By Michael LeCompte
When Notre Dame and Michigan State clash on the gridiron on Saturday night it will be the latest installment in a football series that dates back to 1897. It’s a rivalry game featuring two storied football programs. Throughout the years there have been some memorable meetings between the two schools, but none have been bigger, than the 1966 edition that ended in a tie.
Fifty years later the game is considered one of the finest college football games ever and the ending is still controversial and hotly debated among two loyal fan bases.
Coming into the game Notre Dame was 8-0 and ranked #1, Michigan State was 9-0 and ranked #2. Something had to give that afternoon in East Lansing, but when the final whistle blew nothing was settled.
ABC did not have the Fighting Irish and the Spartans on their schedule that Saturday, but in the week leading up to the game some 50,000 letters-from supporters of both schools-poured into the network’s offices and led to them televising the game nationally. The game was also the first football game that was ever broadcast in Vietnam, where it was shown to American troops.
The game was a hard-fought defensive affair through all four quarters. Michigan State knocked Notre Dame starting quarterback Terry Hanratty out of the game in the first quarter and took an early 10-0 lead.
Notre Dame eventually tied the game at 10 in the second half and got the ball at it’s own 30 yard line with 1:10 to play. In an offensive series that delighted, bewildered, and has drawn speculation and conspiracy for 50 years now, Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian then ran the clock out.
Ties are wholly unsatisfying. As fans we hate them. They almost seem un-American. We need someone or some team to lose and we need clearly defined winners-it’s the American way.
The notion that Parseghian played for the tie started swirling when the game ended and hasn’t stopped since. With the tie Notre Dame went on to finish the season undefeated and capture the national title. It could be argued that the tie was essentially as good as a win for the Irish because it kept them in contention for the title, while a loss would have paved the way for Alabama to finish the season #1.
Parseghian defended his decision then and still does now. Speaking this week to the Chicago Tribune, the now 93 year old former coach says, “we didn’t go for a tie; the game ended in a tie. Christ somebody ought to wake up to that.”
While the ending of the game seems disappointing it must be put into the context of its time and of the state of football in 1966. While 1:10 seems like enough time to cover the roughly 40 yards Notre Dame needed to get into field goal range for the win, the game was different back then. Teams didn’t launch the ball downfield seemingly at will, football was still a run-first affair. Kickers also weren’t as deadly accurate from long-distance as they are today, kicking for the win was much more of a risky proposition then than it is now.
What is also overlooked when critics claim Parseghian played for the tie is that Notre Dame was down to its backup quarterback, backup running back, and second string center. Those three players are pivotal for the success of any football team’s offense. For three reserves to move a team 40-70 yards for the winning field goal or touchdown is probably impossible.
While the lack of resolution may have stung in 1966, the 10-10 tie that fall afternoon has endured, for everyone involved-players, coaches, and fans-far longer than a win in favor of either team ever would have.