50 years later, a debate about who's No. 1 still lingers

Nearly a half-century later, former Notre Dame?coach Ara Parseghian still believes he made the right decision at the end of what would become the most famous tie in college football history.

Even today, Parseghian, 93, doesn't understand why so many people have questioned his strategy in the final minutes of Notre Dame's 10-10 tie against Michigan State?on Nov. 19, 1966.

"The game ended in a tie," Parseghian said. "We didn't play for a tie."

Nearly 50 years ago, No. 1 Notre Dame played No. 2 Michigan State at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Michigan, in what was being called -- yes, even back then -- the "Game of the Century." It was the first time in the 30-year history of the AP poll that the No. 1 team played the No. 2 team. Their collective rosters included 25 All-Americans, 10 NFL first-round draft picks and 31 future pros.

Back in an era when the Associated Press and United Press International released their final polls before teams played in postseason bowl games, the 1966 "Game of the Century" was supposed to decide the national championship.

"If you look at the talent on those two rosters, I don't know that it will be ever be duplicated," Notre Dame quarterback Terry Hanratty said. "It was amazing. In that era, those were the two greatest teams to play each other."

That's what made the controversial ending so anticlimactic. In the end, the "Game of the Century" didn't settle much of anything. After 60 minutes of high drama, the Fighting Irish and Spartans -- and everyone else in America -- were left arguing about which team was No. 1. It's a debate that still lingers today.

"It was probably better for us to have tied that game, because no one has forgotten about it," Hanratty said. "We're still talking about that game. It was 50 years ago."

On Saturday night, No. 12 Michigan State and No. 18 Notre Dame renew their rivalry after a three-year hiatus. Near the 50th anniversary of their most famous tie, some of the men who coached and played in the game still remember vivid details of one of the greatest sporting events in American history.

Under Parseghian, the Fighting Irish were 8-0 and absolutely dominant. Led by All-Americans Alan Page, Jim Lynch and Pete Duranko, Notre Dame shut out five of its previous six opponents before playing Michigan State; the opponent that did score, Navy, had managed one touchdown in a 31-7 loss. The Irish were just as potent on offense behind the high-flying sophomore duo of Hanratty and end Jim Seymour, outscoring their first eight foes by a combined score of 301-28.

The Spartans were the defending UPI national champions and had embarrassed Notre Dame in a 12-3 victory in 1965, holding the Irish to minus-12 rushing yards, 24 passing yards and three first downs, the worst offensive performance in school history. With All-America defensive end Bubba Smith, linebacker Charles Thornhill and defensive back George Webster, the Spartans were equally as menacing in 1966.

Amid the Civil Rights Era, Notre Dame and Michigan State couldn't have looked more different. The Fighting Irish were almost lily-white; Page was the only African-American player on the team. But Michigan State's Duffy Daugherty was among the first Big Ten coaches to integrate his football team. The 1966 Spartans had eight black players starting on defense, a black starting quarterback and two black team captains. In all, their roster included 17 African-American players, including 10 from the South, where colleges still didn't accept them.

"All the Southern players, we were outcasts from our own states," former Michigan State wide receiver Gene Washington, a native of La Porte, Texas, told ESPN in 2015. "All of the states where we were from, they would not take black athletes. We bonded at Michigan State because we all had similar stories. We could make a contribution. That was very important to us. We didn't talk about that all the time, but we knew we had something to prove, and this is our opportunity.

"We wanted to be the best in the country."

The build-up to the 1966 Michigan State-Notre Dame game was unprecedented. Under NCAA rules at the time, college football teams were allowed to appear on TV only three times every two years and only once on a national broadcast (the rules were in place, in part, to keep the Fighting Irish from appearing on TV every week). Because Notre Dame's 1966 opener against Purdue had been broadcast nationally, the Michigan State game could be shown only on regional TV. Instead, ABC planned to show the Tennessee-Kentucky game to a national audience.

Late ESPN analyst Beano Cook, who was ABC's publicity director for college football at the time, became a target of much fan outrage.

