builds up almost to a point of physical suffering," says his wife, Kathleen. "He has to choke back the tears. I've tried to get him to take tranquilizers but he won't do it. He thinks this suffering is part of the game." To which Parseghian adds: "I don't know whether you should inhibit your normal reactions." He shook his head as if deeply disturbed. "It's a naturalness. It's me. Whatever I feel about a game I try to convey to the squad. I do it the most natural way I can."

His evangelistic dedication to psychology gets its own particular test early this autumn when Northwestern meets the Orange Bowl and Rose Bowl champions, Oklahoma and Iowa, on successive Saturdays. The Oklahoma game next week in Evanston will be a test for the Sooners also. It is the first time that Oklahoma Coach Bud Wilkinson will send a team against a Big Ten opponent. As such, it will be a partial vindication or indictment of the charge that Oklahoma's record could never survive in Big Ten competition.

"They definitely have a psychological advantage," says Parseghian. "They've always had this thing thrown at them, that they couldn't do as well in the Big Ten—that they're not as good as the Big Ten—and now here's the opportunity for them to prove that they are. But it's one isolated game, see? They can get all charged up for this one game. It's meaningful to them. It means everything to them. But we play them one week and who do we play the next week? Iowa! The Rose Bowl champions! And that's just a conference game to us." He paused to consider the traumatic possibilities of the event. His pleasure that Northwestern is given any kind of a chance to win one game or both is offset by the fear that his team will be "overbuilt" by the press—for that is a psychological danger he cannot control. "But still," he concedes, "it's nice to have them talking about us and saying that we have a chance."

When Parseghian (pronounced par-see-gyun, with a hard "g") arrived at Northwestern from Miami University of Oxford, Ohio in 1956, the Wildcats were floundering so helplessly that the Daily Northwestern, the student paper, demanded that NU drop out of the Big Ten. In 1956 Parseghian and the Wildcats surprised everybody by winning four games, losing four and tying one with a squad that sometimes numbered 23 players. The next season they surprised everybody even more by losing all nine games. It was North-western's worst season in history—"and yet Ara was never so depressed as he was after the final game when he didn't have any more games to look forward to, to work and hope for next week," says Alex Agase, his chief aide. His faith was rewarded last season when NU won five of its first six games and pulled stunning upsets over Michigan (55-24) and Ohio State (21-0). "There are strategic upsets and then there are psychological upsets," he says. "Ours were psychological upsets." Even though Northwestern lost its last three games, closed the season with five wins and four losses, and finished seventh in the Big Ten, Parseghian was credited by some writers as being the greatest psychologist in football since Knute Rockne.

This may be so, but there were differences between the two. Rockne was a Scandinavian, with light hair, a light complexion and a "light" personality. Parseghian is of Armenian-French descent, with black hair, dark complexion and a "dark" personality. "Life is complex as hell. My philosophy of life is a little bit different—not that I'm a pessimist, although I am in a certain sense." He feels that another major war is inevitable because families bicker, neighbors bicker, cities and states bicker, and nations go to war. "That's why I try to bring everybody close together when we're participating," he says.

His psychological technique is significantly different from that attributed to Rockne. He uses no long, impassioned locker-room pep talks. "The game is not won by a pep talk on Saturday," he says. "It's won by preparation of your club from Monday until game time. If they're not ready on Saturday, you're not going to get them ready by trying to inspire them with a dog-eat-dog sermon on that day." His own pregame technique is one of agonized self-absorption. He paces restlessly back and forth through the locker room and training room, mentally reviewing everything that has been done and everything that must be done. His players sit silently on their benches, hypnotically studying his anxiety syndrome. He moves relatively slowly at first—pace—pace...then raps a fist on a table with an explosive bang to punctuate some private thought—then faster...faster...faster...pace...pace...pace. An agonizing urgency fills the room as the sense of desire begins rising in his players, gradually at first, then tumultuously. By game time—after a prayer and a few stabilizing words ("He always tells us to face ourselves, to play only so that we can be proud of ourselves," says one of his players)—their eagerness is at a bone-tearing, blood-chilling pitch. That's when he unleashes them on the opposition.

In the past, Parseghian was not above employing a few subtle gimmicks to shape the proper psychological atmosphere in his opponents. When his Miami team was playing Indiana—a Big Ten team and therefore an awesome foe—at Blooming-ton in 1954, Parseghian thoughtfully brought along a special set of practice uniforms, a set that was as torn and patched as a convert's conscience. When Miami went out to practice on Indiana's home field, they looked like a bunch of urchins, sandlot ragamuffins of such shoddy caliber that even Indiana could grow overconfident. The next day Miami—suddenly neat, trim and crisply purposeful—upset Indiana 6-0. Similarly, in 1955 he brought his underdog Miami to Northwestern, sent it through a final ragged practice, then went to NU Coach Lou Saban, with whom he'd played on the Cleveland Browns, and pleaded with him not to be too tough the next day—"and really had him believing that stuff," says Bill Rohr, varsity basketball coach at Northwestern and one of Parseghian's closest friends. The next day Miami reeled off a 77-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage (called back on a penalty), went on to beat Northwestern 25-14, and hastened Saban's departure and Parseghian's arrival as NU coach.

Today Parseghian rarely uses such artificial devices. He does have a host of signs mounted around the NU locker room and training room to help build morale: "The difference between mediocrity and greatness is a little extra effort," and "Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity" and "Progress is our most important product." But he prefers to let the game itself offer its psychological opportunities.

The Michigan game of last year is a good example. His team had won its first three games, though it barely beat Minnesota 7-3 with a touchdown in the last 58 seconds of play. "Most of the boys thought we were 'flat,' that we hadn't played a good game," he says. "But we'd been over to Ann Arbor for two years in a row and we'd been beaten 34-20 and 34-14. Now they were coming into our backyard and here was an opportunity to even up matters. Repay a debt—a little revenge aspect here." There was also the little matter of reports circulating around Evanston that Michigan people felt Northwestern could never beat Michigan because NU didn't have "tradition." All week long Parseghian hammered the "no tradition" theme at his players. The result: Northwestern rushed over four touchdowns in a seven-minute span, built up a stunning 43-0 lead in the first half and scored more points on Michigan than any other team in 67 years.

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