The Ara Parseghian years at Notre Dame – 1964-74 – offered plenty of quality play on the gridiron. During his 11-year run as head coach of the Irish, Notre Dame won 95 times, lost just 17 and tied four en route to national championships in 1966 and 1973.
Frank Pomarico served as tri-captain of the second national title team. The 1973 squad, 11-0 after its 24-23 victory over No. 1 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, was the only one of Parseghian’s teams to post a completely unblemished season.
The Irish never lost more than three games in a season under the legendary head coach, and that only happened once. The following year came the undefeated and untied season.
And yet it was about way more than football.
That’s why Pomarico dedicated himself to chronicling his four years at Notre Dame under Parseghian, a period when the Irish went 37-6, but more importantly, learned lessons that shaped lives and carried through lifetimes.
“Ara’s Knights: Ara Parseghian and the Golden Era of Notre Dame Football” will be released by Triumph Books in September, and what Irish fans are likely to find is a treasure trove of stories of the Parseghian reign and a glowing tribute to the man who influenced lives well beyond the gridiron.
“The guy was like King Arthur and we were his knights,” said Pomarico, born in Howard Beach, N.Y., and a product of St. Francis Prep where his high school role model – Notre Dame All-American left guard Larry DiNardo -- attended. “It was kind of like playing for royalty.
“What was King Arthur supposedly like? He ruled by doing things the right way, by doing right, and that’s the way Ara was as a coach. He always did the right thing. He always had an educated decision in everything he did.”
For years, Pomarico thought about writing a book about Parseghian and his time at Notre Dame, but never having tackled such a project before, he was hesitant. Then he began thinking: I wonder if the guys I played with at Notre Dame viewed Parseghian the same way?
“I had all these feelings about how important he was to me, but when I started interviewing people, everybody was saying the same kind of things I was thinking,” Pomarico said.
“Terry Hanratty will tell you, ‘I owe my life to this guy. Anything that I ever became was because of Ara Parseghian and my father.’ Joe Theismann, John Huarte…the same exact thing.”
Parseghian’s recruiting message offered no guarantees on the gridiron. There were no grandiose promises regarding playing time. Freshmen were ineligible then, so by one’s sophomore year, the prep stars tended to expect a starting role. Parseghian never promised that.
“The one thing we found out in all the interviews we did was that Ara was always looking for people that were hungry, people that wanted to prove they could play as opposed to being promised that they’d be starting as a sophomore,” Pomarico said.
“He never promised anybody; all he promised them was an opportunity to compete for a job, and we’re talking about Joe Theismann, Terry Hanratty, Thom Gatewood…Other schools were telling them they were going to start immediately, or after their freshman year. Ara made people hungry to be successful.”
Pomarico may have had the biggest “appetite” of them all.
“When you talk about being hungry, I was obsessed with being the starting left guard,” Pomarico said. “I wanted to be the starting left guard at Notre Dame as much as I needed to breath.”
A major part of his motivation was following in the footsteps of DiNardo. Once he got to Notre Dame, it was all about being one of Parseghian’s soldiers.
“We wanted to show what it meant to be one of Ara’s knights,” Pomarico said. “In the book, we listed the things that make up a modern knight: teamwork, hard-working, respect for others, respect for competition, having manners, knowing what’s going on around the world besides just football and Notre Dame, knowing what’s going on in the Middle East, know what’s going on in Russia…
“Those are the kind of things that Ara would encourage us to do because he did it himself.”
Pomarico had been cataloging stories for years before chronicling it with the written word. When he approached Parseghian about making a contribution to the book, the 1980 College Football Hall of Fame inductee wanted nothing to do with it.
Now 92, Parseghian told Pomarico the last thing the world needed was another book shining light on his Notre Dame tenure.
“Don’t write another book about me,” Parseghian said. “Coach, it’s already been written,” said Pomarico, and Parseghian relented.
Written with 1970 Notre Dame graduate Ray Serafin, “Ara’s Knights” is a tribute to living life the right way, which is the example Parseghian provided for his players.
“One of the things Ara would tell us was that opportunities come about, but you have to create the opportunities with your hard work,” Pomarico said. “You have to create the opportunities with the things that you’re doing on a daily basis. In some cases, you have to be patient.
“But if you’re training every day and you’re disciplined in trying to find out everything you need to know about being a successful football player and a successful student at Notre Dame, it will happen. Hard work will pay off. He’d say, ‘Nothing is going to be easy. It’s never going to be easy. Anything that’s good is going to be hard.’”
The lessons reached far beyond the gridiron.
“He would talk about loving your neighbor like you want to be loved yourself. Do unto others as you would like done to you, and then he would say, ‘Hey, pass it on to the next generation. It doesn’t die with you.’
“This is something that has to perpetuate itself for generations to come because the negative things in life, there’s such a dark side and so much confusion in the world. If people spot a person who was coached by Ara Parseghian or some other great coach, and they see that light inside of that person – the light within that has goodness in it -- that has a positive influence on the world around him.
“That person is like a knight. That person has a belief in God. No matter how bad it gets, you’re going to keep trudging ahead and you’re going to be patient about what your role is and continue to do the right things over and over. If you do those things, things take care of themselves.”
Notre Dame alum Regis Philbin wrote the foreword for “Ara’s Knights” and Gerry DiNardo, the younger brother of Larry and former head coach at Vanderbilt, LSU and Indiana, wrote the introduction.
“Gerry DiNardo said, ‘Ara Parseghian was the kind of guy that was in the room before he was there,’” Pomarico said. “His presence was there at all times. Why did everybody have such loyalty to the guy? Because he was fair and everybody wanted to emulate the kind of person he was. He was a class act. He could have been a governor, a senator, he could have been the President of the United States he was so charismatic and centered. He was a unique individual. He was our King Arthur.
“Ara was about so much more than football. The keys to the kingdom were that you wanted to make the world a little bit better because you were part of it. Your participation in your community, your state and your country was something that was important, and if you could have a positive input, you were going to make a difference in other people’s lives.
“We parallel Ara to King Arthur. The big difference, of course, was that Ara was real and the story of King Arthur is a myth.”