There are moments in history, flecks of insanity you wish Twitter had been around to narrate, if only to watch Twitter burn. The Siege of the Alamo. The Van Halen reunion tour of 2004. No. 2 Michigan State 10, No. 1 Notre Dame 10, the “Game of the Century” that unraveled on Nov. 19, 1966.
The day nobody won.
Context: Imagine Alabama, No. 1, visiting Florida State, No. 2. Imagine them sharing the stage, locked in the game that decides the national championship. Imagine it’s a tie in Tallahassee with 1:24 left, and on fourth down from their own 36, the Seminoles elect to punt it away.
Now imagine ties — yes, un-American, sister-kissing, honest-to-goodness deadlocks — are a real, viable option. And imagine that Nick Saban then spends the final 75 seconds of the contest plunging the ball up the gut, bleeding the clock dry, answering nothing, content to leave it up to the scribes.
Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever leave it up to the scribes.
Is there an emoji for that kind of rage? That much unbridled ennui?
“I usually get at least five little notes a month, or something (asking) for autographs and talking about the game, a week before we play (them) or the month that we play,” former Spartans great Gene Washington said of his final collegiate contest, now five decades old.
“I’d say I get five to 10 notes each month about that game. And then, of course, we have our alums, and Notre Dame has its alums. But it clearly comes up. And, of course, I’m talking to you. I spoke to somebody last night. I usually get four or five reporters who call me the week before the game. I always get some calls. It just lives on.”
The moment is 50. The coach of the top-ranked and unbeaten Irish that day, Ara Parseghian, turned 93 this past May. Which means he’s had to live with those final 75 seconds — all the second-guessers, all those letters, all that reproach — for more than half his existence now.
“Tie one for the Gipper,” the incomparable Dan Jenkins wrote in Sports Illustrated after the game, a line that would follow both men, like the train of a wedding dress, through to the winter of their days.
Meanwhile, the Spartans and Irish resume old pleasantries Saturday in South Bend, the first meeting between the two rivals since 2013. Unlike five decades earlier, it isn’t the biggest game of the season, let alone the biggest game of the weekend, having been knocked off the top of the bill by a rare Ohio State visit to Oklahoma.
And yet even Buckeyes-Sooners 2016, Old Money vs. Old Money, Gary LeVox vs. Toby Keith, demurs in the shadow of the Game of the Century, the mystique of Duffy and Ara. It had stars. It had box office. It had hype. It had a national audience. It had immediacy. It had slow-motion replays and special, innovative cameras. It had perspective. It had debate.
Basically, it had a slice of ESPN before ESPN, along with all kinds of crazy signposts as to where college football was going. It had everything.
Everything, that is, except a resolution.
“You had black and white and brown and people of color and people who shared this thing,” said Bob Apisa, the Spartans’ All-America fullback in ’66. “We didn’t know each other. We didn’t know what to expect of each other. But we knew that we were there for a purpose and immediately bonded. To this day, we’re lifelong brothers.”
Brothers. Legends. The Spartans were 19-1-1 from 1965 through ’66 and went through the Big Ten the way Godzilla preferred to go through Tokyo, a narrative worth retelling. So much so, in fact, that one documentary on that particular epoch of Michigan State football debuted earlier this summer at the Traverse City (Mich.) Film Festival — “Men of Sparta,” produced by Apisa and his wife Arlena — and another, the work of Gene Washington’s daughter, Maya, is in the post-production phase. “Through the Banks of the Red Cedar,” in which the younger Washington explores the relationship with her father while revisiting his salad days in East Lansing, is slated for a 2017 release.
And if you don’t believe us as to why 10-10 still matters, fine. Believe them.
I. OLD NOTRE DAME WILL
WIN TIE OVER ALL
The Irish opened at No. 6 in the preseason AP Poll. The Spartans were second, having stormed through the Big Ten in 1965 only to watch the emergency brake pulled on a 10-0 campaign with a 14-12 upset at the hands of UCLA in the Rose Bowl — an upset that ended with Apisa stopped only a few feet from the goal line as time expired.
