Notre Dame-Michigan State: Memories of the 1966 "Game of the Century"

The Rock NDNation.comSenior Analyst ISeptember 19, 2008

Anyone who suggests this isn't a storied rivalry needs to review recent history, because there were a lot of good stories after Notre Dame came back to beat Michigan State in 2006.

The wheels came off Spartan land. Coach John L. "Slappy" Smith, smacked himself in the face in the post game press conference, we guess, as a jab at Weis who said he was slapped by Spartan player. He, rightly, was labeled a bit of a loon.

And of course, who can forget this magical meltdown by Mike Valenti after the same game -- click here to go nuclear.

All good fun, but the real legendary game between the two was fought in 1966.

"Notre Dame was 8–0 and beating the opposition by an average score of 38–4. Michigan State was 9–0 and winning games at a 31–10 clip. Going in, it was the “Game of the Decade.” Coming out, it was the day Notre Dame, according to Dan Jenkins of Sports Illustrated, “tied one for the Gipper.” Trailing 10–0 in a very hard-hitting and error-filled game, Notre Dame rallied to pull even early in the fourth quarter. Later, with the ball on his own 30-yard line and 1:10 left, ND Coach Ara Parseghian elected to run the clock out and settle for the tie."

And this from Rocky Bleier in Fighting Back:

"1966. We were No. 1, and life was lovely. The No. 2 team was Michigan State, and before long, the season became a pedantic countdown to our (fill in the blank with your favorite adjective... cosmic, cataclysmic, monolithic) meeting on November 19. The Spartans beat all their opponents by an average of 22 points per game. We beat ours by 34.

The week-long buildup for Michigan State... was at least equal to the game itself. Their students started things by dumping leaflets out of an airplane as it circled our campus. The leaflets were addressed to the "peace-loving villagers of Notre Dame." They asked, "Why do you struggle against us? Why do you persist in the mistaken belief that you can win, freely and openly, against us? Your leaders have lied to you. They have led you to believe you can win. They have given you false hopes."

The newspapers spent all week informing America that Bubba Smith, MSU's pick-your-adjective defensive end, was slimmed down to 283 pounds with a 14D shoe, a 19-1/2-inch collar, and a size 52-long MSU blazer. I didn't need to read it. I had seen the movies. Now here was Bubba in game films, jumping over linemen, splitting the double-team block.

The train ride to State was another experience. Their fans were standing on the platforms in Battle Creek and Kalamazoo, some even stood along the tracks, in cornfields and on dairy farms-jeering and holding sheet signs: "Bubba for Pope," "Hail Mary, full of grace, Notre Dame's in second place." None of that, however, was as bad as our arrival in East Lansing. As I disembarked, I noticed the metal steps were slippery with ice. Behind me, I heard a yelp. It was my roommate on the road, Nick Eddy. He'd slipped, missed his grab for the handrail, and reinjured his bruised shoulder. He was doubled over, crying with pain and with the instant realization that he couldn't play in the biggest game of his career. People called it "The Game of the Century" that year... which was not especially important, because somebody makes that statement about one game in nearly every college football season. What is significant is that even today, some experts are still calling it "The Game of the Century."

In the pregame warm-up, I was entranced (almost dizzy, or high!) at the sight and sound of the 76,000+ fans in Spartan Stadium. Nothing I ever experienced on a football field, before or since, has equaled it. The chants rocked and swayed at a deafening level. Try to imagine quadraphonic speakers blasting the Rolling Stones at full volume. It was like that... clearly, the edge of insanity.

The game started disastrously for us. Our center separated his shoulder and exited on the first series. Next time we had the ball, a messenger lineman mistakenly brought in a quarterback draw play. (ND Coach Ara Parseghian would never have taken that risk intentionally!) ND Quarterback Terry Hanratty ran it for four yards before MSU's George Webster pinned him and Bubba Smith pounced on top, separating Hanratty's shoulder. State's offense, meanwhile, forged a 10-0 lead.

We came back just before the half on a 34-yard TD pass from Hanratty's substitute Coley O'Brien to Bob Gladieux, Nick Eddy's substitute. At the start of the fourth quarter, we got a field goal from Joe Azzaro, and that was all the scoring. 10-10. The numbers will live forever.

There was plenty of postgame discussion about Ara's decision not to call time-out and not to pass when we had possession for the last six downs of the game. There was some discussion on the field, too. Bubba yelled, "Come on, sissies, throw the ball! I'll call time-out for you." Charlie Thornhill, their linebacker, who had an exceptional game, screamed, "You don't want it." I've always defended Ara's reasoning. We'd been stripped of our offensive weapons, we'd come back from a 10-point deficit, our defense had kept MSU outside our 45-yard line in the second half.

Then, the critics wanted us to throw long, desperate passes into a prevent defense that was specifically designed to intercept them. And consider our quarterback. Coley O'Brien is diabetic. He drank orange juice and ate candy bars on the sideline to maintain his insulin at a safe level. In this game, he was so tense that he recalls little or nothing of the action.

Ara knew he'd done a great job bringing us back. He was not about to throw it all away with frivolous play-calling in the last minute. I was our leading ball carrier, with 57 yards. I wondered if I'd fulfilled the expectations of Larry Conjar, our senior fullback and one of the offensive leaders. Before the game, he'd said to me, "Nick (Eddy) isn't going to play. The responsibility is on your shoulders. You can't let us down."

I also caught three passes for 16 yards, but I paid for those. On a catch over the middle in the third quarter, Charles Phillips, MSU's defensive back, speared me with his helmet in the kidney. After the game, I felt a rush of pain while standing at the urinal. I looked down and noticed I was passing pure blood. But at the moment, it didn't seem to matter. Conjar's arms were a mass of black and blue. Jim Lynch, our linebacker, had played with a monstrous "charley horse." Don Gmitter, the tight end, gutted it out on one good knee. And Gladieux joined the others who were done for the season.

Almost everybody was crying. The emotion of the game, the hitting and violent contact, was converted into the emotion of the locker room... the tears, the hugging, the trite phrases.

Then Ara spoke to us, "Men, I'm proud of you. God knows I've never been more proud of any group of young men in my life. Get one thing straight, though. We did not lose. We were Number One when we came, we fell behind, had some tough things happen, but you overcame them. No one could have wanted to win this one more than I. We didn't win, but, by God, we did not lose. They're crying about a tie, trying to detract from your efforts. They're trying to make it come out a win. Well, don't you believe it. Their season is over. They can't go anywhere. It's all over and we're still Number One. Time will prove everything that has happened here today. And you'll see that after the rabble-rousers have had their say, cooler minds who understand the true odds will know that Notre Dame is a team of champions."