From the Sun-Times archives, originally published Sept. 18, 1991. Former Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian looked back on “The Game of the Century” from 1966, which Parseghian controversially “played for a tie” to end the game.
He still hears that question. It doesn’t come up very often now, 25 years later, but people still ask Ara Parseghian about that 10-10 game against Michigan State. They ask the former Notre Dame coach why he played for a tie.
“It doesn’t bother me now,” Parseghian says at his insurance agency in South Bend, Ind. He gives them all the same answer. “You tell me what happened in those last two minutes,” he says. He knows they can’t. All they know is the folklore. “We didn’t pass,” Parseghian says, reciting it. “We went for a tie.”
Parseghian is always eager to fill in the blanks. He tells his inquisitors about the wind and the injuries and the defense. He has a dozen good reasons why it made sense to use five running plays on the six chances he had to break that 10-10 tie in the last minute and a half.
He couldn’t explain them back then, though. Nobody wanted to hear about it. In 1966, Notre Dame was the national champion with an asterisk. “Tie one for the Gipper,” the joke went. It was Parseghian’s first consensus national championship. It ended Notre Dame’s longest championship drought, 17 years. It should have been a moment for champagne, not vinegar. But even Parseghian says, “I think there was a certain luster that might have been removed.”
He was used to criticism by then. He had been criticized for victories, so that wasn’t the problem. But this was different. “This stung pretty much because there was so much on the line,” he says. At various times in the conversation, Parseghian also says it provoked, rankled and irritated him.
“It broke his heart,” says Tom Pagna, the Notre Dame radio commentator who was Parseghian’s offensive coordinator. “All his life he’s been a great competitor in everything he’s done, and there’s no way the man would ever stand still for just playing for a tie. He would not have done that. It was so unfair, and he had no recourse.”
That winter, Parseghian was speaking to a group in Houston. The question came up all the time then, and the implication behind it usually challenged Parseghian ‘s courage. It wasn’t just a tie. It was a gutless tie.
“I think I said something like, ‘If you’ve got any questions about my intestinal fortitude, come try me,’ ” Parseghian recalls. “I was in that kind of mood. But time has a way of putting everything into proper perspective.”
So it is with much eagerness and no dread that Parseghian looks forward to the 1966 team’s reunion this weekend, coinciding with Notre Dame’s home game against Michigan State. That game, on Nov. 19, 1966, matched perhaps the two best college teams ever to share a field. No. 2-ranked Michigan State had most
of its players back from its 1965 national champions. No. 1 Notre Dame, which shut out six of its 10 opponents in 1966, had 12 All-Americas and 28 future NFL draft choices on the ’66 team, six in the first round.
Those are the things history remembers. But people? What do they remember? “The controversy, of course,” says Coley O’Brien, speaking for himself.
O’Brien was Notre Dame’s quarterback that day. That’s one thing people forget. Terry Hanratty, the regular Irish quarterback, had broken his collarbone in the first quarter when future All-Pro Bubba Smith tackled him.
Center George Goeddeke was injured about the same time, leaving a 200-pound replacement to handle Smith. Notre Dame’s best halfback, Nick Eddy, missed the whole game. Two other halfbacks were hurting by the end.
“I have no qualms about whatever decisions were made at that period of time,” Parseghian says. “There were a lot of factors.” A strong wind blew in the Irish faces when they took possession on their 30. Against the wind, O’Brien had completed 1 of 7 passes for minus-2 yards. He had missed his last six tries “and not by little margins,” Parseghian says. He says the last play of the previous possession, when O’Brien overthrew 6-4 Jim Seymour on a short pass, “had a big influence on me.”
Parseghian was afraid O’Brien was fading because of his diabetes, which had been diagnosed barely three weeks earlier. That wasn’t the problem. “We were all exhausted from playing hard, tough football,” O’Brien says. “But he was not aware of what diabetes would do. Nor was I, at that point.”
Michigan State’s kicker, Dick Kenney, already had made a 47-yard field goal into the wind. “No one knew how far he could kick one downwind if we made a mistake or an interception,” Parseghian says. “I always said it was one of the great comebacks in Notre Dame history after being down 10-0. If we’d have lost the ball and they’d kicked a field goal to beat us, I’d have been the dumbest football coach in America.”
On defense, Spartans coach Duffy Daugherty not only had Smith barging up the middle on every play, he also had six defensive backs. “Ready to pick one off and planning to pick one off,” O’Brien says.
“There was absolutely no way you could get deep on them,” Seymour says. “They said, ‘Try to throw a pass. We’ll intercept it.’ They had the talent.”
So Notre Dame’s first four plays were runs. “There’s no rule that says you can’t get into field-goal position by running draws when they were expecting pass,” Parseghian says. “As a matter of fact, Duffy Daugherty said the same thing after the game. We didn’t have to throw a home run. We were trying to get into field-goal position.”
Parseghian’s fourth call of the series was hardly conservative. On fourth down and more than a yard, he didn’t punt. “A calculated gamble,” Pagna says. “We didn’t want to give up the ball.”
Then from the Irish 40, O’Brien tried a sprint-out pass. “We were trying to get the ball into somebody’s hands who might be able to run into field-goal position,” Parseghian says. But Smith sacked O’Brien. It was second-and-17. It was over. The Irish ran out the clock on the next play.
“The thought never occurred to us that we played for a tie,” Pagna says. “Time ran out, and that was it.” It wasn’t as though Parseghian called for a field goal instead of a pass play from inside the 10 with a three-point deficit. Or a single point after touchdown when two would win the game.
“That’s going for a tie,” Parseghian says. “This game already was tied.”
Nor did the Irish think a tie had salvaged the championship. “We thought it ended our chances,” O’Brien says. “There were many tears in the locker room after that game. We thought we’d lost everything we’d worked for. We were just devastated as we walked off the field, and Michigan State was, as well.”
In fact, the teams split the No. 1 ranking that next week. The writers chose Notre Dame for AP, the coaches Michigan State for UPI. The final polls would come later, after the regular season ended and before the bowl games.
Michigan State was finished at 9-0-1. Alabama would finish 10-0. Notre Dame won the undisputed championship by finishing 9-0-1 with a flourish, a 51-0 victory the next week at Southern Cal, champion of what was then called the Pac-8.
“I was surprised as the plays were sent in,” O’Brien says. “But that’s why he’s the coach. We’re out there emotionally involved in the game, trying to win at all costs and risk everything. I think when you look back, you have to wonder why Arawas criticized so heavily for a decision, deep in our own territory, that allowed us to win the national championship the next week.”
Watch the final series from the original TV broadcast: