One of the most storied programs in college football history, Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish have won 11 national titles over the past nine decades — four of them in the 1940s alone. But none of those championships were as controversial, or as downright weird, as the title the Irish won in 1966 under head coach and future College Football Hall of Famer Ara Parseghian.
That year, Notre Dame and the Michigan State Spartans — coached by a future Hall of Famer himself, Hugh “Duffy” Daugherty — met on November 19 for what was billed as “the game of the century.” (The fact that nine or 10 other contests through the years have also earned that designation — games played by Army, Navy, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Penn State, OSU and others — just goes to show how crazed most college football fans really are.) Both teams were undefeated going into that ’66 game at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing. Notre Dame was 8-0 and ranked No. 1; the Spartans were 9-0 and ranked No. 2. Despite the fact that Alabama was also undefeated — and, in fact, would end the 1966 season as the only undefeated Division I team in the country — no one doubted that the winner of the Notre Dame-Michigan State game would end up as the unanimous national champion.
In the end, everyone was wrong.
Instead of a decisive victory by either side, 80,000 fans in Spartan Stadium and more than 30 million viewers watching on TV saw the two teams — with more than two dozen future All-Americans and future pro players between them, including Bubba Smith (Michigan State) and the great Alan Page (Irish) — battle to a 10-10 tie.
That’s right. A tie.
It was a thrilling, albeit grinding, low-scoring game, with neither team able to break it wide open. Finally, Parseghian controversially opted to run out the clock as the fourth quarter wound down, rather than spend the last few minutes trying to get within field goal range for a shot at winning it. To this day, there are Irish and Spartan fans who get apoplectic at the mention of the game, both sides feeling that their schools — and college football itself — was cheated out of a true, definitive national title that year because of Parseghian’s overly cautious coaching in the fourth quarter.
For his part, Parseghian always defended his strategy, arguing that his team fought tooth and nail to tie the game up in the fourth quarter and he wasn’t going to do anything stupid that would hand Michigan Sate the win. Ultimately it proved to be a smart and prudent, if somewhat bloodless, decision on Parseghian’s part.
Both Michigan State and Notre Dame finished the year with 9-0-1 records, and both schools shared the MacArthur Trophy at the end of the season.