To understand how the Notre Dame-Michigan State Game of the Century was unlike any other with the grand moniker, start with the collective talent that fueled the chilly afternoon on November 19, 1966.
Then move on to the controversial 10-10 tie.
The assemblage of football greats casts a long shadow, half a century after this Game of the Century. The amount of talent gathered in East Lansing, Michigan, eclipses the 2016 rosters of this season’s No. 12 Spartans and No. 18 Irish that meet Saturday in South Bend, with the 50th anniversary recognized at halftime.
Three All-Americans finished in the top eight of the Heisman Trophy voting: Notre Dame senior fullback Nick Eddy, third; Michigan State senior halfback Clinton Jones, sixth; and Notre Dame sophomore quarterback Terry Hanratty, eighth.
The Maxwell Award, which has a history of honoring more than quarterbacks and running backs, named Jim Lynch, a linebacker for the Irish, its choice as the nation’s top college player that year.
Lynch himself says the Heisman, which honored Florida quarterback Steve Spurrier, and the Maxwell Award both got it wrong.
They overlooked Michigan State senior All-American rover George Webster.
In the 1992 book about the Game of the Century, “The Biggest Game of Them All,” Lynch said “George Webster should have won the Heisman that year.”
Lynch, who went on to play 11 NFL seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, hasn’t changed his position in an interview with Today’s U.
“I’m proud of winning the Maxwell, but playing for Notre Dame probably helped with the voting,” Lynch said. “George Webster was a great player.”
The 6-foot-7, 285-pound Bubba Smith was the most famous Michigan State athlete. The chant “Kill, Bubba, kill!” still echoes throughout Spartan Stadium. Yet, Webster (6-4, 220) was regarded by Michigan State’s coaches and players as their best athlete.
Notre Dame backup quarterback Coley O’Brien recalled the Monday prior to the game watching film of the Spartans’ defense with Hanratty.
“George Webster was the guy we feared the most,” O’Brien said. “He was tall, rangy and could deliver a blow. We watched film and said, ‘Th-a-a-t’s George Webster?’ Bubba Smith was a great defensive end, but George Webster was the guy we worried about.”
As the game turned out, Webster wrapped up Hanratty running free on the second series of the game. Smith finished off the tackle, separating Hanratty’s shoulder. O’Brien came on in relief. He not only survived; he rallied Notre Dame from a 10-0 deficit to the 10-10 tie.
The Heisman and Maxwell names only scratched the surface of the overall talent.
Among the two senior classes alone, there were seven 1967 NFL Draft first-round choices and 17 picks overall. That’s nearly a starting lineup.
Michigan State’s Smith went first overall, Jones second, Webster fifth and Gene Washington eighth. No school has come close to four of the top eight. Notre Dame’s Paul Seiler was 12th, Alan Page 15th and Tom Regner 23rd.
Add in the junior and sophomore classes (freshmen were ineligible until 1972) and the total was 10 first-rounders, 42 picks overall and 33 pro players.
There is more from the college ledger, starting with 25 All-Americans. The College Football Hall of Fame has enshrined six players and both head coaches.
The players: Smith, Jones, Webster, Washington (MSU) and Notre Dame’s Page and Lynch.
The coaches: Notre Dame’s Ara Parseghian and Michigan State’s Duffy Daugherty.
Lynch got to know many of the Spartans’ Game of the Century players in the NFL. He wears a ring from Super Bowl IV when his Chiefs beat the Minnesota Vikings, which included Jones and Washington.
“I have great respect for Michigan State and their players,” Lynch said. “Bubba, George, Clinton, Gene and other guys were great players and great people.
“When I was recruited by Notre Dame, Duffy’s teams had beaten Notre Dame five straight years. Even though Notre Dame has a longer history with the University of Michigan, we considered Michigan State our rival.”
The combined talent is a dividing line, but the Game of the Century lives on in college football lore for much more.
It was a quasi-national championship game at the end of a season-long march between the Nos. 1 and 2 teams. At a time in college football history when national titles were awarded before the bowl games, this late-November showdown meant everything.
The season began with Michigan State ranked No. 1 and Notre Dame No. 7. As the Irish’s wins rolled up, Notre Dame climbed to No. 2. At mid-season, they flip-flopped. Michigan State dropped to No. 2 despite not losing. The Spartans won 11-8 in monsoon-like conditions at Ohio State the same Saturday Notre Dame routed Duke 64-0.
The magnitude increased with each Saturday victory.
Adding to the buildup was no bowl game for either team. The Big Ten’s no-repeat rule and exclusive contract with the Rose Bowl prevented the Spartans from returning to Pasadena. Notre Dame’s administration prevented bowl participation until the 1969 season.
“For all the buildup, the game lived up to its billing,” Lynch said. “The tie came out of the blue. Nobody ever thought of a tie. Ara never figured a tie. Duffy never figured a tie. Bubba never figured a tie; George didn’t figure a tie; Lynch never figured a tie … ”
When it ended, though, Parseghian was criticized by the media, most notably by Sports Illustrated’s Dan Jenkins, for letting time run out. However, with a tie and a 51-0 win the following week at USC, Notre Dame was voted No. 1 in the Associated Press Writers’ Poll and the United Press International Coaches’ Poll.
That’s how national titles were won prior to the Bowl Championship Series and now the College Football Playoff. The NCAA tiebreaker rule also was years into the future.
However, Michigan State gained a share when the National Football Foundation’s MacArthur Bowl named the Spartans and Irish co-national champions. It cited identical 9-0-1 records and a 10-10 tie on the field. The teams were honored at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. Parseghian and Lynch attended as coach and team captain; Daugherty, Jones and Webster did the same.
That share was why the Spartans received national championship rings. It’s also why Michigan State’s Jimmy Raye of Fayetteville, N.C., was the South’s first black quarterback to win a national title.
Lynch and his teammates adamantly defend Parseghian, who is 93 and lives in South Bend. The players look forward to seeing their revered coach this weekend.
“The only thing Ara Parseghian was guilty of was being a great coach,” Lynch said. “A tie will never happen again. That’s why we’re still talking about the game 50 years later.”
Follow Tom Shanahan of Today’s U on Twitter: @shanny4055