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
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[degree] 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
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
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY BART FORBES College football fans were fit to be tied after Parseghian's Irish opted not to go for the win.