The Spartans set about taking their frustrations out on the 1966 dance card, even though — thanks to a lovely conference anachronism dubbed the “no-repeat rule” — they knew full well they couldn’t return to Pasadena for a second straight season. The Big Ten didn’t allow multiple schools to bowl until 1975, and Notre Dame had frowned on bowling, period, from 1925-1968. A no-frills, no-style-points 11-8 Spartans victory at Ohio State on Oct. 15 had been perceived as enough of a blight to allow the Irish a chance to leapfrog Michigan State in the polls.
A month later, 9-0 (Green) hosted 8-0 (Gold), although both sides walked in with a collective limp. Apisa was slowed by a knee injury, while the Irish’s star back, Nick Eddy, had slipped and reinjured himself getting off the train to East Lansing. Notre Dame then lost starting quarterback Terry Hanratty in the first quarter with a shoulder injury after he was tackled by Bubba Smith.
With 1:24 to go in the stalemate, Spartans coach Duffy Daugherty punted. In the final 75 seconds, with the ball at his 30-yard-line, Parseghian ran out the clock instead of pushing the ball downfield.
Hindsight has forgiven the Irish a little, given that they were juggling a backup at quarterback, fullback and center (starter George Goeddeke also bit the dust in the first half) and a kicker who had missed a 41-yarder earlier that afternoon. They also had reverential pollsters in their corner; and, most importantly, given the political context, a game left to play. Sparty didn’t.
Gene Washington: We were quite surprised. But putting it in perspective … they had another game. They beat USC. Crushed them. But we were done. Every time Notre Dame played, it was televised. They scored 51 points. Most of the people were (going) to vote for them. So running out the clock the way they did, that was kind of wise on their part. I was kind of surprised they did that. They were playing it smart. They wanted to get out of Spartan Stadium with at least a tie.
As the seconds vanished, Smith, the Spartans’ mountain of a defensive end, cursed at the sky. At Ara. At everything. He knew a national championship was about to get taken out of the players’ hands, and that Parseghian knew exactly how the rest of the script was going to play out:
Apisa: Bubba tried to call timeout and he screamed at Ara, “Run the play, run the effing play.” They were sitting on the ball. We didn’t tie them. They tied us. We were ready for those guys but they sat on the ball on their 40-yard line. All they needed was another 30 yards and they could have made the field goal. Bubba and the defense were livid.
But as a pollster gambit, it paid off. The Irish went to Los Angeles the next week and stomped USC, 51-0, a rout that solidified them as No. 1 in both the AP (writers) and UPI (coaches) polls. The last word.
Apisa: And from that day forward, they did away with the no-repeat rule and Notre Dame came aboard with a postseason appearance (three) years later, so there you go.
Notre Dame lifted its ban on postseason invites in 1969. The Big Ten’s no-repeat rule was rescinded after 1971.
Apisa: So now you’ve got two national champions sitting at home, and the four major bowls — the Rose, the Cotton, the Sugar and the Orange — all those second-tier teams are going in there. There was such a public clamor: Why can’t you have a playoff between these two, or put them in a bowl game? And so that was not to be.
Unfulfilled, the brains behind the MacArthur Bowl, a traveling trophy presented to the national champ by the National Football Foundation, eventually elected to split the difference and roll, for the first time, with joint custody. Notre Dame was allowed to keep the prize for six months; Michigan State the other six.
II. DUFFY DAUGHERTY WAS WAY, WAY AHEAD OF HIS TIME
And compromise is cute, until it borders on the absurd. From the Milwaukee Journal, Nov. 1, 1966:
Duffy Daugherty, Michigan State football coach, proposed Monday that postseason bowl games be abolished, and immediately found a champion in Walter Byers, executive secretary of the National Collegiate Athletic association.