"They put my name in a newspaper in Portland last week as the person to complain to," Cook told the AP in 1966. "I received 350 letters, some telegrams and 10 long-distance phone calls -- some collect -- in three days, all pleading for a change."

According to the Los Angeles Times, an inmate in a Texas jail wrote to ABC vice president Roone Arledge, telling him: "If I weren't here, I'd travel to see the game on television, but I won't be out by Nov. 19."

A Florida man even sued the Federal Communications Commission for "depriving Southern citizens of top grade college football."

In the end, ABC relented and blacked out the Michigan State-Notre Dame game in two states, so it could technically be called a regional broadcast. It would also be the first time a college football game was broadcast to Hawaii and to U.S. troops in Vietnam.

"We knew it was a big game, but back then there wasn't ESPN, Facebook, email or all of the other media they use to hype things up nowadays," Hanratty said. "It was a big game, but it wasn't even supposed to be a nationally televised game. They blacked out North Dakota and South Dakota. All of the Notre Dame crazies in those two states had to scramble somewhere else to watch the game."

Tickets to the game were being scalped for as much as $500 apiece. Former Michigan State defensive end Phil Hoag remembers being given four tickets for family and friends to attend. He needed only one ticket for his mother, so he sold the others to a pair of Sports Illustrated reporters after practice.

"Somehow, I ended up on the cover of Sports Illustrated a couple of weeks later," Hoag said. "There was even a photograph of me inside."

During the week before the game, Michigan State's students staged a massive bonfire on campus, burning issues of Sports Illustrated with Hanratty on the cover. Smith, who died in August 2011, recalled before his death that MSU students gathered outside his dorm room and chanted his name. Earlier in the week, Notre Dame students had hung him in effigy; a dummy wearing his green No. 95 jersey was dropped from the gym roof and shredded to pieces during a pep rally.

"I was living on the first floor of Wonders Hall, our dorm back then, just trying to relax when I heard this noise," Smith told the Los Angeles Times in 1986. "I went to the window, pulled up the shades, and there were a couple thousand students all camped outside. When they saw me, they all began to chant, 'Kill, Bubba, kill! Kill, Bubba, kill!'

"George Webster was my roommate then, and I just said: 'George, there's some serious energy going down here. I've got to take a long walk to think about things.'"

Smith didn't get the same affection from local police, though. The day before the game, he was pulled over while driving his Cadillac, which was affectionately known on campus as the "Bubba Mobile." He was arrested for outstanding parking tickets and released later that day.

"It was a grandstand play by the police," Smith told the Los Angeles Times. "Those tickets had been around for a while, and they could've waited another day or two. When they pulled me over, I was saying to [Spartans quarterback] Jimmy [Raye], 'Man, there ain't no way they're going to arrest Bubba Smith.'

"I was laughing right up until they put the handcuffs on."

On the morning before the game, Notre Dame's players and coaches boarded the Grand Trunk Railroad to make the 150-mile trek to Michigan State. Along the way, Fighting Irish fans cheered from train stations, waving placards and pompoms. When the train arrived in East Lansing, a couple of inches of snow covered the platform. Star halfback Nick Eddy slipped while exiting one of the train cars and slammed his injured shoulder into a steel handrail. He wasn't able to play in the game.

It would only get worse for the Fighting Irish. On Notre Dame's second possession of the game, a running back delivered a play from the sideline to the huddle: quarterback draw. Hanratty was surprised by the play selection, but ran it anyway. He took the snap and tried to run around the edge, but Thornhill stopped him and Smith slammed him to the ground. Hanratty separated his right shoulder. Two plays later, the Irish lost starting center George Goeddeke to a sprained ankle.

"When I got to the sideline, Ara said, 'Why in the hell did you run the quarterback draw?'" Hanratty said. "I told him, 'Because you called it!' He said he'd called a running back draw."

Without Hanratty, the Fighting Irish fell behind 10-0 in the second quarter. Spartans fullback Regis Cavender scored on a 4-yard run to make it 7-0, and then Dick Kenney, a barefoot kicker from Hawaii, made a 47-yard field goal for a 10-0 lead.

