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MSU-Notre Dame ’66 classic was a tie and a win

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

The Game of the Century always had about it a fragment of hyperbole.

C’mon. One game. And it would remain a pinnacle as college football’s first 100 years unfurled?

Quaint and cute, but probably inflated.

The fact is, that gray November afternoon in East Lansing was true to its billing, true to its incredibly freakish collision of schedules and teams in an era when neither the Super Bowl nor the BCS Championship had yet arrived, and when grand sports events weren’t staged or constructed as much as they happened naturally.

Even in 2016, 50 years after Notre Dame and Michigan State met as unbeatens, ranked No. 1 and No. 2, in a regularly scheduled season finale (for Michigan State) at Spartan Stadium, the staggering drama and significance of what happened Nov. 19, 1966, has, perhaps, taken on if not greater elevation, a kind of hardened, classic luster.

“I can’t tell you how many guys I’ve talked with since who were in Vietnam that day, in their camps, huddling around satellite radio (Armed Forces Radio) listening to that game,” said Jimmy Raye, who that day quarterbacked the Spartans.

His counterpart, Notre Dame’s Terry Hanratty, mulls for a moment how the game would have been attacked in 2016: “ESPN GameDay” would have dropped a set outside Spartan Stadium and aired fairly steadily beginning Monday, if not Sunday. Thousands of media would have infiltrated each campus. And, of course, cyberspace would have been aglow with chatter, opinions, and non-stop stories as part of a sports world’s raw, captive fixation on one game and two immaculate teams.

“It would been an absolute zoo,” Hanratty said last week during a phone interview from his Connecticut locale. “People don’t realize: There was no such thing then as ESPN or Twitter or Facebook. All you had was your hometown newspaper and three or four minutes each night on the local news. That was it.”

Michigan State defenders chase Notre Dame quarterback Terry Hanratty (5) as he runs the ball in the 1966 game that ended in a 10-10 tie.

Oh, there were national press paying attention each day, mostly newspapers whose reporters began arriving early that week in East Lansing and South Bend. All had known since mid-autumn that a potential Richter scale-rocking phenomenon was mounting as the Fighting Irish and Spartans continued mowing through their schedules, undefeated, Michigan State standing at 9-0 heading into its 10th and final game, and Notre Dame at 8-0, with one date remaining, a week later at Los Angeles against USC.

But the staggering differences in how sports media worked in 1966, and in how college football’s most glorious teams were straitjacketed, is almost beyond comprehension in 2016.

Consider these relics from college football’s Stone Age:

■There was one national college telecast each Saturday, and it was aired on ABC. One game. No cable carriers. Regional telecasts by ABC were relatively few. Fans accepted that there was little chance to follow your favorite team, on most days of most years, apart from radio. Most incredibly, a school was limited to one national and two regional appearances per season. Notre Dame already had hit its national quota early that season against Purdue. ABC got around the craziness by blacking out TV in the lightly populated Dakotas and thus turned the Game of The Century into a 48-state regional telecast.

■The Spartans were No. 1 or No. 2 based upon a particular poll (Associated Press used writers and broadcasters’ votes; United Press International relied on coaches) but were barred from any bowls, and not because of rules infractions. The Big Ten conference was then locked in a Rose Bowl-only arrangement. Not only were all Big Ten schools blocked from considering any bowl but the pageant in Pasadena, Calif., a championship team could not appear in back-to-back years. The Spartans had been champions in 1965 and entered 1966 knowing their season would be confined to a 10-game regular-calendar schedule. Not until 1975 did the Big Ten change its restrictive, even punitive, one-team, one-bowl, no-repeat policy.

■Notre Dame also was staring at a no-bowls season. And by the school’s choice. For four decades, dating to what had been their one and only bowl trip, the 1924 Rose Bowl, Notre Dame had decided regular-season games were sufficient. Not until 1969 did Notre Dame forgo its sacred ways and opt for a Cotton Bowl date against Texas.

Stars out in force

Apart from the coast-to-coast hubbub in 1966 over what was shaping up as a national championship duel in November, part of the commotion had to do with football realities specific to each team.

The coaches were national celebrities: Ara Parseghian for the Irish, and Duffy Daugherty, a man, ironically, of pure Irish descent, who was the Spartans coach and white-haired, red-cheeked quipster.

