Friday, September 22, 2006

The Great 10-10 Tie: A Tribute

It was the game of the century. There were several other "games of the century," but this was the first and the biggest. Before there was Texas - Ohio State, before there was Southern Cal - Texas, there was an epic clash between number one and number two that still ranks as one of the greatest college football games ever played. Two score years ago, Notre Dame and Michigan State battled to a 10-10 tie in a game that mesmerized the nation. It was the first college media event and it ranks in football importance with the 1958 NFL Championship game, the contest that made a star of Johnny Unitas. In November 1966, I was in the freshman section (don't do the math) of Spartan Stadium - for one day the center of the football universe. This is my testamony.

The second ranked Spartans and the top ranked Fighting Irish rampaged through their seasons leading up to this game. There were no national college games broadcast at the time. Pete Rozell hadn't yet worked his magic to get the first national TV contract for the NFL. Monday Night Football hadn't been invented and this game was two months before Vince Lombardi and the Green Bay Packers won the first NFL-AFL Championship Game, now known as Super Bowl I. The NCAA changed its rules so that this game could be broadcast nationwide in response to insistent fan demand. The game change the NCAA's perspective on TV broadcasts. Never had a number one and number two team met in the regular season. That lesson was not lost on the grand poobahs of college football.

Most of all, there was star power. On the field that day were ten players who would be selected in the first four rounds of the 1967 NFL draft. Michigan State suited up four players, Bubba Smith, Clint Jones, George Webster and Gene Washington, who were among the first eight players selected in the first round. Some of those names, Bubba Smith in particular, were household names. Notre Dame was Notre Dame, the country's sentamental favorite because of Knute Rockne, the man and the movie. Never before or since would there be such a constellation in one place at one time for one game.

The Great Tie of 1966: Notre Dame @ Michigan State
Coley O'Brien was the star quarterback at Washington's St. John's College High School in 1965. He was recruited by for Notre Dame where he backed up Terry Hanratty of Hanratty & Seymore fame. St. John's was the main rival of my high school, Archbishop Carroll; although I believe St. John's considered Gonzaga a bigger rival. I was graduated from Carroll in 1966 and found myself a freshman at Michigan State University, vaguely aware that O'Brien was on the Fighting Irish roster. Since I saw him play in high school and where he often broke my heart with victories over Carroll, I felt a connection to him and I hated him at the same time, although I never met him.

In November 1966 the top ranked, undefeated Notre Dame traveled to East Lansing to square off with second ranked, unbeaten Michigan State. O'Brien (Hey, I know that guy!") stepped into the breech to quarterback the Fighting Irish after Bubba Smith put a monster hit on Terry Hanratty, knocking him out of the game. Hanratty was already down. Smith knocked him out. The Spartans jumped to a ten point lead, but O'Brien led the Irish back to tie it up. Thereafter, the game turned into a defensive struggle, albeit of titanic proportion. The true excitement came at the end when Fighting Irish coach Ara Parseghian, with possession of the ball and less than two minutes remaining, decided to run out the clock to preserve the 10-10 tie.

The Spartans and Irish flip-flopped the number one ranking through the season. Both were undefeated coming into this game. The winner would cement its claim for the national championship. In a move both cynical and astute, Parseghian figured a tie would freeze the ranking until Notre Dame played easier to beat Southern Cal the following week. The Irish walloped the Trojans 51-0 or some such ridiculous score, while the Spartans, the only team that could match them in talent, were idle for the rest of the season. Spartan coach Duffy Daugherty famously said "a tie is like kissing your sister."

The Notre Dame game was the season finale for the 9-0-1 Spartans. Big Ten rules at the time prevented the league champion from playing in consecutive Rose Bowls and Michigan State, top ranked in 1965, appeared in the Bowl game the previous year. They never had a chance to throttle some hapless team 56-0 to press a claim for undisputed number one.

It was Notre Dame policy at the time to eschew post season bowl games. So Parseghian was smart not to risk a loss at State and go on to victimize Southern Cal, knowing the sporting press would vote the Fighting Irish number one even if they only beat the Trojans 5-0. Rocky Blier wrote about the game in his book FIGHTING BACK with an excerpt shown here.