Daugherty, beaten in the Rose Bowl in January and ineligible to go next January, said an eight team NCAA play-off, similar to the basketball tournaments, would better determine a true national champion.
Byers, when advised of Daugherty’s proposal, said in Kansas City, “I don’t see any reason why college football cannot follow the same national collegiate play-off pattern as all other intercollegiate sports enjoy.”
Under Daugherty’s proposal, two leading independents would join champions of the Big Ten, Big Eight, Southwest, Southeastern, Pacific and Atlantic Coast conferences in the play-offs.
“The television revenue from an NCAA play-off would be tremendous,” Daugherty said. “I would cut in all 120 NCAA member schools on the television receipts and let each school do with the money what it wants. It would bring each school in the NCAA at least $20,000.” …
Daugherty’s plan apparently goes back, at least partially, to last season, when the Spartans were ranked first in major news service polls most of the season but then lost the mythical national championship in one of them.
“I felt we deserved the national championship last year,” he said. “But one poll (the Associated Press) waited until after we lost the Rose Bowl, played not in 1965 but in 1966, to tell us we weren’t national champions.”
Michigan State lost to UCLA in the Rose Bowl, 14-12, and Alabama then was named the top team in the nation by AP voters.
Daugherty also said that a play-off would eliminate faculty complaints about over-emphasis.
“They (faculty members) are right. If there are a dozen bowl games, 24 teams have to extend their seasons upwards of six weeks,” Daugherty said.
He said his plan would mean an extension of no more than four weeks for any one team.
Byers, however, was careful not to stir up promoters of the various bowl games.
“It would be critical that the very legitimate interests of the traditional friends (of) intercollegiate football, who through the years have conducted the various bowl games, would be adequately protected.”
Daugherty’s proposal made it in to an NCAA committee discussion.
It never made it back out again.
Apisa: The problem with that, at that time, was that the chancellors of the various schools were not in favor of that, because it cut into the academic portion of the school year. They said they didn’t want to elongate the season, not knowing how many billions of dollars that (might have been) in their pocket for them to make. They thought of it from the academic standpoint and not the financial standpoint. So that’s how the idea was brought forth, and Duffy did mention it, the finances of it, trying to initiate a playoff. Lo and behold, it dates back to that time.
From a political standpoint, from the economic standpoint — I mean, there were a lot of hits and misses, but something had to be initiated. Something had to be suggested. Something had to be played for the very first time in order to gain some traction, and here we are.
III. THE MELTING POT
As much as Daugherty was hailed as an innovator, the Spartans coach was even more impressive as an integrator. In 1966, as the Civil Rights Movement opened doors and redrew old boundaries, more than half of Daugherty’s starters — 12 of 22 — were African American, including quarterback Jimmy Raye.
Maya Washington: I think the significance of Jimmy Raye being integral in that game, it’s important — not to make that obvious connection to Colin Kaepernick, (but) everybody has an opinion about that. We’re still having a conversation about a black quarterback, 50 years later. According to Duffy’s daughter and Duffy’s son, there were folks who were friends of Duffy’s who gave him a hard time. They said, “The day you’re starting a black quarterback is the day we’re no longer friends.”
And he said, “Well, I guess we’re no longer friends.”
The mostly white Spartans would elect two black men, George Webster and Clinton Jones, as team captains. The Spartans featured nearly two dozen African Americans on their 1966 roster.
Notre Dame had one — defensive end Alan Page.
Apisa: With Alan Page, you can imagine how that feels. And you stand there on the sidelines and you look across the field and you see a multitude of ethnicities and a multitude of guys you can identify with, ethnically. And you look down at your team and there’s nobody else … that was something to behold in his eyes, I think.
