Friday, November 19, 2010

Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame Ara Parseghian For "Tying One for the Gipper"

On November 19, 1966, 44 years ago today, one of college football's "Games of the Century" was played at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Michigan.

Michigan State, coached by Hugh "Duffy" Daugherty and known as "Duffy's Toughies," defending National Champions and now back-to-back Big Ten Champions, were undefeated, and ranked Number 1 in one of the major polls in use at the time and Number 2 in the other. Notre Dame, coached by Ara Parseghian, was also undefeated, and ranked 1st in one and 2nd in the other.
ABC televised the game nationally, albeit on a tape delay. This was the 1st time a single college football game went coast-to-coast over national television -- and in color, no less -- except for New Year's Day bowl games.

This was a time when the words "in color" and "coast-to-coast" still had a special meaning. Even today, ABC/ESPN and CBS split some of their games regionally: While the East Coast and the Midwest might see, for example, Ohio State vs. Penn State, the South and the West Coast might see, say, Southern California vs. Texas. But each network usually staggers its schedule so that, on any given Saturday, there's at least one game that most of the country, unless their own team is otherwise occupied, will want to see. In 1966, such a thing was still a novelty.

These two teams weren't even supposed to play. Notre Dame had usually played the University of Iowa on the 3rd Saturday in November from 1945 onward. But after 1964, Iowa opted out of that arrangement. Since Michigan State only had 9 regular-season games scheduled, and it was a relatively short trip -- about 160 miles, or 3 hours by road -- the game was set up, and as luck would have it, they both came in undefeated, Number 1 vs. Number 2.

Michigan State had gone to the Rose Bowl the year before. At the time, the Big Ten Conference had 2 unbelievably stupid rules: No team could go to the Rose Bowl in back-to-back years, and only the Conference Champion (or, if disqualified by the preceding stupid rule, the 2nd-place team) could go to any bowl game. This meant that, regardless of the result of their game against Notre Dame, MSU were not going to play a bowl game. (Purdue, quarterbacked by Bob Griese, finished 2nd, and went on to their 1st-ever Rose Bowl, and won it for what remains the only time in their history.)

Notre Dame had a policy against bowl games, and hadn't been to one since Knute Rockne's legendary "Four Horsemen" (Harry Stuhldreher, Jim Crowley, Don Miller & Elmer Layden) beat Ernie Nevers' Stanford in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day 1925. They wouldn't stop turning down bowl invitations until the 1970 season. So for both the Spartans and the Fighting Irish, this was it.

At first, it didn't go too well for Notre Dame: Their leading rusher, Nick Eddy, did not pay due to a shoulder injury. Quarterback Terry Hanratty got sacked by the massive (for the time, anyway) Spartan defensive lineman (and future actor) Charles "Bubba" Smith, and had to leave the game with an injury. Center George Goeddeke hurt his ankle blocking for a punt.

Early in the 2nd quarter, the Spartans took a 7-0 lead on a Regis Cavender touchdown. (God only knows what Regis Philbin, at age 32 already a known entertainer and a big Notre Dame fan, thought of a man named Regis scoring against his beloved Irish.) Dick Kenney, a barefooted kicker, added a field goal to make it 10-0 Michigan State. (Barefoot kickers are now illegal in high school in every State except Massachusetts and Texas. It's still legal in college and in the NFL, but very rare since the 1980s.)

Notre Dame came back. Backup quarterback Coley O'Brien threw a touchdown pass to Bob Gladieux, and it was 10-7 Spartans at the half. On the 1st play of the 4th quarter, Joe Azzaro kicked a field goal to tie it. There was still plenty of time left for either team to win the game.

A Spartan pass play gave both teams a good chance to score: Quarterback Jimmy Raye attempted to pass to Gene Washington (not the man who went on to All-Pro honors with the 49ers and then became an executive in the NFL's main office; this one went on to play for the Vikings and Broncos), but Washington outran the pass, doubled back, and Tom Schoen intercepted it. That gave the Irish a chance, but Azzaro just missed what could have been a game-winning field goal.

The last series of the game began with 1:10 left on the clock, and Notre Dame had the ball on its own 30-yard line. Gaining 40 yards in 70 seconds would have put them in position for Azzaro to try again to win it with a field goal.

But Parseghian chose to run out the clock. Final score, Michigan State 10, Notre Dame 10.
I've seen ESPN Classic's broadcast of the game's surviving footage, which is most of it. The video is clear, the color is bright, and both teams, while looking small compared to college teams of today, fought hard, and both seemed worthy of the National Championship -- until the last 70 seconds, of course.

