Thursday, September 24, 2020

Reflections: 50 years after the Game of the Century

September 16, 2016
<p>The State News - November 1966</p>

The State News - November 1966

Fifty years ago during the cold third week of November 1966, former MSU football star Clinton Jones walked by publications, grabbed any clips previewing the matchup between No. 2 MSU football and No.1 Notre Dame and looked for his name.

If he found it, he took a copy, stowed it away and went on with his business. No fleeting glance at a prediction, no post practice clip, none. No need to pay attention to the external pressures written in the pages.

“I played the game, what else did I need to know?” Jones said, recalling the hype of the game.

Someday, however, he said he would read them.

He put them all in boxes — his archives, as he calls it.

In those archives live the faded articles of the Game of the Century — No. 1 Notre Dame vs. No. 2 MSU.

It was one of the first games to be bestowed the moniker, and the first matchup between the AP Poll’s No. 1 and No. 2 teams featuring football's future legends certainly could be afforded the title.

Twenty-five All-Americans, 10 NFL first-round draft picks and 31 future pros took to Spartan Stadium that day to play to a 10-10 tie.

Some obsessed over the game. It boiled with excitement at a time without the Super Bowl, without a world-renowned sports championship and absent of the ever incessant cycle of news and hype on social media.

It was in the simple times of the excitement over college football, yet, it carried the weight of millions of eyes watching to see who in fact was the nation's best.

And yet, after all the years, the impact of the 10-10 tie between the Fighting Irish and the Spartans is still felt in the game today. But, to borrow the cliche, it was more than a game even if Jones is surprised by it.

“I find it amazing,” Jones said. “50 years ago that we are actually still talking about that. That’s a testament to the relevance.”

He opens up about the game now — The Game of the Century.

THE HYPE:

By Nov. 19, 1966 MSU and Notre Dame had established themselves as preeminent powers. MSU steamrolled to a 9-0 season, scoring 283 points while only giving up 79 points. The Fighting Irish waltzed to a similar record of 8-0, allowing 28 points in total and scoring 301 in the process.

On top of it, MSU had rip roared to their second straight Big Ten championship and Notre Dame, with a fanbase of millions and after a tumultuous showing in the 1950s was again on the cusp of winning a national title.

The hype materialized in an unprecedented fashion. Papers and periodicals touted the matchup, nightly news segments featured the game and enraptured the nation’s most arduous college football fans with a burning enchantment.

“National excitement soars” was a front page headline for the Nov. 18, 1966 edition of The State News. Writer Ed Brill described the scene.

“From Honolulu, Hawaii to a jail deep in the heart of Texas, from the sunny beaches of Miami, Fla. to the cold northland of Bozeman, Mont., the eyes and ears of the entire nation will be focused on Spartan Stadium Saturday.”

Brill later went on to describe an overflow scene of reporters from hundreds of outlets flooding into campus to cover “Notre Dame and Michigan State, the country's two titanic football powers, clash in a contest that has already generated more excitement than any other sports event in recent memory.”

The State News dedicated a whole 15-page insert in the Friday paper previewing the contest, which included stories about the nuns on campus voicing support for the Spartans over the Catholic Notre Dame, a lineup breakdown, columns and even poetry describing an eminent Spartan victory.

A car was painted with the words “Even the pope has no hope for Notre Dame.” Stores along Grand River Avenue placed ads with good will messages for the Spartan football team.

Shaw Hall sponsored a mock Rose Parade for the Spartans who couldn’t return to the Rose Bowl per Big Ten rules. Pep rallies were planned throughout campus while residence halls held mixers for students of both MSU and Notre Dame.

Student body presidents of the schools met to discuss the logistics of hosting 500 current Notre Dame students and 300 Irish alumni ticket holders. New chants, including “Stew the Irish” were introduced for the pep rally, specifically designed to scoff at Notre Dame.

The levels of excitement had burst through a ceiling for the game. Both legendary coaches, MSU’s Duffy Daugherty and Notre Dame’s Ara Parseghian held daily press conferences.

Players couldn’t avoid the tune of the drum, especially Bubba Smith, who recalled clamoring to the window in his dorm to see what he said were thousands of students chanting “Kill Bubba kill!”