The teams had stars galore, as the All-America parade (eight Irish, six Spartans) and NFL draft confirmed (eight for each school, with the Spartans donating four of the first eight picks).

Michigan State featured fearsome Bubba Smith, a quarterback-chomping defensive end who five months later would become the NFL’s No. 1 overall pick. George Webster, another college football Hall of Famer who might have been Michigan State’s best overall player, was at roverback (hybrid linebacker/safety) and regularly destroyed ball carriers. On offense, Gene Washington was a gifted, Sequoia-like receiver and track star, who pocketed plenty of Raye’s passes. Clint Jones was another All-American and Spartans trackster in Michigan State’s backfield.

Notre Dame likewise was loaded.

Hanratty, of course, was Notre Dame’s ace at quarterback and marksman who threw to Jim Seymour, a “split end,” which was the manner in which wide receivers then were classified. Nick Eddy and Rocky Bleier headed Parseghian’s billboard running game when T-formation “halfbacks” and fullbacks were the rage and tailbacks were a few years from becoming the norm. Alan Page (end) and Jim Lynch (linebacker) were the headliners on defense.

It was overcast and barely 30 degrees that Saturday morning as 80,011 rolled into and bulged Spartan Stadium, which had a capacity of 76,000 but had been rigged with extra seats in every square inch of semi-inhabitable space. Tickets that might as well have been gold bars for this game carried a typical 1966 college football game-day price: a whopping $6. The weather had been so lousy a day earlier an inch of snow had fallen. November’s cold snap, not unusual for Michigan, was about to affect the game, dramatically.

Eddy was a prize-winning halfback and was set to handle the brunt of Parseghian’s play-calls. But in an era when rail travel was still vogue, and in what was to become the last train ride the Irish ever took to football away games, Eddy descended the train’s steep, metal stairs and didn’t make it past a slick step. He tumbled hard against his shoulder.

The final score shows on the scoreboard in East Lansing at the end of the 1966 classic. The official attendance was announced at 80,011 (111 percent capacity) and was the most attended game in Michigan State football history at the time (the current record is 80,401 on Sept. 22, 1990 against Notre Dame).

Gone from the Game of the Century was Notre Dame’s best back.

Saturday’s kickoff was 1 p.m., with ABC’s broadcast team a tandem of Chris Schenkel on play-by-play and Bud Wilkinson, the great Oklahoma coach of yesteryear, as low-key analyst. The audience was immense: 33 million, one-sixth of the U.S. population in 1966.

It was 33 degrees, a light breeze from the east, when Notre Dame won the coin toss and received.

Each team traded quick possessions and punts ahead of Notre Dame’s second crack.

On second-and-9 from Notre Dame’s 35, a play came from Parseghian on the sideline to Hanratty in the huddle.

Quarterback draw. Hanratty was surprised. The Irish hadn’t run a quarterback draw in at least a couple of weeks.

But he dropped back, let defenders bite on what appeared to be a pass, then shot forward, eventually rolling right as the Spartans closed down the middle.

“A sea of green,” Hanratty remembers 50 years later.

He was first hit by linebacker Charlie Thornhill, whose nickname “Mad Dog” said everything about Thornhill’s style.

“Then, all of a sudden,” Hanratty recalled, “out of the corner of my eye, here comes Bubba.”

Smith hammered him for a 3-yard loss.

Hanratty remembers having a “little weird feeling” in his right throwing shoulder as he set up on third-and-12. This was going to be a pass play, with Bleier the target until a throw that didn’t have its usual zing was busted up by Spartans defensive back Jesse Phillips.

“So I go to the sideline,” Hanratty explained, “and Ara says to me: ‘What in the hell did you run that draw for?’

“And I said because it was called. And Ara says: No, it was supposed to have been a halfback draw.”

Too late. Hanratty was on his way to the locker room. Separated shoulder. His season had ended, and the Irish were now being steered by one of the most aptly named players of all time, a quarterbacking leprechaun named Coley O’Brien.

Irish let score stand

The Spartans, though, were in control.

Raye two series later hit Gene Washington on first down from Michigan State’s 27 for 42 yards. On the same drive, four plays into the second quarter, Regis Cavender burrowed in from the 4 and the century’s supposed masterpiece no longer was scoreless.