Normally, the national media, so swept up in the myth of the Golden Dome -- Knute Rockne, George Gipp and Rockne's "Win One for the Gipper" speech, the Four Horsemen, Frank Leahy and "Leahy's Lads," and Paul Hornung... and this was well before Rudy Ruettiger and his movie, Joe Montana, and Lou Holtz's tenure -- gives Notre Dame the benefit of the doubt.

Not this time. In Sports Illustrated's writeup of the game, Dan Jenkins, then as now perhaps the greatest living writer on the subject of college football, titled his article "Tying One for the Gipper." Jenkins quoted one observer as saying, "Parseghian had no guts."

Was that fair? Here was Ara's explanation: "We'd fought hard to come back and tie it up. After all that, I didn't want to risk giving it to them cheap. They get reckless and it could cost them the game. I wasn't going to do a jackass thing like that at this point."

Both teams ended the season 9-0-1. And the polls? Both the Associated Press (the college football writers) and United Press International (the coaches), still issuing their final polls before the bowl games, ranked Notre Dame Number 1 in their last poll, Michigan State Number 2, and undefeated Alabama Number 3.

Alabama, led by Paul "Bear" Bryant and actually having a bowl game to win, did so, and finished 11-0. They should have thus gotten their 3rd straight National Championship (splitting the 1965 polls with Michigan State). Both Notre Dame and Alabama claim to be 1966 National Champions, but Notre Dame still gets the official recognition. Keith Dunnavant came out with a book about the '66 Crimson Tide squad and how they were screwed by the polls, titling it The Missing Ring.

Ara Parseghian won another National Championship at Notre Dame in 1973, this time beating Alabama in a Number 1 vs. Number 2 matchup in the Sugar Bowl. (That year, Ohio State and Michigan played to a tie, thus tying for the Big Ten title, and the Conference sent Ohio State to the Rose Bowl. Despite this, Ohio State coach Woody Hayes joined with Bo Schembechler, once his player and assistant coach but now the Michigan coach, in his outrage, and together they got the only-the-Rose-Bowl rule changed.)
He retired after the 1974 season, and became a broadcaster in the sport. A statue of him stands outside Notre Dame Stadium. He is 87 years old, and still full of life. Yet he still gets dogged by charges of cowardice for 1966. (Duffy Daugherty died in 1987, barely living to see the 20th Anniversary of the game.)

I'm not a Notre Dame fan. Indeed, I once did a blog post of "The Top 10 Reasons to Hate Notre Dame." Ara's successor, Dan Devine, who led them to the 1977 National Championship with Joe Montana at quarterback, once said, "There's Notre Dame fans, and then there's Notre Dame haters, and, frankly, they're both a pain in the ass."

But I think we can let Ara off the hook. For 3 seasons, ESPN ran a series called The Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame... I loved that series, and have many of the episodes on tape. I wish they'd release the series on DVD. They never did an episode for Ara. I'll do it now.

The Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame Ara Parseghian for "Tying One For the Gipper"

Here's some reasons that didn't make the cut, for chronological reasons.

Vince Lombardi. Although America already had a "winning is everything" mentality, it would not be until a documentary a year later, in 1967, that the nation heard the great Green Bay Packer coach say the words, "Winning isn't everything, but it's the only thing." If Lombardi had publicly said that before the fall of 1966, maybe Ara would have noted that, and gone for the win.

Tom Osborne. Still an assistant to Bob Devaney at the University of Nebraska in 1966, in the 1984 Orange Bowl he would get Nebraska back from a 31-17 deficit to 31-30 in the final minute. A tie and a final record of 12-0-1 would probably have salvaged a National Championship for one of the most spectacular teams in college football history, the 1983 Nebraska Cornhuskers.

But, remembering "Parseghian had no guts," Osborne went for the 2-point conversion and the 32-31 win and the 13-0 record. They didn't make it, and the National Championship -- dubiously, in my opinion -- went to the Huskers' opponents in that game, the University of Miami. If such a situation had arisen in a bowl game prior to the 1966 season, maybe Ara would have noted that, and gone for the win.

Herman Edwards. Just 12 years old at this point, Herm was playing junior high school football. He was a long way from becoming an NFL head coach, and giving us those famous words: "This is what the greatest thing about sports is: You play to win the game. Hello? You play to win the game! You don't play it to just play it! That's the great thing about sports: You play to win!"