There’s a lot of significance there. What I heard from Clinton Jones, my ex-(backfield) mate, and Clint was a teammate of Alan Page with the Minnesota Vikings, along with Gene Washington. And I’m not making this up, I just heard it from him, and he said that Alan Page had a problem with Notre Dame for the longest time, never went back to visit that campus. He had problems with that. And the reason why it came to the forefront was, a couple nights before they came up to play in East Lansing, to play in that 10-10 (game), they had a pep rally and they hung Bubba in effigy and burned him.
Michigan State president John Hannah had been appointed by Dwight Eisenhower as the first chairman of the United States Commission on Civil Rights in 1957. It was a position Hannah would retain through another 12 years and three more presidential administrations.
Apisa: We were insulated, but we weren’t isolated. We understood the social issues that were around East Lansing, around campus life.
Gene Washington: We were a family. We were from all different parts of the country. We all attended classes together. We prepared for football games together. And we supported each other. Just a family situation, a family atmosphere. And that’s what it should be all about. We didn’t have the social media in terms of knowing instantly what was going on down south.
Texas Western’s men’s basketball championship win over all-white Kentucky in March of ’66 was still fresh in the public consciousness, another lesson of Jim Crow’s folly. If the Irish roster was a mirror to the past, the Spartans — Apisa was a Samoan who hailed from Hawaii; Washington, a speedster from segregated La Porte, Texas — were a window to the future.
Daugherty was miles ahead of his peers on the color-blind curve, given the age, under an administration that was comparatively progressive. With a gift for gab and a quick, self-depreciating wit, Daugherty was also well-liked by his coaching brethren, largely because he usually left them in stitches:
— Diet Health Fitness (@FitnessForHer) June 22, 2015
— jhon ramayan (@JhonRamayan) Sept. 10, 2016
“When you’re playing for the national championship, it’s not a matter of life or death. It’s more important than that” -Duffy Daugherty #vbq
— volleyball_quotes (@Vball_Quotes) Feb. 7, 2012
College football in the mid-‘60s was a different beast: Ties, no overtime and racial unrest. Recruiting was different, too — Daugherty’s friends at Southern schools would sometimes steer a gifted black prospect that they couldn’t pursue toward the Spartans. Raye, a native of Fayetteville, N.C., was recommended to Daugherty by then-North Carolina State coach Earle Edwards, a former Michigan State assistant. Bear Bryant — whose 11-0 Tide in ’66 were mired at No. 3 — had helped to bridge fullback Charlie “Mad Dog” Thornhill of Roanoke, Va., to the Spartans’ staff.
Maya Washington: Bubba Smith has got to be the biggest reason why my dad got to Michigan State. Bubba’s dad was a coach in Beaumont, Texas, trying to get as many kids as he could scholarships. He had developed relationships. Duffy would have coaching clinics just for black coaches in the South. Sometimes, he would send coaches down south. He said everybody who could take him wanted Bubba Smith. They lived 80 miles away from Dad’s small town, but because of segregation, they were in the same black league. My dad was actually taken on a track scholarship and not a football scholarship. On the strength of Bubba Smith’s recommendation, they took my dad. They said, “If Bubba said he’s good, he must be.”
Gene Washington: The black coaches trusted Duffy. And they became great friends. And a lot of black coaches would recommend players to Duffy, and in some cases, so did Bear Bryant. They were all good friends of Duffy’s, and they wanted to recruit black athletes but the state laws said they couldn’t do that. So they also recommended players (to Duffy).
Before venturing into one campus building for the first time, Raye instinctively sought out a back or side door because he thought he wouldn’t be allowed to walk in through the front.
Apisa: Jimmy, when he took his first airplane ride to Michigan State as a freshman, his mom gave him five dollars — that’s all she could give him. So on the plane ride, the stewardess would go up and down the aisles, he would say, ‘no thank you, no thank you,’ because he didn’t know it was complimentary. He’d never been to a hotel, never sat in a restaurant. Come on. And Bubba Smith’s coming from Beaumont, Texas, and George Webster’s coming from Anderson, S.C. These guys had never seen the things that we have today.
