When Parseghian arrived at Notre Dame, the university’s football program had been in decline for years. The collapse started in 1956, when Notre Dame won only two games and lost eight. Though there were some victories, Notre Dame never won more than five games in a season from 1959 to 1963. Twice it won only two games.
Notre Dame fans and Notre Dame haters — there have always been armies of each — offered theories: The university’s leaders were de-emphasizing football as they sought to raise the school’s academic reputation; good players didn’t want to go to an all-male school; tradition alone could not attract enough talented athletes; the coaching was bad; all of the above.
Meanwhile, Parseghian was gaining a reputation. After five highly successful seasons at his alma mater, Miami of Ohio, where he was a protégé of Woody Hayes, he moved to Northwestern for the 1956 season. He barely broke even in his eight years there, but he was credited with doing a lot at an academically rigorous institution with no trace of a football factory image.
By the early 1960s, Notre Dame’s administrators were all too familiar with Parseghian; his Northwestern teams had beaten Notre Dame four years in a row.
At the time, Notre Dame had an interim coach, Hugh Devore, and Parseghian’s relationship with the Northwestern athletic director, Stu Holcomb, had become strained. Parseghian contacted the Rev. Edmund P. Joyce, Notre Dame’s vice president and its chairman of athletics, and soon it was announced that he was headed to Notre Dame.
In the spring of 1964, student servers in Notre Dame’s main dining hall noticed that football players were forsaking gravy and ice cream. The new coach had told them that they were going to be leaner and faster.
Above all, Parseghian wanted to change the players’ emotions. “The biggest problem was to re-instill the confidence,” he recalled in a television interview years later. This he did, with an enthusiastic, hands-on approach in practices that were always well organized.