John McGrath

John McGrath: Fledgling playoffs are superior to ‘Game of Century’ letdown

Notre Dame football coach Ara Parseghian, left, shakes hands with Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty after their 10-10 tie, Nov. 19, 1966, in East Lansing, Mich.
Notre Dame football coach Ara Parseghian, left, shakes hands with Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty after their 10-10 tie, Nov. 19, 1966, in East Lansing, Mich. AP file

Fifty years ago Saturday, college football’s top-ranked team, Notre Dame, faced college football’s second-ranked team, Michigan State, in what was billed as “The Game of the Century.”

The contest ended in a 10-10 tie, giving poll voters reason to consider No. 3 Alabama, which would finish with a perfect record, as the potential national champion. But the team — and, for that matter, the university — remained segregated, essentially eliminating the Crimson Tide from the conversation.

It was a complicated time.

Those of us who grew up in the 1960s enjoy reminiscing about the wonder years, when color TV was a novelty, when pop music songs promoted joy and unity, when the curbside burning of crisp autumn leaves produced a magically uplifting scent associated with college football.

But as the 10-10 tie in “The Game of the Century” proved, college football is a quite more fan-friendly diversion in 2016 than it was in 1966. Take, for instance, the simple premise of viewership access: Only one game was televised by the ABC network on any given Saturday, and teams were allowed only one appearance, per season, on national television. Notre Dame and Michigan State had been televised previously.

Such a restrictive policy found ABC’s hands tied, unable to air the most anticipated showdown in decades. After receiving some 50,000 protest letters, the network announced a compromise. Notre Dame-Michigan State would be shown to a national audience on tape delay.

The game turned out to be a letdown that involved goofy fate. Upon arriving by train to the Michigan State campus, star Notre Dame running back Nick Eddy slipped on a patch of ice, suffering a shoulder injury that kept him on the sideline. All-America quarterback Terry Hanratty, victim of a Bubba Smith sack, spent most of the afternoon on the sideline as well.

Absent two of his best offensive players, Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian opted to run out the clock with 75 seconds remaining and the ball at the Fighting Irish 30-yard line. Parseghian’s strategy seems primitive in retrospect and, in fact, was thought to be primitive 50 years ago.

Notre Dame, as Sports Illustrated’s Dan Jenkins wrote in the Spartan Stadium press box, “tied one for the Gipper.”

It’s easy to mock Parseghian, but consider: A medium-distance, straight-footed field goal was not a high-percentage move in 1966, and executing the 35-40 yard drive required to attempt a kick was fraught with pitfalls. For one, backup quarterback Coley O’Brien — not a pinpoint passer — was a diabetic sapped of his energy. For another, the Michigan State defense, built around Smith (the first overall choice of the 1967 NFL draft) and linebacker George Webster (selected fifth) earned a reputation as invincible.

So Parseghian used caution, sensing Notre Dame could cement the national championship vote with a comprehensive beatdown of USC in the season finale. That’s what happened — Irish 51, Trojans 0 — and the rest is history reflected upon in astonishment.

Neither Notre Dame nor Michigan State advanced to a bowl in 1966. The Irish stayed home by choice — the school had a tradition of renouncing bowl games that wouldn’t be broken until the 1970 Cotton Bowl — and the Spartans were tethered to Big Ten Conference rules that prohibited its teams from participating in consecutive bowl games.

Think about this: America’s top two college football teams in 1966, both undefeated and with a score to settle, were home for the holidays.

Pressing the fast-forward button 50 years, I realize how much the game has advanced. Yes, the College Football Playoff remains a flawed work-in-progress, a teasing glimpse of all it can and eventually will be.

But a playoff format on training wheels — four teams assigned to semifinals staged as conventional bowls, with the winners clashing for the national championship — is preferable to the empty postscript from 1966.

I am wondering how a Notre Dame-Michigan State rematch might have been settled on a neutral field. What can be more hyped than a “Game of the Century” after the first version produces a 10-10 stalemate?

A “Game of the Century II.”

Then again, if modern college rules are applied in 1966, there is no 10-10 stalemate. The teams take the issue into overtime. There is a winner and there is a loser, with Alabama vaulting past the loser in the polls.

The Crimson Tide’s refusal to recruit black athletes 50 years ago was not at the insistence of coach Bear Bryant but, rather, Alabama’s governor, George Wallace, whose kind of stubborn ideology (“I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”) encouraged Michigan State to organize a talent pipeline from the South.

The late Spartans coach Duffy Daugherty deserves praise as a multifaceted visionary. He put together a powerhouse with a majority of black starters, including quarterback Jimmy Raye.

Daugherty’s progressiveness was not limited to sociology. As the Spartans were barred from a bowl and forced to contemplate the what-could-have-beens, he offered advice on how to improve college football’s determination of a national champion.

An eight-team playoff.

Fifty years later, we’re halfway there.

John McGrath: @TNTMcGrath