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CITIZEN COLUMNIST: Ara Parseghian and ‘The Game of the Century’

CITIZEN COLUMNIST: Ara Parseghian and ‘The Game of the Century’

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Highly respected and unquestionably successful Notre Dame Coach Ara Parseghian died on Aug. 2. I was fortunate to arrive at Notre Dame as a freshman in 1964, the same year that Ara was hired after an eight-year stint at Northwestern, where he turned the Wildcats into a respectable program.

Ara was undefeated against Notre Dame, his Northwestern teams having beaten the Irish four consecutive years from 1959 to 1962. I guess Father Hesburgh decided: If you can’t beat him, get him to join you!

Parseghian will be remembered for many accomplishments, including two national championships, an .836 winning percentage at Notre Dame and top 10 Associated Press rankings in nine of his 11 seasons.

He also will be remembered for devastating losses to Southern California, one that cost him another national championship in his first season, a stellar campaign in which he took the Irish from a dismal 2-7 team in 1963 to an electrifying 9-1 team in 1964.

Ara Parseghiam, the coach, also will be remembered for one more significant event: “The Game of the Century” against Michigan State in 1966.

Lead-up to the game

 

Both Notre Dame and Michigan State were undefeated and ranked Nos. 1-2 in the nation, respectively, going into the Irish’s second-to-last game and the Spartans’ last game of the season. It was a Michigan State home game in East Lansing, Michigan, and tickets were being scalped for $200, if you could find one. I had gotten my ticket routinely at the beginning of the season for the face value of $6.

One industrious fan reportedly got a late ticket by writing directly to Michigan State shortly before the game, saying, “I know that the MSU-ND game has been sold out for weeks, and tickets are currently going for upwards of $200. And even though no tickets are available through normal university channels, I have a feeling that if President Johnson wanted to go to the game, you would have a ticket for him. Furthermore, I know that President Johnson is not going to the game. So, I would like to request his ticket. Thank you.” He got one.

 

The Game

The game was not played “against a blue-gray October sky,” as fabled sports writer Grantland Rice once waxed poetic about the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame. No, it was a cold, bleak late November afternoon.

The Notre Dame team took the train to East Lansing that morning, a seemingly safe mode of transportation that turned out, however, to be the first critical play of the game. That is, Nick Eddy, Notre Dame’s All-America running back, slipped on the ice getting off the train, injured his shoulder and was unavailable for the entire game.

Then Notre Dame center George Goeddeke, who looked like Mr. Clean, somehow went down with an injury in the first half. That allowed Michigan State Coach Duffy Daugherty to move his giant, two-time All-America defensive end, Bubba Smith, over center, from where he eventually crushed Notre Dame’s starting quarterback, Terry Hanratty, knocking him out of the game.

So, in what sounds like a Hollywood script, in came Coley O’Brien, Notre Dame’s backup quarterback, relatively small and a diabetic, to lead the now undermanned, undersized Fighting Irish against Bubba Smith and company. Fortunately, Notre Dame had a formidable defense of its own, so it was just a matter of which team could eke out a couple of scores.

Michigan State did that first, taking a 10-0 lead in the second quarter. The Spartans had a Hawaiian kicker named Dick Kenney, who was, I believe, the first bare-foot kicker of the time. Imagine that, kicking barefoot on a cold, November day, which he did successfully from 47 yards for a first-half field goal.

Notre Dame answered before halftime with a touchdown pass from O’Brien to Bob Gladieux, Nick Eddy’s backup, and then added a field goal of its own at the beginning of the fourth quarter to tie the game at 10-10. That is where the score remained going into the final minute of the game.

Then the unthinkable happened

The Fighting Irish had the ball deep in their own territory. Everyone was ready for: “What though the odds be, great or small, old Notre Dame will win overall.” But, instead, Ara elected to run out the clock and allow the game to end in a tie.

If it weren’t already cold and bleak enough, now a new penetrating chill came over the stadium, as the stunned crowd filed out in silence, fans at a loss to explain what they had just witnessed.

Ara’s rationale, then and later, was that Michigan State had seven defenders back, making an interception of any desperation pass very likely. The Spartans also had their kicking phenom at the ready who probably would get another chance to kick a field goal well within his range in the event of an interception. So, going crazy for a win would amount to just handing Michigan State the game and also giving away the national championship.

As it turned out, it was a wise strategic decision. Notre Dame had one more game the next week to solidify its claim to the national championship. In that game against a perennial nemesis, Southern Cal, Coley O’Brien again rose to the occasion, leading the Fighting Irish to 51 points in a shutout of the Trojans. Thereby, Notre Dame earned the 1966 national championship it so coveted and which it had preserved the week before in the 10-10 tie against Michigan State.

Aftermath

“The Game of the Century” was not talked about much after that, but, in my opinion, Parseghian spent the rest of his coaching career trying to live down his conservative play-calling that seemed so uncharacteristic of Notre Dame and inconsistent with Fighting Irish lore.

In my opinion, again, Parseghian succeeded in making the needed amends in 1973 in the Sugar Bowl against Alabama. With a minute remaining, a one-point lead, the team’s back against its own goal line and another national championship on the line, Parseghian called for a long pass on third down from his own end zone.

A safety would have lost the game. A punt on fourth down would have given Alabama time and field position to kick a field goal to win. But Parseghian wasn’t going to take the conservative route again, and his gamble paid off with a victory.

Nonetheless, the numbers 10-10 have haunted me since 1966: October 10, something costs $10.10, something measures 10 ft., 10 in. … I can never see or hear the numbers 10-10 without thinking of the infamous 10-10 tie in “The Game of the Century.”

Indeed, I was lying in bed the night after Ara died, reading the newspaper article about his illustrious career. Completing it, I dropped the paper on the floor, turned off the lamp, rolled over in the dark and took one last look at the digital clock. Not surprisingly, it was 10:10 p.m.

Dr. Tom Dorsel can be reached through his website, dorsel.com.

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