Somehow, even without three offensive starters, the Irish weren't done. Backup quarterback Coley O'Brien, who had been diagnosed with diabetes the week before, rallied his team late in the second quarter. He threw a 34-yard touchdown pass to Bob Gladieux to cut Michigan State's lead to 10-7, giving the Irish momentum heading into the half. In the third quarter, Notre Dame kicker Joe Azzaro made a 42-yard field goal to tie the score at 10.

For all its buildup, the "Game of the Century" was hardly a work of art by either side. The teams combined for five fumbles, four interceptions and 25 incompletions. It remained a 10-10 tie late in the fourth quarter, after Azarro missed a second field goal attempt.

After Michigan State punted, the Irish took over at their 30-yard line with about a minute and a half remaining. With the Spartans crowd booing fiercely, Notre Dame ran the ball up the middle six consecutive times. After picking up a first down at the Notre Dame 41, O'Brien dropped back to pass and was sacked for a 7-yard loss. The Spartans used their last timeout, before O'Brien sneaked for 5 yards to end the game.

The Game of the Century ended in a 10-10 tie. The next week, Notre Dame blasted No. 10 USC 51-0 on the road.

"After the game, everybody kind of just stood there and looked around," Hanratty said. "I'd never tied a game in my life, so I didn't know how to react. Nobody knew how to react. Bubba was out at midfield, screaming, 'Let's keep playing! Let's keep playing!' It was weird."

Said Hoag: "There was absolutely, positively no question that [Parseghian] didn't want anything to do with trying to move the ball in the last two minutes. He didn't want to lose the game. He wanted to tie the game. He was going to take his chances with USC."

Legendary college football writer Dan Jenkins, who covered the game for Sports Illustrated, famously wrote that Parseghian chose to "tie one for the Gipper." After the article was published two weeks later, he was swamped by dozens of letters from irate Notre Dame fans. He framed one particular letter, along with a photograph of Notre Dame students burning about 1,500 copies of the issue. The letter read: "Notre Dame 51, USC 0. Go straight to hell you lousy son of a bitch."

"I think I gave Ara credit at the time for running out the clock because he felt arrogantly sure that Notre Dame could win the polls with a tie, not just over Michigan State but also over an undefeated and untied Alabama," Jenkins told ESPN. "But I still think it was chickens---, and I stand by my position that he tied one for the Gipper."

Nearly fifty years later, Parseghian says he wouldn't do anything different in the final minute. He recalled O'Brien needing two insulin shots on the sideline, and he was worried his backup quarterback was wearing down.

"Neither Duffy Daugherty nor I expected a tie or wanted a tie," Parseghian said. "The game ended in a tie in one of the historic games. Strategically, I knew what I was doing in the game. You have to remember Duffy kicked the ball back to me. My starting quarterback, starting center, starting left tackle and all my top guys were over on the bench with me. We hadn't completed a pass in the last seven or eight attempts."

Despite the criticism, Hanratty believes his coach made the right choice.

"Ara caught a lot of crap for going for the tie," Hanratty said. "But no one ever talks about Duffy punting the ball back to us. I loved Duffy, and Michigan State was my second choice in where to go to school. Duffy was a great human being, but he also punted to us from the 50-yard line with about a minute and a half to go. He could have easily gone for it, more than we could have from our 20-yard line. If we screwed up from where we were, we would have lost the game."

In the end, Parseghian made the right calculation. In the final AP poll, the Fighting Irish received 41 of 56 first-place votes and finished No. 1, ahead of No. 2 Michigan State and No. 3 Alabama. They finished in the same order in the final UPI poll.

"I guess everybody wanted to win the game, but the bottom line is it wasn't meant to be," Azzaro said. "I can remember talking to Ara about the game at our last team reunion. I told him if I hadn't missed that second kick, and he hadn't called the end of the game the way he did, we wouldn't have been sitting there talking about it. That game is going to outlive me, and hopefully it will outlive you."