- The Washington Times - Monday, November 15, 2004

With 1:24 left on the clock and the game tied 10-10, Notre Dame took over on its 30 after a Michigan State punt. Many Fighting Irish fans in the crowd of 80,011 at Spartan Stadium and in a TV audience of 33million murmured prayers. Here was one last chance for the nation’s most renowned college football program to show who really was No.1.

These partisans saw only hope. After all, the Irish had erased a 10-point deficit against a Michigan State team some were calling the best in Big Ten history, so why not finish the job? But on the Notre Dame sideline, coach Ara Parseghian — the man who had restored the Irish to football glory two years earlier after an uncharacteristically down decade — saw only potential disaster.

So with the fans begging for a “Hail Mary” pass or some other dramatic denouement, he called for four straight mundane running plays. On the final one, quarterback Coley O’Brien stumbled into the center of the defensive line as time expired — along with Parseghian’s reputation as a fiery, gambling coach.

Parseghian ultimately would lead Notre Dame to a 94-17-4 record and an .836 winning percentage from 1964 to 1974, gaining a place alongside legendary predecessors Knute Rockne and Frank Leahy in the Irish pantheon. But on this cold day of Nov.19, 1966, in East Lansing, Mich., he was assuring himself of eternal infamy as the coach who chickened out in what many still regard as “the Game of the Century” between two unbeaten megapowers.

And all these years later, the rap remains — bum or otherwise.

For five weeks, the Irish and Spartans had been Nos.1 and 2 in the Associated Press media poll and the United Press International coaches survey. Parseghian knew a loss for Notre Dame would give Michigan State, playing its last game, the national title while a tie would leave the Irish on top at season’s end, provided they defeated Southern California the following week. (In those days, Notre Dame did not play bowl games, and Michigan State was ineligible for the Rose Bowl, having gone the previous season.)

So Ara played the percentages and risked the muttering of the multitudes.

“We’d fought hard to come back and tie,” he said. “After all that, I didn’t want to risk giving it to them cheap. I wasn’t going to do a jackass thing like that.”

After the game, a writer asked Parseghian why the Irish hadn’t thrown a long pass out of bounds to make it look as if they were trying to win the game.

“Talk about phoniness!” the coach bristled. “That was one of the most beautiful games ever played, and I know everybody wanted to see a winner. But I have absolutely no regrets about the strategy we employed.”

When he reached the locker room, Parseghian was upbeat addressing his tired troops.

“Almost everybody was crying,” running back Rocky Bleier wrote years later in his autobiography. “Then Ara spoke to us: ‘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. People are crying about a tie, trying to detract from your efforts. Don’t believe it. … After rabble rousers have had their say, cooler minds will know that we’re a team of champions.”

And so they were, after a 51-0 devastation of USC in the last game made it official. Yet as wide receiver Jim Seymour put it, “It was the worst kind of depression coming off that field with a tie against Michigan State after working that hard. But there was nothing else Ara could have done under the circumstances.”

Today, with national championships determined (more or less) by the BCS system and bowl games sprouting like springtime weeds, it is difficult to imagine the furor that surrounded the Notre Dame-Michigan State game 38 years ago. Statistics tell part of the story. The Irish came in with eight straight victories by an average score of 38-4. Duffy Daugherty’s Spartans were 9-0 with an average margin of 31-10.

Both schools had known recent frustrations. Notre Dame hadn’t won a national title since 1949, losing the 1964 crown in the final minutes of its final game. Michigan State had a chance to finish on top in 1965 but was stunned by UCLA in the Rose Bowl.

The odds against Notre Dame seemed to lengthen for the 1966 showdown when star running back Nick Eddy injured a shoulder debarking from the train and had to sit out. Then superstar Michigan State defensive end Bubba Smith delivered hits that sidelined center George Goeddeke and quarterback Terry Hanratty in the first quarter. In Hanratty’s stead, Parseghian was forced to use sophomore O’Brien from St. John’s High School in the District.

Smith, later an All-Pro with the Baltimore Colts and a bit actor in movies, had the physical attributes to make any opponent blanch, if not faint. He was mammoth for his era at 283 pounds, wearing a size 14D shoe, a 19-inch collar and a size 52-long blazer. As the Irish traveled to East Lansing, irreverent Spartans fans held up taunting signs alongside the train tracks. “Bubba for Pope!” one proclaimed. Another read, “Hail Mary, Full of Grace. Notre Dame’s in second place.”

Down by 10 points following Regis Cavender’s 4-yard touchdown run and Dick Kenney’s 47-yard field goal, Notre Dame scored just before halftime when O’Brien threw a 34-yard touchdown pass to Bob Gladieux, subbing for Eddy. Then Joe Azzaro tied the game with a 28-yard field goal on the first play of the fourth quarter.

As the game wore down, O’Brien was hurting. A diabetic, he had eaten candy bars and gulped orange juice on the sideline to maintain his energy throughout. But now he was so tired that his previous seven passes before the final minutes were incomplete as strong winds howled in Notre Dame’s faces.

With five minutes left, Notre Dame caught a break when safety Tom Schoen intercepted a pass by quarterback Jimmy Raye and returned it to the Spartans’ 18. But Smith nailed running back Dave Haley for an 8-yard loss, O’Brien’s third-down pass wobbled to the ground and Azzaro missed a 42-yard field goal.

After Michigan State went three-and-out, it was time for the controversial finish — one that will pursue Ara Parseghian until his dying day. It was described most memorably, if not quite fairly, by Dan Jenkins in Sports Illustrated.

The proud Irish, Jenkins wrote, “tied one for the Gipper.”

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