Yet despite the hubbub, Jones was adamant that he wanted nothing to do with the hype.

“The hype was for the people outside of our camp,” Jones said. “It might have been that some guys were into that, but my whole focus was on the game and winning.”

With both teams having already burned their one national game TV appearance, the game was set for a regional broadcast slot. But hundreds, even thousands of complaints about the broadcast forced a switched to a national broadcast in every state but the Dakotas.

With the game looming on the horizon and the media billing the game as the game of the century, the team set its sights on staying in the moment in hopes of securing the main objective — victory.

THE GAME

Team meetings dotted the days leading to the game and, though they tried to keep the game as just another game, they realized a championship was on the line.

“The main message was that you got to treat this like it was just another game,” MSU wide receiver Gene Washington said of Duffy Daugherty’s talks with the team. “You can’t be too high, you can’t get too low about it.”

But though the coaches kept the hormones in check, when they left the real emotions flared.

“When the coaches went out we were already revved up, but being co-captain of the team the way I spoke to my teammates was very passionate and very determined and I fired them up,” Jones said. “We fired each other up.”

They knew what the Irish were bringing into East Lansing, a high octane offense and stifling defense. Behind the quick arm of quarterback Terry Hanratty and the 7.4-yards-per-carry speed of running back Nick Eddy, the Irish racked up scores of points in most games.

As for the defense, MSU would be faced with penetrating a corps that had shutout five of its last six opponents. Behind the monstrous pass rush of Alan Page and Jim Lynch and an overall stand-out defensive unit, the Irish were not going to allow much of anything.

“Going into the game, I was thinking it was a very, very important game but I'm also thinking 'this is my senior year, this is my last time I’ll ever play in Spartan Stadium again,'” Washington said.

Washington, star wide receiver for the Spartans, was one of three game changers on offense alongside running back Jones and quarterback Jimmy Raye. Washington would end up with five catches for 123 yards against the vaunted Irish defense.

On the flip side, 6-foot-8-inch, 283 pound defensive lineman Bubba Smith and linebackers Charlie Thornhill and George Webster presented a vaunted MSU defense that had only given up 28 points in its first nine games.

The game carried the weight of so many caveats but in essence it was still a game — to be won or lost in hopes of settling the decades long mystery of who really was the top team in the nation.

“It’s hard to describe what you were feeling, but I’d leave my life on the field if that was necessary,” Jones said.

As week the gave into Friday, Notre Dame left on the Grand Trunk Railroad for East Lansing. Upon arrival Eddy stepped off the train, slipped on some ice and slammed his already achy shoulder.

The fall prevented him from even taking a snap on Saturday.

Nov. 19 was gray cold morning but thousands descended upon Spartan Stadium. Cars flooded the lots anxiously awaiting the 1:30 p.m. kick off. Spartan Stadium didn’t have its protective walls at the time, which allowed for a record crowd of 80,011 people to cram into the game.

At fever pitch, the teams took the field to finally settle the debate, and it would take all four quarters to remain at square one.

Early in the first quarter, Hanratty ran a draw, twisting and turning. He was stuffed by Thornhill and Webster before being toppled by a flying Smith. The hit knocked Hanratty from the playing field with a separated shoulder, giving way to young quarterback Coley O’Brien.

Smith bounded in at Hanratty seeing him wobbling and on one leg.

“I said, ‘oh baby’ you’re mine,” the late Smith recalled of the hit in a small documentary about the game years later.

"The hype was for the people outside of our camp. It might have been that some guys were into that but my whole focus was on the game and winning."

The ferocity of hits like Smith’s were the standing field order of the day, as player upon player smashed into the next on every play.

George Blaha, now the radio voice of MSU football, was a student at Notre Dame then. He attended the game and remembers the roar of the hits.

“I was in the lower part of the stadium, but still 30 or 40 rows up,” Blaha said. “You might have had to have been in the top row of the upper deck not to hear all the crunches, guys really went at.”

Jones said he remembers dumping Page with a hit he thought should have been a clipping call as he drove his helmet into Page’s kidney.

“I don’t know if he felt it, but I felt it,” Jones said. “I ended up on all fours shaking my head.”

