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Game of the Century legend returns to East Lansing

Photo courtesy Bob Apisa

Imagine if O. Henry was a football fan crafting modern-day twisting short stories on the game’s legends. Notre Dame’s Coley O’Brien provides a captivating narrative.

It starts with his dramatic role in the 1966 Notre Dame-Michigan State Game of the Century and continues through another landmark day 50 years later.

Yet, this is a story O. Henry wouldn’t have to imagine. We all know truth is stranger than fiction.

O’Brien forever planted his name in college football lore on Nov. 19, 1966 at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Michigan. Notre Dame’s backup quarterback came off the bench to replace injured starter Terry Hanratty. He led the Irish from a 10-0 deficit on the road to a 10-10 tie.

The surprising finish left an overflow crowd of 80,011 and a record TV audience — a 22 share — dumbfounded in silence. The controversial 10-10 tie remains debated unlike any other showdown that decided a national title.

Fast forward to the 50th anniversary game in 2016. The Spartans play the Irish at Notre Dame Stadium Saturday night in South Bend, Indiana. In this O. Henry twist, O’Brien isn’t with his old teammates for the halftime ceremonies. He’s in, of all places, East Lansing – not far from the specter of Spartan Stadium.

O’Brien and his wife Barb are due to become grandparents for the first time. Their daughter Christin’s due date is gameday. She and her husband Joe Nohner live in East Lansing while he pursues his Ph.D at Michigan State.

“I had tickets for them to go to the game with us,” O’Brien said dryly, “but they said they can’t make it.”

Joe and Christin don’t know the baby’s gender, but O’Brien offered a fitting boy’s name.

“Bubba,” he said. “Bubba Smith is the one who made me famous in that game.”

On the second series, Smith, a 6-foot-7, 285-pound two-time All-American defensive end and College Football Hall of Famer, pursued Hanratty on a quarterback draw from the side.

Hanratty was wrapped up by George Webster, a two-time All-American rover and College Football Hall of Famer, as Smith drove his shoulder into the turf. Hanratty left the game with a separated shoulder and didn’t return.

Notre Dame’s fate was in the hands of O’Brien, the son of a Navy officer who once commanded the USS Midway during the Vietnam War years. The Irish quarterback didn’t win a naval battle, but he delivered against one of the greatest defenses in college football history.

O’Brien went deep with a 34-yard touchdown pass to Bob Gladiuex to trim Notre Dame’s deficit to 10-7 at halftime. In the fourth quarter, O’Brien drove the Irish into position for Joe Azzaro to kick a 28-yard field goal. The game has remained frozen in time at 10-10.

The controversial finish stems from Notre Dame trying only one pass – O’Brien was sacked by Smith – and Irish coach Ara Parseghian allowing the clock to run out. Michigan State called the only timeouts late in the game.

Coley O'Brien -- Notre Dame Sports Information

Coley O’Brien — Notre Dame Sports Information

O’Brien is first and foremost associated with Game of the Century, but he also should be remembered for the USC game the following week. When the Michigan State showdown ended in a tie, Parseghian’s thought pattern was to hope the Irish remained No. 1 and then beat USC, ranked No. 7 and bound for the Rose Bowl as Pac-8 champion, to clinch the national title.

O’Brien made it happen, leading a 51-0 victory at the Coliseum in Los Angeles. He was 21-of-31 passing for 250 yards. It was the only time he started as a quarterback (he started a game as a halfback his senior year) playing behind Hanratty.

The 51-0 score remains USC’s worst loss, even after Alabama embarrassed the 2016 Trojans in the season opener, 52-6.

“I was watching the (Alabama) game,” O’Brien said, “and hoping we’d still have the record for their worst loss.”

In the final Associated Press writers’ and United Press International coaches’ polls, Notre Dame (9-0-1) was voted No. 1 and Michigan State (9-0-1) No. 2. Neither team played in a bowl game, which added to the magnitude of the Game of the Century.

Notre Dame’s administration didn’t lift a ban on bowl participation until 1969. The Big Ten’s exclusive contract with the Rose Bowl and archaic no-repeat rule kept the Spartans from returning to Pasadena after their 1965 national championship. However, Michigan State and Notre Dame were declared national co-champions by the National Football Foundation’s MacArthur Bowl.

Now retired with a grandchild in East Lansing, O’Brien expects to visit many times. He added his daughter lives near Michigan State’s campus.

“She is a runner and she goes for runs on the campus,” he said. “She also takes their dog for walks on campus.”

O’Brien also said he might attend a Michigan State game. He definitely wants to play some golf at Forest Akers, Michigan State’s campus course.

I asked O’Brien if he had heard how people in East Lansing react to Christin when they learn the identity of her father.

“She probably doesn’t want a lot of people to know,” he said.

Even the late Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty, with his Irish roots, would have a twinkle in his eye hearing this O’Brien-O. Henry story.

Follow Tom Shanahan of Today’s U on Twitter: @shanny4055

Game of the Century legend returns to East Lansing

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