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Players, coaches remember Yonto’s ways

Dan Murphy | Friday, September 5, 2008

On Aug. 4 Notre Dame football lost a legend. At the age of 83, long-time defensive line coach and former Irish player Joe Yonto passed away.

Yonto spent 19 years on the Notre Dame sideline when all was said and done. He also spent nine years as an assistant to the Athletic Director and remained close to the team until his death. Beyond any shadow of a doubt, he changed the history of Notre Dame football, but he never let football change him.

“Joe was a great family man, he always was,” former Irish coach Ara Parseghian said. “He was a very sincere guy who had a wonderful, unshakable set of principles he lived by.”

Parseghian hired Yonto as defensive line coach in his first year at Notre Dame in 1964. He said they became good friends and practically lived together during the season.

The one thing Parseghian remembered most about his friend was that he never swore – something that is pretty rare in the world of football coaches.

“We used to have a quarter box set up in coaches’ meetings. If you swore, you paid a quarter. Joe never went near that box,” Parseghian said.

Players remember him as a man who could talk to you about anything in the world, most of the time it had nothing to do with football.

“He was a coach’s coach no doubt, but off the field he was a regular guy. A lot of coaches will just talk football all the time, that wasn’t Joe,” former Irish defensive lineman Mike Golic said.

Golic said he first met Yonto when the coach was recruiting his older brother, Bob, in 1975. Bob was heavily recruited out of high school, but both Golic brothers were filled with nervous excitement with an Irish coach coming to the house.

When he arrived Yonto put out his hand, but when the Golics went to shake it he moved it away just enough to make them whiff – a trick that Yonto loved to use to break the ice with young players.

“With a guy like that walking in, you were almost standing at attention,” Golic said. “It was the kind of thing that just put you at ease with him right away though.”

Golic said Yonto was never as large as any of the big linemen that he coached, but he had a demeanor about him that demanded respect and made him a giant.

A short, easy-going prankster with the mouth of an altar boy is generally not a strong resume for a football coach. Add to that a permanent ear-to-ear smile or an undying loyalty to your wife and six children and it becomes almost unimaginable. Yonto found a way to make it work, and he made it work well.

The coach won three national championships, in 1966, 1973 and 1977. He also produced 12 All-Americans on the defensive line. In eight different seasons his defense lines held opponents to an average of less than 100 rushing yards per game.

“He never used profanity, but he could yell at you. He knew how to get the most out of all of his players,” Parseghian said.

Yonto always had coaching in his blood. His first job was as an assistant coach for the freshman team after a leg injury ended his playing career in 1946. Prior to his injury Yonto played fullback and guard for the Irish starting in 1945.

After graduation, Yonto coached high school teams for several years in the Chicago area. Parseghian was coaching at Northwestern at the time and met Yonto while recruiting some of his players.

“When I got the job [at Notre Dame] Joe contacted me and we hired him right away,” Parseghian said.

Yonto suffered a heart attack earlier this year and was also on kidney dialysis, but was able to live out his final days playing golf and enjoying life. He is survived by his wife, six children and the hundreds of players he improved on and off the field.