As we prepare to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1966 Game of the Century between Notre Dame and Michigan State, the university can remember it as the great national championship game that never was. Though American media outlets have gifted us with dozens of Games of the Century over the past fifty years, this one in particular is distinct. After what was a 60 minute clinical display of smash-mouth football, there was no celebration from the sidelines, no cheering from the grandstands, and no Gatorade baths. Instead, the game ended as it kicked-off: a tie. The game that would determine the 1966 college football season came and went, and in the end, settled nothing.
Certain characteristics are required to qualify a college football game as a Game of the Century. They are played between the top two ranked teams in the national polls. In our 1966 case, the Irish entered the game as the top-ranked team with the defending coaches poll national champion Spartans sitting at number two. The second characteristic is that there must be great talent on the field to constitute a Game of the Century. That may never have been more the case than the 1966 game, which featured 25 players who would receive All-American recognition, 31 future NFL players, including ten first round picks, and the future number one overall selection in the draft: Bubba Smith. Michigan State entered the game as a 4 point underdog to a team who had outscored their previous opponents 301-28; the Fighting Irish had both the top scoring offense and defense in the nation. The country’s best two teams met in East Lansing on November 19, 1966, in 33 degree temperatures under cloudy skies, in front of an attendance of 80,011. However, since both teams had already used their allotted national broadcasts, ABC could not televise the live game nationally. So instead of leaving the other regions of the country in the dark, the network made a decision to air the game after it had already ended. That evening, in a time very different from the modern college football landscape, more than an estimated 30 million people watched the ABC tape-delayed broadcast.
Both the Spartans and the Irish were steered by legendary coaches Duffy Daugherty and Ara Parseghian, respectively, and each had assembled outstanding defenses. The game lived up to its billing as a defensive struggle from the start and never yielded. Some of those who played in the game have recalled it being the most physical they had ever competed in, and that is confirmed by the violent sounds of crashing bodies described in college football folklore by players, coaches, and spectators. Early in the first quarter, Notre Dame’s star quarterback Terry Hanratty was hit particularly hard by defensive end Bubba Smith and linebacker Charlie Mad Dog Thornhill, separating his shoulder and ending his season.
From the November 19, 1966 Spartan Gridiron Souvenir Program
In the second quarter, Michigan State ended a drive with a 4-yard rushing touchdown by Regis Cavender. Shortly after, Dick Kenney kicked a 47-yard field goal to extend the Spartan lead to 10. The Fighting Irish would strike back, however, with a 34-yard touchdown strike from backup quarterback Coley O’Brien to Bob Gladieux, which proved to serve as a crucial change in the momentum in the game. In the middle of the third quarter, O’Brien would orchestrate a long 70 yard drive that ended with a 28-yard kick from Joe Azzaro to tie the game 10-10 at the start of the final quarter. Spartan quarterback Jimmy Raye later threw an interception that set up Azzaro for an attempt to take the lead; however the kick went wide right from 42-yards out.
With a minute and half left in the game, Ara Parseghian’s team had possession of the ball near their own 30-yard line. Parseghian elected to call handoffs up the middle, instead of taking a shot at putting together a game-winning drive. Thus, the Game of the Century ended in a 10-10 tie. The Spartans won the total-yardage statistic 284 to 219. The crowd watched in disappointment as the two frustrated teams walked back into the tunnel. John Hannah and Father Teodore Hesburgh together visited both locker rooms to congratulate the players on an outstanding effort and competition.
Parseghian’s play-calling in this game would go on to earn him a lifetime of scrutiny, and to this day, he has had to defend his decision making. The following Monday, the State News wrote, “A modification of an immortal plea keeps running through my mind: ‘Go out and tie one for the Gipper.'” However, the State News understood what many emotional football fans did not. Michigan State’s season was over. Notre Dame, on the other hand, still had a trip to Los Angeles to take on a tough Southern California team. When the polls came out, Michigan State sat atop of the coaches’ poll and Notre Dame sat atop the AP poll. After the following Saturday’s Trojan beatdown at the hands of the Irish, Notre Dame was able to swing the coaches’ poll in their favor, as well. Neither school could play in a bowl game. Notre Dame did not partake in postseason games at the time, and since Michigan State had played in the Rose Bowl the year before, in accordance with the Big Ten’s policy at the time, they could not go again in a consecutive year.
Michigan State did win the vote of other polls, granting them the rights to some share of the national championship, which the university proudly remembers on the plaques outside Spartan Stadium. However, this Game of the Century is primarily remembered for what it was not. In what was to be a national championship game played at the end of the regular season, two of the best teams in college football history came out even and left empty-handed. Despite this disappointment, nevertheless, the Game of the Century legend will continue to live on in the memories of Michigan State University.
Written by Nick Kurtansky
On October 12, 2016 the University Archives will be hosting a 50th Anniversary Celebration of the 1966 Game of the Century at Michigan State University’s Conrad Hall. The main program of the event will feature a discussion of the game by 1966 MSU Spartan Football players, including Jimmy Raye, Clinton Jones, Jerry West, and Sterling Armstrong. Sports radio broadcaster and author Jack Ebling will serve as moderator. Tom Shanahan, author of Raye of Light, will also join the discussion to provide insight into the historical importance of the Game of the Century. The event is free and open to the public. More information about the event is available at 1966gotc.eventbrite.com. Kindly R.S.V.P. by October 5th online (1966gotc.eventbrite.com) or by calling the University Archives at (517) 355-2330. We hope to see you there!