As the first half leaked into its later stages, MSU took a 7-0 lead on a drive that saw Raye and Reggie Cavender find chunks of yards on the ground. Raye hit Washington with a 42-yard pass and Cavender would punch in a four-yard scamper.

MSU’s next chance with the ball resulted in a 47-yard field goal by Dick Kenny, boosting the lead to 10-0. Notre Dame would respond on the next possession when O'Brien hit on four passes with the last being to Bob Gladieux for 34 yards and a score.

Turnovers reared their head throughout the game but hadn’t cost the teams anything. Irish kicker Joe Azzaro booted a 41-yard field goal to start the fourth quarter knotting the game at 10-10 and set up the pivotal last quarter.

Following a turnover in the fourth quarter, Azzaro had a chance to give the Irish the lead. His 41-yard field goal trail sailed slightly right, preserving the tie.

Punting late in the fourth quarter MSU gave Notre Dame one last shot to go ahead. But with 1:10 to go in the game, Parseghian dialed up consecutive running plays. MSU tried to stop the clock with timeouts, but the Irish forged on with the runs.

Dan Jenkins, a long-time writer for Sports Illustrated, reported Smith lined up on the last series calling the Notre Dame players sissies for what was perceived as playing for the tie.

As the clock hit zero, the game finished, a 10-10 tie and nothing was decided.

THE LEGACY:

Parseghian was never given the credit, only a tongue lashing criticism from the press and the fans.

By deciding to run the ball and not risk an interception that could give MSU a chance to win, Parseghian ultimately secured a national championship from the AP. With one game left on Notre Dame’s schedule, a win would give them the same record as MSU.

With more voters favoring Notre Dame, the Irish had secured a title with the tie.

The tongue wagging at Parseghian, however, still continues to this day. The now 93-year-old coach still answers questions about his play calling.

“We didn't go for a tie; the game ended in a tie. Christ, somebody ought to wake up to that,” Parseghian told the Chicago Tribune this week.

"We'd fought hard to come back and tie it up," Parseghian was reported saying after the game. "After all that, I didn't want to risk giving it to them cheap. They get reckless and it could cost them the game. I wasn't going to do a jackass thing like that at this point."

It’s a stance Blaha agrees with as well.

“As Duffy Daugherty said later (Parseghian) was probably smart not to try to throw the ball, because we were throwing everything at him but the cheerleaders and the band,” Blaha said.

As for the players, Jones remembers feeling helpless watching Notre Dame line up and run.

“I don’t remember what I was thinking but the feeling was of helplessness,” Jones said. “We felt like it was a loss because it ended in a tie. But we didn’t lose the game at all as a matter of fact. They tied us.”

Parseghian’s call to run the clock out struck a nerve with some, including Jenkins, who tweaked the Notre Dame fight song in his opening line by saying “Old Notre Dame will tie over all.”

The Irish defeated USC a week later and, as the final polls came out, Notre Dame took first in the AP and coaches polls and MSU took first in other credible polls of the time. 

Outside of the football, the underlying racial tones were ever present.

MSU had integrated its football team under Duffy Daugherty, recruiting players from southern states whose home state schools barred black athletes.

“At that time we had more African-American players on the team than any team in the country,” Washington said. “When we think about the south, I can name all those southern schools, they did not play integrated teams, so based upon on that, when we won a national championship the year before, Alabama was claiming they should be national champions.”

Following the Spartans rise to back-to-back national titles behind the phenomenal skill of MSU’s black athletes, the southern schools began integrating football teams.

“We were really a family,” Washington said of his teammates at MSU. “That was the most important thing to us, it wasn’t anything about race or the color of your skin or anything, we played as a family.”

Notre Dame, on the other hand, had one black player — Alan Page.

After the tie, Smith, Jones, Webster and Washington were drafted in the NFL’s first round, giving MSU four draft picks within the first eight picks, a feat that hasn’t been matched since.

It spoke to their skill, their passion. It was cemented by that 10-10 tie. It’s still talked about primarily because it was a tie. Had either or won the game, it might never have been remembered in such grandeur.

“It’s fun to talk with guys and reporters about it and be remembered,” Washington said. “Life is so short, it's always every day is a gift and I’m glad to still be around and so proud that we all represented Michigan State as best as we could.”

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