Ara Parseghian: 1956-1963


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Football schedule, 1955. Cover photograh of team captain Sanford Sacks and head coach Lou Saban.

Daily Northwestern, November 1, 1955

Coach Ara Parseghian, 1956-1963

All-American halfback and College Football Hall of Famer Ron Burton, 1957-59

Ara Parseghian with his 1959 co-captains: Mike Stock, Ron Burton, James Andreotti, and Gene Gossage.

 

1955, the year before Ara Parseghian came to Northwestern, was a major low in the history of the university's football program. The team, coached by Lou Saban, finished with a record of 0-8-1 -- the worst (at that time) in the history of Northwestern football. To make things even more bleak, their dismal record came at the end of the three-year slump which forced Bob Voigts' retirement after the 1954 season. The 1955 schedule promised "nerve tingling action," "versatility, power, and spirit" -- but all the small crowds who went to the games saw were losses.

Near the end of the season, talk began about Northwestern's place in Big Ten -- more specifically, leaving the Big Ten for a different conference. On November 1, 1955, the Daily Northwestern ran a front-page editorial which endorsed the move:

The time has come for all those concerned with football at Northwestern -- students, faculty, alumni, and administration -- to do a little sober thinking.

The university's gridiron fortunes, steadily on the downgrade for the last four years, reached a low ebb with last Saturday's 49 to 0 trouncing by Ohio State. That game was the 20th Big Ten defeat the Wildcats have sufferered since the start of the 1952 season.

During that period they have won a grand total of three games ...

Should we go winless, we will be the first Big Ten team since 1918 to do so, and the first Northwestern team since 1887, when only one game was played.

What does all of this mean?

To us it proves one thing -- that for some few years now Northwestern has not been fielding a team capable of meeting Big Ten opposition week after week.

We think that, under the present conditions, there are three courses open:

1.) Northwestern can let things ride as they are, and continue to lose six or seven conference games each year.

2.) Northwestern can make some drastic changes in its athletic policies and start fielding Big Ten caliber teams once more.

3.) Northwestern can get out of the Big Ten.

We doubt anyone concerned with the Wildcats' plight would be in favor of the first alternative ..

We think the third solution is the much more logical.

Northwestern did not, of course, leave the Big Ten. In 1956, Ara Parseghian took over as head coach, and while he may not have transformed the Wildcats into conference champions or bowl participants, he certainly brought them to respectability. From a 0-8-1 1955 season, Parseghian and captain Ted Ringer led the team to a 4-4-1 finish in '56, including wins over Wisconsin, Purdue, and Illinois.

Northwestern fans, ready for a turnaround of football fortunes, must have been quite shocked when Parseghian's 1957 team lost every single game by devastating margins -- Minnesota scored 41 to the Wildcats' 6, the Ohio State game finished 47-6, and both Purdue and Illinois beat Northwestern in 27-point shutouts.

The 1957 season, however, was a temporary jolt in Northwestern's recovery. In 1958, the team went 5-4, with tackle Andy Cverko gaining All-American honors -- in 1959, 6-3. For the latter season, the team chose four captains: James Andreotti (All-American center), Ron Burton (All-American halfback), Gene Gossage, and Mike Stock. The season began with six straight wins, over Oklahoma, Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, Notre Dame, and Indiana -- but after a 24-19 loss to Wisconsin, the Wildcats could not pull off another game. Michigan State slipped by with a 5 point lead, and Illinois won their annual game against Northwestern 28-0.

The real highlights of the next few years were wins over Notre Dame -- Northwestern "rivals" who were usually good enough that a Wildcat win was cause for celebration. Northwestern topped them by one point (7-6) in 1960, ending the season 5-4 -- the 1961 squad beat the Irish 12-10, and ended their season 4-5.

1962 was another stunning season for Parseghian -- the team, led by captain Jay Robertson, went 7-2 (this time trouncing Notre Dame 35-6), with big wins over Illinois (45-0), Miami (29-7), and Minnesota (34-22). The following year's squad ended 5-4, and in 1964, Parseghian moved on to a coaching position at Notre Dame.

When Ara Parseghian arrived at Northwestern, the school was on the brink of dropping out of its conference -- by 1963, the Wildcats had been transformed into true competitiors. Parseghian has since been enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame -- as has Ron Burton, his star halfback.

 

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