Column: Game of the Century?

Against Michigan State in '66, Notre Dame played it safe
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

By beating Penn State on Saturday, Michigan State secured a share of its first Big Ten title in 20 years. It was a big game, but it was far from Michigan State’s biggest.

The biggest game in the Spartans’ long history wasn’t one of their 30 victories over Michigan, their six national title-clinching contests or their three Rose Bowl triumphs.

No, the biggest game in Michigan State history was against Notre Dame in 1966 – and it wasn’t a victory.

A lot of history went into that contest. Both schools had leveraged their football success to raise the profile and prestige of their universities. Both wanted desperately to get into the Big Ten, but Notre Dame was blocked in the ’20s by Michigan’s first big-time coach, Fielding Yost, while Michigan State was blocked in the ’40s by Michigan’s second big-time coach, Fritz Crisler.

Notre Dame finally said to heck with you guys, and went off on its own to become the only independent power with a national following. But Michigan State knew independence wouldn’t work as well for a state school. So the Spartans kept asking the Big Ten to let them in. Watching this unfold, the Irish concluded: Any enemy of our enemy must be a friend of ours.

Thus, in 1948, the Irish told the Spartans: Sure, for the first time in 27 years, we’ll play you. And they’ve kept doing it all but four years since.

The rivalry gave the Spartans added credibility, helping them win national titles in 1951 and 1952. The next year, when the Big Ten finally let the Spartans join, they celebrated by taking the league title in their first year.

The Irish had to wonder if boosting their friends to national prominence had perhaps worked too well. Since the Irish had won their last national title in 1949, the Spartans had won five.

It all came to a head on Nov. 19, 1966, in East Lansing. The radicalism that had already started growing in Ann Arbor, Madison and Berkeley hadn’t yet reached East Lansing or South Bend. Most students there were not yet focused on the draft or civil rights, but on football.

The game attracted 8,000 more fans than Spartan Stadium had seats – and for good reason. Before kick-off, the pundits were already calling it, “The Game of the Century.” Notre Dame entered the game undefeated, and ranked No. 1 in one poll. The Spartans were also undefeated, and ranked No. 1 in the other poll.

The nation would be watching – or trying to. In those days, colleges were allowed only one national telecast per season, and both teams had already used theirs up. But interest in the “Game of the Century” was so great, fans in the South and West wrote over 50,000 letters to ABC. Can you imagine people today writing 50,000 letters – not emails – to anyone, about anything?

It worked – sort of. ABC agreed to show the game on tape delay – which, before the advent of the internet and cell phones, still allowed most fans to watch it hours later without knowing who had actually won.

State scored first, and took a 10-7 lead into half-time. In the second half, Notre Dame managed to kick a field goal – just was enough to tie the game. The Irish got the ball back on their own 30-yard line, with a minute left and a chance to win the game.

But instead of playing to win, Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian started running out the clock. The crowd booed lustily, but Parseghian stuck to his guns. There was no overtime then, and he knew a tie would not cost the Irish a chance at another national title, the way Notre Dame’s narrow loss to Southern California the previous season had given the crown to Michigan State.

Not this time. When Notre Dame swamped Southern California the next weekend, 51-0, Parseghian won his first national title – but he’s been answering for his decision ever since.

The Spartans earned a share of the national title, too. But don’t feel sorry for either team. They played 10 games each, tied one, and shared a national title. Feel sorry for Alabama’s Bear Bryant, whose team won the SEC title, won the Sugar Bowl, didn’t lose to or tie anyone – and won nothing.

And that’s the story of the Game of the Century – the biggest game any college team ever… tied.

About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio; Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism; and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.