Regardless of where you came from, regardless of the pigmentation of your skin, that’s the one thing about Duffy: He didn’t see color. He saw talent.
Gene Washington: I love Duffy. If it wouldn’t have been for Duffy, I wouldn’t be talking to you right now.
IV. LIVE AND IN COLOR
Media demand was unprecedented: Michigan State reportedly received 600 requests for press credentials, and ABC agreed to broadcast the game live in some regions and on tape delay in the South and the Northwest. Before that, networks aired just one game per weekend.
Spartans vs. Irish was the first major college football game shown in color, and ABC shipped in a special zoom lens from England specifically for the contest.
Gene Washington: Back at that time, we did not have a lot of national television exposure. My whole career at Michigan State, we didn’t have a lot of television coverage. The only team that was really on TV every week was Notre Dame. They already had their TV contract, and anybody who knows anything about Notre Dame, they know they were on TV all the time. But we were very jealous about that.
Apisa: I remember we had press from all over the world. We had people on the field. And for the first time, we had chairs sitting around the rim of the field because there was a sold-out crowd. We had 76,000-77,000 people; the stadium could not accommodate any more.
The Game of the Century was the first football game carried live in Hawaii, a trick made possible by some technological wrangling and a satellite feed bounced over from Sydney, Australia.
Apisa: Everything that was shown on syndicated TV — “I Love Lucy,” “Gunsmoke,” “Mission: Impossible,” those kind of shows, were almost always shown a week later than the mainland. Even the college game of the week was a week later. Everybody had to wait for it, because they were in the 19th century, as far as technology was concerned, communications.
Despite being shown on a delay in almost half the country, the game’s television numbers lived up to the ballyhoo, with a reported 33 million viewers and a 22.5 Nielsen rating — the largest ever for a college football contest at that time.
V. LIKE AN NFL COMBINE — ONLY WITH PADS
Of the 44 starters that day, 25 received some kind of All-America honor, and 33 would embark on pro careers. The Spartans accounted for four of the first eight picks in the 1967 NFL Draft, with Smith (Baltimore) and Jones (Minnesota) off the board at No. 1 and No. 2, respectively. Washington was taken No. 8 by the Vikings; Webster went at No. 5 to Houston.
The latter would play for 10 NFL seasons, primarily with the Oilers and Patriots. Smith played for nine years and found further fame a generation later as an actor, first in Miller Lite television commercials and then with the “Police Academy” movie franchise.
Webster passed away in 2007; Smith in 2011.
Maya Washington: It ends on this bittersweet note, where they didn’t lose, but they didn’t win.
Gene Washington: The bottom line is that it was a big moment in my career … but I never, in my fondest dreams, believed that this would carry on. And I’m in my mid-70s now, and people are still talking about that game. I tell people all the time, this is my old saying: “Every day is a gift. Every day that we’re here is a gift.”
And so I’m just so glad that Michigan State gave me the opportunity to be a part of that, to be a student at Michigan State, and it all started with Duffy. I’m so, so grateful and so blessed that I was able to be a part of a great tradition.
Apisa: (Former Spartans assistant) Vince Carillot, he’s a member of the Touchdown Club of Atlanta. He says he wants to get Ara to come down and be the keynote speaker. He said, “You ever hear about that game?” And Ara says, “Yeah, I hear. I get about eight or 10 letters a week.”
And he said Ara’s reply was, “If you had won that game or if we had won that game, that last game would just be another ordinary game. But now they’ll talk about it forever.”
For more information on “Men of Sparta” or to order a copy on DVD, visit www.menofsparta.com. A second screening in Traverse City is planned for 3 p.m. Oct. 9 at the Traverse City Opera House, and discussions are continuing toward an on-campus showing in East Lansing.
For more information on “Through The Banks Of The Red Cedar,” or to help allay the film’s production costs, visit www.throughthebanksoftheredcedar.com.