Although Michigan State won a share of the national title and despite the tie, casual fans recollect that the Spartans lost that game. When I went home for Christmas, a member of my church pulled me aside to talk about the game and asked "as a Catholic, aren't you secretly happy that Notre Dame won?" My intense dislike of Notre Dame athletics was born then. But, I lost more respect for them when Fighting Irish boosters seemed to drive the great Parseghian out of coaching, despite all he had done for the program. (And let's not mention that there were more Catholics on the MSU campus than on Notre Dame's.)

Dan Divine, a later Fighting Irish football coach, once said "There are two kinds of people in the world, Notre Dame lovers and Notre Dame haters. Franky, they're both a pain in the ass."

Southern Cal's rivalry with Notre Dame went up ten notches after that season when John McKay took umbrage with Parseghian running up the score on them. In 1967, the OJ Simpson-led, national champion Trojans trashed the Irish 24-7 in South Bend. OJ and the Trojans beat the snot out of the Spartans when they visited East Lansing earlier that season. Over the next nine years, McKay went 6-1-2 against the fighting Irish.

O'Brien never cemented the quarterback role for Notre Dame. When Hanratty graduated, Coach Parseghian named sophomore Joseph Theesman, later "Theisman, rhymes with Heisman," as starting quarterback.

Those 1965-66 football Spartans were the greatest to wear the green and white and the last to challenge for a national title. Today, when you connect the terms "Michigan State" to "national title," you think of Tom Izzo's basketball program.

The 1965-66 Spartan football team was so tough, that place kicker Bill Kenny routinely kicked the ball barefoot. We're talking the straight ahead kicking style here.

The 1966 season was the high point of Duffy Daugherty's career. He went 27-34-1 in the six seasons following the "game of the century." Blame the Civil Rights movement for confounding Daugherty. Major schools in the deep south excluded Black athletes, making the region a ripe recruiting ground for MSU and other northern colleges. Daugherty was especially successful in Texas, where he recruited Charles "Bubba" Smith, Clinton Jones, Gene Washington, among others. By the late sixties, southern coaches like Darryl Royal and Bear Bryant had had enough. They opened their doors to their citizen athletes of color. The sight of black men teamed with white men working toward a common goal for revered Southern institutions helped create, in a small but important way, a shift in cultural attitudes about race.

One rare thing Daugherty and MSU did in the sixties was to have Negro quarterbacks (we were all Negroes, then). Jimmie Raye, a Texas recruit, quarterbacked the Spartans from 1965 to '67. Bill Triplett, Charlie Baggett and Tony Banks also quarterbacked the Spartans in the years following. They weren't the only Big Ten school with Black quarterbacks. Tony Dungy was a star QB at the University of Minnesota in the early seventies. Both Dungy and Raye built long coaching careers in the NFL.

It's important to note that Daugherty's welcoming of Black athletes did not carry over the Michigan State as a whole. When I arrived on campus in 1966, I was one of only 400 "Negro" students out of a total population of 44,000+. The stereotypes I encountered were more benign than hostile ("no, I am not here on an athletic scholarship."). The kids from Michigan, even those from Detroit, had little or no direct exposure to black people. They seem to think we were white people with dark skins. They never quite "got" all the civil rights agitation. Even with that, I was more welcome at MSU than I would have been at the University of Maryland at the time.

The passing game was not so well developed in the college level in the sixties as shown by Michigan State's and Notre Dame's defensive formation. Spartans lined up five linemen, one linebacker, one rover back and only three defensive backs. The fighting Irish lined up in a 4-4 formation with three defensive backs. What Matt Leinart or Vince Young could have done against those formations -- if they survived the defensive rush, which is doubtful.

Notre Dame at that time had only one black player on its roster. That man, Alan Page, went on to a Hall Of Fame career with the Minnesota Vikings. Today, he is a justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court.

For the players' recollection of the game and the outcome, look here.
For another perspective from, look here.
For the official MSU retrospective, look here and here and here.
A lengthy description of the great game can be found here.
Look here for a game description with pictures. describes great plays in the Michigan State - Notre Dame series.
Oh yeah, the Spartans and Fighting Irish play a game Saturday night. For a game preview look here.
For Spartan keys to the game, look here.
For Fighting Irish keys to the game, look here.


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