Notre Dame, The Five-Minute Plan And ‘The Three E’s’
Editor’s Note: On this date 10 years ago (July 6, 2010), former Notre Dame head coach Ara Parseghian’s (1964-74) longtime right-hand man and former Blue & Gold Illustrated columnist/analyst Tom Pagna, died at age 78.
As hopeful preparations for August camp begin, we recall one of our favorite columns of Pagna that is always applicable. It was a speech Parseghian, who passed away in 2017, also delivered early in head coach Brian Kelly’s tenure to the troops about "The Three E's.”
At his December 2009 press conference that introduced him as Notre Dame’s new head football coach, Kelly indicated that a timetable for turning around Fighting Irish fortunes cannot be too long term.
“We don’t have a five-year plan,” Kelly said. “We have a five-minute plan, and we’ll start to work on it immediately.”
More than a half-century earlier, one of Kelly’s predecessors at Notre Dame, Parseghian, introduced the ultimate “five-minute plan” even prior to accepting the Irish job.
It was based not on what to plan for the long term, but rather what can be controlled in the immediate here and now. His former star player and longtime assistant, Pagna, explained this concept in a column for BGI. It never gets old, and bears repeating.
The greatest sprinters in the world train endless hours and years just to try to be the world’s fastest man in a race that lasts about 10 seconds. Similarly, the average college football game lasts approximately three and a half hours — but the actual physical exertion to players is about five minutes. That was the main theme of what was known as “The Great Interval” during Parseghian's era.
After Parseghian's Northwestern team finished 0-9 in 1957, the fiery young head coach was on the hot seat. He had just completed the second season of a three-year contract, so the clock was ticking. With his career as a head coach on the line, Parseghian analyzed every detail of the program, from the equipment the players were wearing to offseason habits.
During one film study, he broke down the different length of plays in time duration. The longest play was usually a kickoff return, about 12 seconds, and the shortest were less than two seconds, a no-gain dive into the line.
On average, an offense will run about 70 to 80 plays per game, as will the defense. Each play averaged about four seconds. So if you multiply four seconds by 70 to 80 plays, it translated into 280 to 320 seconds per unit — or about five minutes of live, active, playing time.
Yes, talent was essential. No one could win without it. But the “edge” in a program, or a leg up on others, came from the three E’s: effort, execution and endurance.
Here is what Pagna wrote thereafter to expand on the principle: “As Ara realized the significance of how little time actually was involved with the game, he asked himself what it was he, as the head coach, was asking of his players. It was an ‘interval’ of time, five-plus minutes, and what you filled it with that really counted. He settled upon three things he wished to instill within his teams.
“1. Effort — The complete physical explosion of muscle and strength — 100 percent.
“2. Execution — The correct technique to increase the chance for success.
“3. Endurance — Sustaining the activity to the completion of the play.
“Effort, execution and endurance meant do it hard, do it right, do it until it is done. Those ‘Three E’ commands were what the word ‘INTERVAL’ contained.
“If you said ‘interval’ to a player, he knew immediately what it represented. Not only was it the first page in the playbook, it was enforced by the student manager blowing a whistle four seconds after the start of any practice play. This ingrained giving effort until you heard the whistle.
“When Ara asked a room full of young men ready to do battle — ‘Can you give Our Lady of Notre Dame five minutes of your best time?!?’ — it would be very hard to say no. The Great Interval and its creation by a great coach was a turning point for all who understood.”
Parseghian improved from 0-9 to 5-4 in his third season (1958), rocketed to No. 2 in the Associated Press poll at one point in 1959, and even took former Big Ten doormat Northwestern to No. 1 in 1962 after a 6-0 start.
The best was still to come for him at Notre Dame, where more talent combined with leadership, motivation and The Great Interval would intertwine for a 95-17-4 record with nine top-10 finishes, two consensus national championships and a third title that was shared.
More than 60 years later, those rules still aren’t outdated for the 2020 Fighting Irish, and beyond.