Ara Parseghian’s Risk-Taking Payoffs Offer Lessons for Investors

Paul Dykewicz

Investors could learn from the risk-taking payoffs attained by legendary University of Notre Dame football coach Ara Parseghian, who died Aug. 2 at age 94.

Parseghian won national football championships in 1966 and 1973 as head coach at Notre Dame, after taking the helm of the storied program during a tailspin period that included no winning records since 1958. He left coaching at the pinnacle of his profession at the surprisingly young age of 51 when he said nearly a quarter of a century as a head college football coach that included stints at Northwestern University and his alma mater, Miami of Ohio, had left him “physically exhausted and emotionally drained.”

He proved himself to be a calculated risk taker that likely helped his former players, such as Academic All-American and former Super Bowl Champion David “Ghost” Casper, succeed in business after their playing days ended.

Parseghian graciously gave me an interview a number of years ago as I researched and wrote an inspirational book, “Holy Smokes! Golden Guidance from Notre Dame’s Championship Chaplain.” He told me about the famous 10-10 tie between Notre Dame and Michigan State University in 1966 that the media at the time described as the “Game of the Century.”

That game happened to be the first one for his cigar-smoking football chaplain, Rev. James Riehle, who ultimately was part of four national championship football teams at Notre Dame. Parseghian’s team had a number of key players injured before or during the contest and backup quarterback Coley O’Brien led the Fighting Irish on a comeback that knotted the score in the fourth quarter.

With the game on the road for Notre Dame and inexperienced players in pivotal roles, he called plays conservatively at the end of the game as the clock ran out against the Spartans, who were led by All-American defenders “Bubba” Smith and George Webster. Parseghian’s decision to run the ball to avoid an interception while Notre Dame was deep in its own territory in the waning seconds positioned the Fighting Irish to keep its No. 1 ranking against No. 2 Michigan State, particularly after crushing the University of Southern California the following week, 51-0, to seize the national title.

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As criticism of Parseghian dogged the coach after the game for allowing it to end in a tie before college football adopted overtime to ensure each game had a winner and a loser, the coach jokingly started to tell the chaplain it was his fault Notre Dame did not win.

“We used to kid about that from the time of 1966 all the way up until the time that he passed away,” Parseghian told me when I was researching and writing my book.

Parseghian won his second national championship by taking another calculated risk but this one was highly aggressive. In the 1973 Sugar Bowl against undefeated and top-ranked University of Alabama, the Crimson Tide had Notre Dame trapped near its own goal line on a wet and slippery field. With Parseghian’s history of having played conservatively late in the 1966 game against Michigan State, no one likely expected him to call a play for his quarterback Tom Clements to drop back into his end zone and throw a long pass to a backup tight end near the side line for a critical first down.

The call was especially bold because Notre Dame had All-American tight end Casper on its team but the element of surprise proved effective as the unlikely target of the pass held onto the ball to preserve a 24-23 win in a major upset.

Parseghian’s legacy also includes teaming up with his family to form a medical foundation in 1994 in response to his three youngest grandchildren getting diagnosed with a deadly children’s’ disease. Well known as one of America’s best football coaches from his time at Notre Dame in 1964-74, he used his popularity to help raise tens of millions of dollars to battle the Niemann-Pick Type C (NPC) Disease that took the lives of his grandchildren Michael, Marcia and Christa Parseghian.

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Known as a master motivator and strategist as a coach who compiled a 95-17-4 won-loss record at Notre Dame, Parseghian and his family applied the same dedication in forming the Ara Parseghian Medical Research Foundation as a non-profit organization to seek a treatment for the disease.

On the foundation’s website is a quote from Parseghian, who explained, “This is an organization of volunteers drawn by the urgency of the cause and compelled by the value of a child’s life.”

The foundation’s mission gained the University of Notre Dame as a partner in the spring of 2016 to ensure required long-term administrative support. As a result, Notre Dame launched the Ara Parseghian Medical Research Fund and now coordinates fundraising, recruiting of medical researchers, grant administration, marketing, interaction with NPC families and hosting an annual science conference.

The foundation has raised awareness about the rare disease that was little known in 1994, with no treatments and only two medical researchers in attendance at the first conference hosted by the group. Since then, the foundation has raised over $45 million, supported more than 75 scientific labs around the world and hosted an annual conference that now attracts 75-plus NPC researchers.

Cindy Parseghian, the mother of Michael, Marcia and Christa Parseghian, co-founder of the foundation and a Notre Dame trustee, said the donors, volunteers and researchers have combined to achieve “significant gains” in understanding NPC disease and developing effective treatment for the affected children.

Coach Parseghian also provided a quote that appears on the top of the back cover of my book: “Fr. Riehle was a good friend and integral part of my teams’ successes, including two national football championships. Paul Dykewicz’s well-researched and enjoyable book highlights his valuable contributions. You’ll discover in these pages how fun, faith and effort can lead to happiness and success.”

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Both Parseghian and Fr. Riehle were portrayed in the move RUDY, about a walk-on football player who the coach kept on the team after seeing the undersized, 5’7” student-athlete give great effort on each play during a tryout. Fr. Riehle played himself in the movie’s scene in which he led the pre-game prayer and blessed each player before the team took the field.

My editorial intern this summer is University of Notre Dame student-athlete Daniel Plantamura, who told me he played on the Fighting Irish rugby team in an annual game against the University of Arizona for the Parseghian Cup. All proceeds from ticket sales go to fund NPC research at Notre Dame.

“It is an honor to continue the legacy of Ara Parseghian by combining his love of sport and his drive to help those in need,” Plantamura said.

With Parseghian’s leadership as a top football coach, medical research fundraiser and man of faith, he leaves a distinguished legacy for how to live fully and successfully.

Paul Dykewicz is the editorial director of Eagle Financial Publications, editor of StockInvestor.com and DividendInvestor, a columnist for Townhall and Townhall Finance, a commentator and the author of an inspirational book,Holy Smokes! Golden Guidance from Notre Dame’s Championship Chaplain,” with a Foreword by legendary football coach Lou Holtz. Visit Paul’s website at www.holysmokesbook.com and follow him on Twitter @PaulDykewicz.

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