The 1966 Notre Dame vs. Michigan State football game is considered one of the greatest and most controversial games in college football history played between Michigan State and Notre Dame. The game was played in Michigan State's Spartan Stadium on November 19, 1966. Michigan State entered the contest 9–0 and ranked No. 2, while Notre Dame entered 8–0 and ranked #1. Notre Dame elected not to try for a score on the final series; thus, the game ended in a 10–10 tie. Notre Dame went on to win or share the national title in fourteen polls (including the AP and UPI); Michigan State won or shared in three minor polls, and Alabama, who finished with the only undefeated and untied record, won two minor polls.
Notre Dame, which had last won a National Championship in 1964 (non consensus), ranked No. 1 both the AP and Coaches' polls. Defending National Champion Michigan State, who had finished the 1965 season No. 1 in the UPI Coaches' poll, but was upset by UCLA in the Rose Bowl the previous year, entered the game ranked No. 2 in the polls. The Fighting Irish, whose bid for a National Championship two years earlier was snuffed out by USC, were hungry, while the Spartans had history and home-field advantage on their side. This was the first time in 20 years that a college football matchup was given the "Game of the Century" tag by the national media, and ABC had the nation's viewers in its grip, with equal parts Notre Dame fans and Michigan State fans. It was the tenth time in the 30-year history of the AP poll that the No. 1 team played the No. 2 team. The Spartans had defeated Notre Dame the prior year 12–3 holding Notre Dame to minus-12 yards rushing.
A fortuitous quirk in scheduling brought these two teams together late in the season. They weren't even supposed to meet when the 1966 schedules were first drawn up. Michigan State had only nine games scheduled (even though they were allowed to have ten) while Notre Dame was originally scheduled to play Iowa that week, as had been the custom since 1945. However, in 1960, the Hawkeyes suddenly dropped the Irish from their schedule, from 1964 onward. Michigan State was available and agreed to return to Notre Dame's schedule in 1965–66.
The game was not shown live on national TV. Each team was allotted one national television appearance and two regional television appearances each season. Notre Dame had used their national TV slot in the season opening game against Purdue. ABC executives did not even want to show the game anywhere but the regional area, but pressure from the West Coast and the South (to the tune of 50,000 letters) made ABC air the game on tape delay. ABC relented and blacked out the Michigan State-Notre Dame game in two states, so it could technically be called a regional broadcast. It would also be the first time a college football game was broadcast to Hawaii and to U.S. troops in Vietnam. The official attendance was announced at 80,011 (111% capacity) and was the most attended game in Michigan State football history at the time (the current record is 80,401 on Sept. 22, 1990 vs. Notre Dame).
Notre Dame was coached by Ara Parseghian and Michigan State was coached by Duffy Daugherty, both school legends..
Much of the original ABC telecast footage survives. The second half exists in its entirety, as do both scoring drives starting in the second quarter (Michigan State's field goal and Notre Dame's touchdown).
Irish quarterback Terry Hanratty was knocked out after getting sacked in the first quarter by Spartan defensive lineman Bubba Smith. Starting Notre Dame running back Nick Eddy was out entirely after hurting his shoulder by slipping on ice while getting off the train in East Lansing. Center George Goeddeke wrenched his ankle on a punt play. Michigan State jumped out to a 7–0 lead behind a five-yard touchdown run by Regis Cavender early in the second quarter. Later in the half, MSU added a field goal (by barefooted Hawaiian Dick Kenney). But the Irish came back, quickly scoring a touchdown on a 34-yard pass thrown by backup quarterback Coley O'Brien over the outstretched hand of MSU safety Jess Phillips to halfback Bob Gladieux. MSU took a 10–7 lead into the locker room at the half.
Notre Dame tied the game on the first play of the fourth quarter on Joe Azzaro's 28-yard field goal. Perhaps the best second-half scoring opportunity for MSU occurred during a pass thrown from Jimmy Raye to Gene Washington. The speedy wide receiver had outrun Raye's deep pass and Notre Dame's defensive backfield. Washington was forced to double back, and in so doing was caught by the defense. Tom Schoen's second interception of the game put Notre Dame in a position to take the lead, but Azzaro's 41-yard field goal attempt missed by inches to the right. Later in the game, Notre Dame had the ball on its own 30-yard line with 1:10 left. They needed about 40 yards for a game-winning field goal. But coach Ara Parseghian, not wanting to risk a turnover that could hand the game to the Spartans, chose to run the clock out, preserving the tie and Notre Dame's No. 1 ranking. After making a first down with ten seconds left, O'Brien dropped back to pass and was sacked by Bubba Smith. On the last play of the game, O'Brien gained five yards on a quarterback sneak. The game ended in a 10–10 tie.
For nearly 50 years, Parseghian has defended his end-of-the-game strategy, which left many fans feeling disappointed at the game not having some sort of resolution. Michigan State fans and other Notre Dame detractors calling him a coward and college football expert Dan Jenkins leading off his article for Sports Illustrated by saying Parseghian chose to "Tie one for the Gipper." In that same article, Parseghian was quoted as saying, "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." "The game ended in a tie," Parseghian said. "We didn't play for a tie." "Neither Duffy Daugherty nor I expected a tie or wanted a tie," Parseghian said. "The game ended in a tie in one of the historic games. Strategically, I knew what I was doing in the game. You have to remember Duffy kicked the ball back to me. My starting quarterback, starting center, starting left tackle and all my top guys were over on the bench with me. We hadn't completed a pass in the last seven or eight attempts." “We were all shocked going into the tunnel together, and nobody was celebrating or talking and that’s when Duffy stated. The most famous president of each school, Notre Dame’s Father Theodore Hesburgh and MSU’s John Hannah, together went into each locker room to console and congratulate the players. The two visionary leaders served for several years on the Civil Rights Commission beginning in the late 1950s and sat together during the MSU-Notre Dame battles.
The tie resulted in 9–0–1 seasons for both Michigan State and Notre Dame. The final AP and Coaches' polls put the Irish and Spartans at No. 1 and No. 2, ranking both teams above the undefeated, and two time defending national champion 11–0–0 Alabama. Both schools shared the MacArthur Bowl.
Notre Dame beat USC 51–0 the next week, completing an undefeated (but tied) regular season and solidifying its No. 1 claim. The Irish did not accept bowl bids between 1926 and 1969 (see below), and Michigan State was the victim of two Big Ten rules that would be rescinded a few years later: The same school could not represent the league in the Rose Bowl in back-to-back seasons, and no Big Ten school could play in a bowl game other than the Rose Bowl. So despite being Big Ten Champions and undefeated in the regular season, the Spartans could not play in the Rose Bowl, or indeed any bowl game.
Players for both schools earned tremendous accolades for the season including All American honors. In the 1967 NFL draft, Michigan State had four players drafted within the first eight picks of the first round
After (but not necessarily as a result of) Eddy's injury while debarking from the train in East Lansing, Notre Dame football never traveled to away games by train again. Both teams now make the 160-mile trip by bus.
On September 23, 2006 Michigan State and Notre Dame commemorated the 40th anniversary of the game. Michigan State wore "throwback" jerseys and helmets from the 1960s era. Notre Dame declined to wear throwback jerseys or helmets. 45 members from the original '66 squad returned. In addition, 1965 and 1966 All American Bubba Smith had his No. 95 jersey retired at halftime, becoming only the third person in Michigan State history with such honor. Notre Dame won the game 40–37, after coming back from a 16-point deficit and scoring 19 straight points to win.
On September 16, 2016, Notre Dame commemorated the 50th anniversary of the game. Members of the 1966 Notre Dame team appeared on the field prior to the game.