Granted, most coaches' press conferences weren't televised in those days. But, surely, if some NFL coach had said something like this in the years leading up to November '66, maybe Ara would have noted it, and...

But these things weren't there for Ara to note. So here's the Top 5 Reasons:

5. Woody Hayes. Like Bo Schembechler, Ara both played for Woody and coached under him at Miami University of Ohio before becoming a great head coach himself. Woody's philosophy was simple: Run the football. Or, as it became known, "Three yards and a cloud of dust."

I'm not sure if Woody came up with those words himself, but words that have been attributed to him are, "There are three things that can happen when you throw the football, and two of them are bad." In other words, an incomplete pass and an interception.

When Ara had 70 seconds of play remaining, and 70 yards to go for a touchdown, and at least 40 to go for a field goal, no doubt he heard Woody's wisdom in his mind. After all, at the time, the man was still, along with Bear Bryant at Alabama, one of the top 2 coaches in college football. This was after Darrell Royal had won the 1963 National Championship at Texas, but before Royal's Longhorns won it in 1969 (featuring another "Game of the Century," against Arkansas) and 1970. This was after John McKay had won the 1964 National Championship at Southern California (including a late-season win over Notre Dame that killed their title hopes that season), but before McKay's Trojans won it in 1967 (featuring yet another "Game of the Century," against UCLA) and 1972. And 1966 was Joe Paterno's 1st season as head man at Penn State, so he wasn't yet a legend.

At the time, Woody and the Bear were it. Ara wanted to be "it," and, to do that, he couldn't lose this game. So he chose to not risk losing on an interception that might put Michigan State in position to win with a last-second field goal. It worked, and, as times changed, Ara became part of that top tier of great college football coaches.

4. Frank Leahy. In 1946, Army was undefeated and ranked Number 1, and Notre Dame was undefeated and ranked Number 2, and they finished the regular season against each other, at the original Yankee Stadium, in the 1st college football game to get the "Game of the Century" tag from the national media. That game did not live up to the hype, ending in a 0-0 tie. As they would say in that other kind of football, soccer, "a turgid nil-nil draw." The word "turgid" so perfectly suits 0-0 draws, regardless of what game you call "football."

Leahy had "tied one for the Gipper" 20 years before Ara. Yet he never got the derision that Ara got. Probably because it wasn't on television: In order to see this game in its entirety, you had to be inside The Stadium. Newsreel highlights in movie theaters wouldn't have shown you all you needed to see. Nobody's ever said, "Leahy had no guts." Essentially, he played for a tie, and got away with it.

3. Duffy Daugherty. Michigan State's head coach didn't exactly go for the win, either. And it really did cost his team the National Championship. But nobody mocked him for it, and nobody, in Michigan or elsewhere, holds it against him now.

2. The Odds Were Against the Irish. Michigan State had the home field. They were defending National Champions. They were favored to win. And Notre Dame went into the game with a major injury (their top rusher) and got more of them as the game went on (their starting quarterback and center). And still, they held Michigan State to just 10 points at home and avoided a loss. That's a pretty good achievement.

Again, I don't like Notre Dame. But Ara Parseghian deserved, and still does deserve, to be exonerated for playing for the tie. And here's the biggest reason of all:

1. A Win Wasn't Necessary. The polls proved it, giving Notre Dame the National Championship anyway. Ara knew that a loss would kill their national title dreams, just as they had against USC 2 years earlier. But a tie would still leave them undefeated.

And, as they nearly always do (except where this one game was concerned), the national media gave Notre Dame the benefit of the doubt, and crowned them National Champions, even though Alabama, undefeated and untied in 11 games as opposed to undefeated but tied in 10 games, was a more deserving National Champion.

Sounds like Ara Parseghian had more guts than the media: Not only were they gutless in claiming him to be a coward, but they ended up rolling over for the Irish anyway. If not for Ara himself.

As Top 5 Reasons host Brian Kenny would say at this point in the show, "Maybe we changed your mind, maybe we didn't, but, hopefully, we led you think about things in a new light."

UPDATE: On November 19, 2016, the 50th Anniversary of this "Game of the Century," Ara Parseghian is still alive at age 93. He has never taken his good health for granted, and continues to raise money for research into diseases that have hit his family.
Lou Holtz, current Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, Ara Parseghian

Earlier this season, Michigan State beat Notre Dame 36-28. This cut Notre Dame's lead in the rivalry to 48-29-1.

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