State made it 10-0, 5 minutes 47 seconds before halftime, when Dick Kenney, a Hawaiian who booted footballs barefooted, slammed a 47-yarder. Fabulous stuff, it seemed, for the folks in East Lansing, until, barely a minute later, O’Brien hit Bob Gladieux at the goal line for 34 yards and a touchdown.

Jimmy Raye runs the ball in the 1966 MSU vs. Notre Dame game.

It was 10-7, and, apart from Joe Azzaro’s 28-yard field goal opening the fourth quarter, a game was all but history — history that is yet being debated, all because of another arcane reality particular to 1966.

No overtime.

Thirty years before college games would be settled with extra possessions, four-quarter scores were final.

What made this different was that Notre Dame wanted it that way. At least as the clock spun down and the Irish, after Michigan State punted with a bit more than a minute to play, decided from its own 30 to run on five of the game’s final six plays.

Parseghian had decided on a percentage call based upon facts at hand:

■He was not, with any degree of probability, going to push deep enough against State’s defense to give Azzaro a shot. The Irish, in fact, tried a pass play from their own 41 that ended with Smith sacking O’Brien at the 34. It was the game’s next-to-last play engineered by a quarterback, O’Brien, who a week earlier had been diagnosed with diabetes and whose blood-sugar fluctuations that day were being treated by injections of orange juice and candy bars.

■Notre Dame already sat as the No. 1 team in the nation in the dominant AP poll. All the Irish had to do was beat USC a week later and the Irish would have their national championship.

■The Irish had come from a 10-0 hole, minus two key players as well as center George Goeddeke (out early in the game with a twisted ankle) to tie the Spartans, on the road. Parseghian wasn’t playing hero games when he could all but hug his national championship.

Parseghian’s strategy wasn’t terribly popular outside of South Bend. And it absolutely found no sympathy among the Green and White camp.

But a half-century later, Raye, who that day desperately wanted one more shot at the ball, understands because of his decades as a coach the relative necessity for Parseghian’s call.

“My instinct as a player tells me he should have been a little more aggressive, but you have to remember — and I didn’t even know this at the time — he had another game to play,” Raye said.

“And so here he is, playing without his All-American quarterback, and without Eddy, and to get out of this thing with a tie, with all the injuries and knowing he had a game the next week against Southern Cal (Notre Dame won 51-0), I think what he did made sense.

“He was playing short-handed and they couldn’t budge Bubba or George, and the possibility of something catastrophic happening was there. He held out. And he got another week to finish things.”

Extraordinary and eternal

Raye carries few second-guesses, in any respect, about a game so epic. Networks replayed no games in 1966 and video recorders were nonexistent. It wasn’t until 20 years later that Raye saw The Game. It came courtesy of ex-Notre Dame quarterback Joe Theismann, who was working as an analyst for ABC and ESPN in his post-NFL career, and who forwarded him game tape from a 20th anniversary feature.

“What stuck in my mind was the interception I threw on an inside breaking route (late in fourth quarter, at Michigan State’s 48, which led to Azzaro’s tying field goal) to Al Brenner. Tom Schoen, their All-American safety, got it, and I believe had I not turned the ball over we probably would have gone in to score.

“Another time (second quarter) we were down there, had a false start on our right tackle (Jerry West), and that backed us up and we had to kick the field goal.

“And I know I had a chance on one run to break a big one, and Jim Lynch got a hand around my waist and kind of derailed it. That was a run I thought we could have taken deep into their territory.”

But, it’s with a knowing sense of irony, amusement, and maybe even gratitude, Raye and Hanratty agree on something rather amazing for what time and perspective have delivered.

They understand The Game of the Century remains extraordinary and somewhat eternal, all because of that 10-10 score.

“I think we’re all fortunate the game ended in a tie,” Hanratty said, “because here we are 50 years later and we’re still talking about that game.

Amen, says Raye.

“One of the things that remains important about it, is that it can’t happen again,” said Raye, who lives in Pinehurst, N.C., 20 miles from his hometown of Fayetteville.

“If one of us had won, they (nationally) would have all but forgotten about it five years later. “Now, with the overtime rules, there are no more tie games. So, it was unique in that respect, as well. The tie added some flavor to the finality of it.”

And, perhaps, to moments 50 years later when those who played that day are permitted to feel again the tingle of a sports day so historic.

“Yeah,” Hanratty said, with a laugh. “It’s kept us old guys’ names in the paper.”