T-Shirts Hung on a rack, for sale, outside Royal Memorial Stadium before the Texas-Nebraska game last month. Words on the shirts screamed GAME OF THE CENTURY. I paused to look and then continued on, weary of hype. The offending garment was emblematic of college football as it has been played and, more important, packaged through the last third of the 20th century. Absent a true playoff that would annually produce an undisputed national champion, the sport has increasingly come to rely on the vapor of opinion polls and the volume of loud voices proclaiming the importance of this game or that one. Neither the media nor the public has handled this truth responsibly, overvaluing the most pedestrian games.
Love it or hate it, there's no question that the Big Game/Poll Bowl syndrome began on Nov. 19, 1966, in East Lansing, Mich., when the words Game of the Century were first spoken loudly enough for a nation to hear.
Notre Dame was in the third year of a renaissance under coach Ara Parseghian, feeding starved subway alumni. Sophomore quarterback Terry Hanratty had been on the cover of not just SPORTS ILLUSTRATED but also TIME. Michigan State had narrowly lost the national championship in '65 and still had one of the most talented teams in history, including defensive tackle Bubba Smith and defensive back George Webster. The Fighting Irish came in ranked No. 1, having outscored eight opponents 301-28. Michigan State was 9-0 and No. 2. Of the 44 starters in the game, 25 would receive some All-America mention and eight would be selected in the first round of the NFL draft. More than 700 journalists were on hand—unheard-of in 1966. ABC added the game to its previously written-in-stone national schedule, an unprecedented move.
On the field the teams played a game that was worthy of the anticipation not because it was artistic but because it was a violent symphony of collisions, a human Demolition Derby under dark, midafternoon skies in 33� chill. Smith knocked Hanratty out of the game with a bone-crushing tackle in the first quarter, yet Notre Dame rallied from a 10-0 deficit behind a diabetic, 173-pound backup, Coley O'Brien, and tied the game 10-10. But given a last possession on his own 30 with 1:15 to play, Parseghian sent in six straight running plays, effectively preserving the tie and giving the game a final twist that would make it far more memorable than it would have been had either team won it. At the final gun, Spartan Stadium was plunged into a deathly silence that, in the days to follow, would turn into an outcry.
The game was Parseghian's epitaph. "Old Notre Dame will tie over all," wrote Dan Jenkins, who covered the game for SI. Parseghian argued that with not only his first-string quarterback, but also his starting center and halfback injured, playing desperately for a win against a vicious defense could have easily cost his team the game. "I wasn't going to do a jackass thing like that," he said afterward, a line he has reiterated for 33 years. Parseghian also figured that since Notre Dame had a game remaining, against USC, they could still sway poll voters and win the national championship.
He was right. A week later Notre Dame crushed the No. 10 Trojans 51-0 and a few days later was awarded its first national title in 17 years. Michigan State finished No. 2 and was given championship rings by the school. (Neither team played in a bowl game.) Alabama, the only unbeaten, untied major team, was No. 3, and Tide fans remain bitter more than three decades later. College football fans were left splintered and confused as never before, and the hype and contentiousness of finding a true champion has swelled ever since. Much was left dead on the cold grass that gray day in East Lansing, not least a sport's innocence.