Notre Dame football: Who is the greatest coach in program history?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 18: A Notre Dame Fighting Irish flag is seen before the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Notre Dame Stadium on September 18, 2021 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 18: A Notre Dame Fighting Irish flag is seen before the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Notre Dame Stadium on September 18, 2021 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images) /
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Notre Dame football
SAN DIEGO, CA – OCTOBER 27: Helmets of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish near the bench area in the 2nd half against the Navy Midshipmen at SDCCU Stadium on October 27, 2018 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Kent Horner/Getty Images) /

Notre Dame football: Who is the greatest coach in program history?

Ara Parseghian

  • 1964-1974 (11 seasons), 95-17-4, 2 National Championships.

When Ara Parseghian came to Notre Dame, he had just finished a stint at Northwestern, which had been preceded by time at his alma mater, Miami (OH). It was there that Parseghian coached under and replaced Woody Hayes. Oddly enough, this made Parseghian the first coach since Rockne not to be a Notre Dame alumni.

When Parseghian got to Notre Dame, he was replacing Hugh Devore. You may not have ever heard of Devore, but he was one of three coaches in between Leahy and Parseghian. He also replaced Leahy for the 1945 season. In many ways, these were the darkest times in Notre Dame football history. Devore went just 2-7 in 1963.

The situation that Parseghian inherited was terrible. No one expected early success for Parseghian. However, he did need to have success or Notre Dame football could be in trouble. If he couldn’t find a way, the program might have slipped into obscurity. Instead, he immediately turned the Irish around. In 1964, Notre Dame went 9-1, finishing third in the AP Poll. It was shocking, but at the same time acted as an announcement to the college football world that Notre Dame was back.

This turnaround was difficult to manage. However, having had experience doing this at Northwestern, Parseghian at least had an idea where to start. He also benefited from a new rule that allowed for unlimited substitutions.

This allowed him to run small and quick players onto the field on offense and rely on a passing game. He also made a point of listening to players and figuring out what they saw as problems within the program, so he could address them. It worked, and Notre Dame was unbeaten going into their final game of the season against USC.

That’s where the Irish stumbled, losing by three. Without voting occurring before bowls, this cost Notre Dame its shot at a national championship. Instead, it went to Alabama, but Notre Dame’s John Huarte did win the Heisman. Alabama, it’s worth pointing out, lost their bowl game.

A couple of seasons later, in 1966, Ara Parseghian would win his first national championship. That team was packed with some of Notre Dame’s greatest players ever, including Jim Seymour, Alan Page, and Terry Hanratty. That season, Notre Dame arguably had the greatest defense in the history of college football.

In ten games, Notre Dame had six shutouts. They only allowed ten or more points twice, with 14 points against eighth ranked Purdue being the highest.

This put them on collision course for a Week 9 game against Michigan State. The Spartans were also unbeaten, and they were ranked second in the country. Winner, almost certainly, would end ranked number one and be national champions.

At the end of the game, with bad weather and the score tied at ten, Parseghian played for the tie. It was a highly criticized move, but it worked. Since Notre Dame was already ranked one and Michigan State was ranked number two, a tie meant there was no movement in the polls between the two. An unbeaten Alabama team couldn’t jump either team, which frustrated them enough to declare themselves national champions.

Parseghian would defend the move by saying, “I didn’t want to risk giving it to them cheap. They get reckless and it could have cost them the game. I wasn’t going to do a jackass thing like that at this point.” It remains one of the most talked about coaching decisions, ever. Even though it’s widely seen as a mistake, it did work at the end of the day.

In 1969, Parseghian took Notre Dame to just their second bowl game ever. This ended the institutional policy of not going to bowl games. Over the final six seasons of his career, Parseghian took Notre Dame to five bowls, compiling a 3-2 record in them.

That includes wins in the Cotton, Sugar, and Orange Bowls. This is part of what makes Parseghian’s time in South Bend so important. He helped usher in a new age of college football at Notre Dame. He turned the roster over, and redesigned the offense. While Notre Dame football had already been integrated since the early 1950s, Parseghian embraced a diverse roster. He helped make it possible for Notre Dame to be great in the modern era.

Parseghian’s second national championship came with controversy too. However, it’s remembered in a less divisive way today than the 1966 season did. It was 1973, and both Notre Dame and Alabama finished the regular season unbeaten.

Alabama had rolled through their schedule, never being ranked worse than sixth in the country. Notre Dame had less success in the polls, but were also unbeaten. The two would then meet in the Sugar Bowl. At this point, the Coach’s Poll (an incredibly flawed poll, historically for numerous reasons), had already declared Alabama national champions.

Then, Notre Dame won the game. This meant the AP Poll was able to declare Notre Dame national champions. It also exposed why it’s important to wait to declare a champion until after bowl season. Alabama still holds onto that dubious title claim. Everyone else acknowledges Notre Dame as the proper champions.

Parseghian would retire following the 1974 season. That year saw the Irish go 10-2 and beat Alabama in the Orange Bowl. It was a bit of a surprise, as Parseghian was only 51 at the time. However, it goes to show that coaching at Notre Dame can be incredibly stressful and doesn’t lend itself to a long tenure.

In eleven seasons at Notre Dame, Parseghian went 95-17-4. His overall record in college was 170-58-6.

In 1980, Ara Parseghian would be elected to the College Football Hall of Fame. He coached for three teams, Miami (OH), Northwestern, and Notre Dame. While he had success at all three stops, including two MAC Championships, Parseghian is best known for his time in South Bend. There, he won two National Championships and he had seven top-five finishes in the AP Poll.