Has it been only a wee bit more than three years since Ara Parseghian left football and Notre Dame? Fact already has begun to blend with fiction as happened yesterday when a woman in a crowd surrounding him asked how it felt to immediately follow Knute Rockne as Irish coach.

"No, there was a gap between Rockne and me," Parseghian said, politely failing to mention that gap was 34 years and seven coaches.

There was another question: you did win more games than any coach at Notre Dame, didn't you Mr. Parseghian?

"No, Rockne won the most," he said. "I was second. But Avis hasn't done bad as second, right?"

And neither has Parseghian.

Tanned and looking exceptionally fit, Parseghian still commands attention, which is why he testified before the House Appropriations subcommittee on labor on behalf of an appropriation of $245.3 million for the National Institute of Neurological and Communicative Disorders and Stroke.

There were men and women with more knowledge of the subject also pitching for every penny possible, but none that got half the subcommittee to trot into the hall afterward the nearly beg for a photo.And nobody talked with more zeal, or in fact had a better reason to be there than Parseghian.

"I have a deep personal involvement (with the Multiple Sclerosis Society) because three members of my own family have been stricken with the disease," he said. "My sister was diagonsed as having MS at 24; my brother-in-law was stricken at 43 and died three years later.

"And the saddest day of my life was the day my daugher, Karen, was diagnosed as having MS. We all knew that at the age of 17, while still a student in high school, all the plans and hopes she had for life must be reconsidered. She didn't know - no MS patient ever knows - what her future would be. . .

"But one of the proudest days of my life was when she walked down the aisle with me and back up with her new husband without mechanical assistance. She and I had practiced it the night before in the empty church, just to make sure."

Karen is 27, unable to walk without the assistance of a scooter-like device and living with her 18-month-old child and husband, James Burke, in Cleveland.

It was not Karen's condition, but his own physical problems that caused him to resign as Notre Dame coach after a 9-2 season in 1974 and 13-11 victory over Alabama in the Orange Bowl.

"My blood pressure was too high," he said. "It had been recommended I leave a year earlier." He did not add that the freshmen he recruited that year were the cornerstone of the Notre Dame team that won the national championship this season.

He did insist that if his involvement in insurance and public relations, motivational speeches, television and commercials had not provided "the challenges and interest I need, I would have been back in coaching in about six months."

And now?

"In 12 years," he said, smiling, "I'll be eligible to do what Bud Wilkinson did."

At the moment, the 54-year-old Parseghian fills the void Wilkinson left even before he chose to return to coaching this year, as the man everyone serious about football, including the Redskins, sounds out for every vacancy.

"I've learned never to say never," he said. "Each year, around mid-December or January, when (coaching) jobs open up, I re-evaluate my situation. Each year, I've elected not to get back in."

He said athletics helped him face MS, "because you learn never to give up, to face the next challenge, that there must be a way around every wall - either over it, under it or around it."

The way to attack the wall that Karen and thousands of others face is research, Parseghian said, adding: "At least once a day I get either a letter or a phone call from someone just beginning to face MS."

"And every few weeks someone calls or writes to see if the football juices are stiring again. For now, he says, "It's kind of nice not to have your failures blown up all around the country."