Fifty-one lacks the golden chime to it that rings out for 50 as a nice round anniversary number.
But as it turns out, the 51st anniversary of the 1966 Game of the Century matching Notre Dame at Michigan State will be unlike any previous milestone gathering. This will be the first time the two teams have been honored together.
Michigan State, through the efforts of former players from both schools, has invited the Irish to join the Spartans when this year’s teams meet Sept. 23 at Spartan Stadium.
The previous 10th, 20th, 25th, 40th and 50th celebrations have honored one of the two teams at a game on the home team’s campus.
Last year, for the 50th anniversary, Notre Dame recognized its national champions when Michigan State played on Sept. 17 at South Bend, Ind. Michigan State recognized its players at its homecoming game on Oct. 15 against Northwestern.
“There has always been a healthy respect between the schools and the players,” said George Goeddeke, the Irish’s starting center on the 1966 team who went on to play with the Denver Broncos. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for us. I just wish we had done it sooner before (Michigan State legends) Bubba Smith, George Webster and Charlie Thornhill passed away.
“Notre Dame and Michigan State have a long history. I’m a Michigander from the Detroit Catholic League, and my son graduated from Michigan State. The guys on our team root for Michigan State against Michigan. We have no use for that school in Ann Arbor.”
Goeddeke and Michigan State defensive lineman Pat Gallinagh, who went on to a successful high school coaching career in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, have done most of the leg work. They’ve received support from Hank Bullough, Michigan State’s legendary defensive coordinator from the championship teams, and Bob Cantrell, a Michigan State grad and longtime board member for the Downtown Coaches Club.
It was an idea players had kicked around and was raised again by Bullough when Goeddeke participated last fall on a Game of the Century panel at Michigan State’s University Archives along with Spartans players Jimmy Raye, Bob Apisa, Jerry West, Regis Cavender and Sterling Armstrong.
“We should have an event with both teams,” Bullough said that night.
The 51st anniversary also can provide Notre Dame a convenient solution to fill a Shamrock Series date this year for the sake of continuity. Notre Dame began its Shamrock Series in 2009 at neutral sites.
But with Notre Dame’s renovated stadium opening in 2017, Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick said the school wants to play all seven of its home games in South Bend instead of designating one of those seven dates away from campus.
What could be more Shamrock than the Irish playing the green-clad Spartans? And then Notre Dame can return to its Shamrock Series format in 2018.
Adding to the significance is that this year’s Notre Dame-Michigan State game is, sadly, the final one in the storied rivalry until 2026 and 2027. Notre Dame’s five-game commitment to play Atlantic Coast Conference schools has complicated the Irish’s ability to maintain traditional rivalries.
There are many reasons the 1966 Game of the Century played on Nov. 19, 1966, shook the national landscape as a seminal moment in college football. It was a late-season quasi-national title game that predated the Bowl Championship Series and College Football Playoff. It ended in a controversial 10-10 tie, and games are now decided by tiebreakers.
Notre Dame finished No. 1 and was declared national champion over No. 2 Michigan State in the days when The Associated Press and United Press International polls decided national titles.
But the National Football Foundation’s MacArthur Bowl also had a voice in the poll days. The NFF’s MacArthur Bowl — which now goes to the CFP champion — declared Notre Dame and Michigan State national co-champions for their identical 9-0-1 records and 10-10 tie on the field.
It drew the highest TV rating for any football game (this was pre-Super Bowl) with a 22 share. One of the referee’s was Jerry Markbreit, who went on to work Super Bowls. In his 1988 book, he wrote, “The atmosphere was like that of a Super Bowl game today.”
The two senior classes combined to produce seven NFL first-round draft picks and 17 choices overall — nearly a starting lineup. Ultimately, two varsity rosters for the sophomore, junior and senior classes churned out 10 first-round picks, 42 selections overall, 33 pro players and 25 All-American choices.
The College Football Hall of Fame counts six players among its enshrined legends — Michigan State’s Bubba Smith, George Webster, Gene Washington and Clinton Jones; Notre Dame’s Alan Page and Jim Lynch — along with two coaches — Notre Dame’s Ara Parseghian and Michigan State’s Duffy Daugherty.
Lynch won the Maxwell Trophy as the nation’s finest football player, but he said Webster should have won the Heisman Trophy. Florida’s Steve Spurrier won it, but three Game of the Century players finished in the top 10 voting — Notre Dame fullback Nick Eddy was third, Michigan State halfback Clinton Jones sixth and Notre Dame quarterback Terry Hanratty eighth.
Michigan State’s 20 black players and 11 starters – unheard of numbers for the time – changed the face of the game. Minnesota’s 1960 national championship team had five black players and USC’s 1967 national champs had seven. But by the time USC won its 1972 national title, the Trojans had 23 black players (USC’s 1970 team that played at Alabama had only five black starters despite myths surrounding the game and Bear Bryant’s role in desegregation). Daugherty’s Spartans opened doors throughout the nation.
“I still say they are the two best teams to ever play each other,” said Hanratty, who played for a couple of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Super Bowl teams. “Especially when you look at the amount of talent that was on both sides of the field.”
After all these years, this 51st anniversary will finally bring all that talent together again at Spartan Stadium.
Editor’s Note: There is a chapter on the 1966 Game of the Century in Tom Shanahan’s book, “Raye of Light.” The book is on Michigan State’s leading role in the integration of college football.