THE Game of the Century: Notre Dame v. Michigan State 1966

Contrary to what all ND fans under the age of 25 might think, the ’93 Notre Dame-Florida State game was nowhere near the first matchup to be specifically tagged “The Game of the Century” by the national media. Never mind classic games between other teams, ND-FSU ’93 was in fact the fourth game that just Notre Dame played in during the twentieth century to be called “The Game of the Century” by the press. The first was the ’35 ND-OSU game, still hailed as “The Original Game of the Century.” The second was the ’46 ND-Army game. And the third of course was the 1966 ND-MSU contest, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. 

Beyond its place in the Game of the Century pantheon, the retrospective handwringing over Ara going for the 10-10 tie, and the ramifications the game had on the ’66 national championship race, probably the most significant lasting legacy of the game is this: the 1966 Notre Dame-Michigan State game is the highest rated college football game in the history of television.

To put this achievement in perspective, the two highest rated college football games of the last 20 years are the ’06 Texas-USC Rose Bowl and the ’87 Penn State-Miami Fiesta Bowl. The ’66 ND-MSU game’s TV ratings exceeded these two games combined.

In a way, the ’66 ND-MSU matchup is a microcosm of the rivalry itself: i.e. A LOT more important and historical than most people realize.

Admittedly, last season’s classless flag-planting image is forever burned into my brain. And ND’s unerring capacity during the Davieham years to save their absolute worst game for Sparty (not to mention MSU’s unerring capacity to immediately implode after beating us) doesn’t help. But I try not to let the antics of a handful of stupid kids and the ineptitude of two stupid coaches cloud my judgement with this rivalry.

As the ND-MSU series celebrates its 70th game since 1897, consider the following:

  • MSU is our fourth-longest rivalry behind only Navy, SC and Purdue.
  • ND is MSU’s second-longest rivalry behind only Michigan.
  • The first ND-MSU game was played a year before the first MSU-Michigan game.
  • The ND-MSU series predates Michigan State’s admittance into the Big Ten by 60 years.

Beyond the numbers, the actual history of the Notre Dame-Michigan State series ranks among the most colorful in the already multi-hued history of the Blue & Gold.

What most people outside East Lansing fail to realize is that Michigan State has only been a Big Ten member since the 1950s. What most people irrespective of geographical locales fail to realize is that both Michigan State and Notre Dame applied repeatedly for Western Conference membership in the early twentieth century, and both were repeatedly stonewalled by–yeah, like you didn’t see this one coming–the University of Michigan.

The year was 1946. By then ND was firmly entrenched in its independence. MSU was a rising football power, still independent but also still enamored with the Western/Big Ten Conference. The Irish and the Spartans hadn’t played since 1921, but they were scheduled to resume their series in two years. And then the University of Chicago announced they were canceling their football program and withdrawing from the Big Ten.

The rest is history. By a vote of 9-0 MSU was admitted into the Big Ten, with the MSU football program not officially becoming a conference member until 1953. Even when pressured by fellow conference members to drop the Irish, MSU, as well as Purdue, remained committed to the ND series through the years. And ND has appreciated that loyalty. In the 68 years since ND and MSU resumed their rivalry the two teams have faced each other on the gridiron all but two of those years. And since 1948, ND has played MSU more times than Michigan, Ohio State, Indiana, Minnesota, Illinois, and Wisconsin combined.

Turns out there’s even MORE to the story. (A hearty “thank you” to the poster “JakeGrafton” of spartans.net for most of the following information.)

Back when MSU was a backwater independent trying to expand its football program to become “big time,” they were sabotaged by the University of Michigan. (Sound familiar?) Beginning in the late nineteenth century and continuing all the way to the late 1940s, for nearly 70 years U of M blackballed all attempts by MSU to gain Big Ten admission. And although the oh-so-wonderful Wolverines were charitable enough to at least play the lowly Spartans every year, a cursory look at their year-by-year football schedule would reveal that MSU was forced to play AT Michigan for about, oh, forty straight years.

It was during this period MSU more or less approached ND on its knees to play football every season. At the time, there was no Spartan Stadium as we know it today. Macklin Field (its previous name) was very small; it was FAR smaller indeed than Notre Dame Stadium was. MSU would have taken a 2-1 home-away split or even worse than that in order to induce Notre Dame to play them. But the Fathers that ran ND did not want to take advantage of the Spartans’ comparatively weak bargaining position, and instead proposed to MSU that the two schools play home and away evenly each season.

With this guaranteed home date in their back pocket, MSU was able to justify its own stadium expansion. The annual series with ND also gave MSU national cache and benefitted the school in more ways than can be mentioned, not the least of which was financial. In effect, the ND series made Michigan State football “big time.”

[Editor’s note: These are a Michigan State alum’s exact words, not mine.]

When Chicago left the Big Ten, thanks in no small part to WWII and the Manhattan Project research that was going on in labs underneath their football stadium, Michigan State was the natural choice to become the new Big Ten member.

[Editor’s note: The Manhattan Project? Under the stadium? How effin’ cool is that?!]

Michigan finally saw the writing on the wall and realized they could no longer block MSU’s admission to the conference. In what must be the all-time crowning example of chutzpah, Michigan actually was the school that proposed MSU’s admission into the Big Ten. And what happened on MSU’s first visit to Ann Arbor as a member of the Big Ten? The visitors’ dressing room was “accidentally” flooded with raw sewage. All together now: Hail, Hail to Michigan, the assholes of the world!!!

Yes, I’m still pissed off and bitter about last week. You want to fight about it?

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2 comments

  1. Jack Sandhaas 10 years ago

    How can you forget December 31, 1973. Notre Dame 24 Alabama 23 in the Sugar Bowl. The look on the Bear’s face when Weber caught the ball right in front of Him. Even Knute smiled.

    God is good, God is great, go Irish!!!

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  2. Big Nick 14 years ago

    To the author of the above “Greatest Game….” piece.
    Are you how big of a Fighting Irish Fan? To list those first two games v OSU in ’35 and Army in ’47 and NOT LIST what many college football announcers, writers, historians and coaches say is one of the ALL TIME GREATEST GAMES involving ND and that being when they SNAPPED Bud Wilkinson’s Sooners Longest ever Division I winning streak of 47 straight games in 1957.
    You know-or maybe you need refreshing-the one where current WFAN NY Giant’s color commentator and former Giant great Dick Lynch intercepted that pass and returned it for a touchdown!!!
    Are you kidding me and the thousands of other “Green ’til were Seen by Jesus” FOREVER RUDYTIZED DOMERS???
    I THINK MAJOR APOLOGIES ALL AROUND and if I had the ear of the team this week I would drill them til they drop on every block and tackle to be executed with P&P in mind- you know pancake and plant… Just imagine if on almost every play the announcers can’t help but see bodies getting flattened on both sides of the ball. This week ought to be ‘burial week’.
    God Bless ya,
    Big Nick Leno

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