Thursday, November 3, 2011

Classic Sports Thursday

We're getting down to crunch time in college football, and this Saturday features the first time in five years that the number one and two ranked teams in the country meet in the regular season, when #1 LSU takes on #2 Alabama.

Back in the day, before the BCS guaranteed an annual #1 vs #2 "championship game," a matchup like this would have been called "The Game of the Century." College football has seen a number of these over the years, at least one a decade (which leads one to wonder exactly how sportswriters define a century), but few of them match up to the hype. One that did, in a most unexpected way, was the 1966 game pitting #1 Notre Dame against #2 Michigan State.

Mike Celizic’s wonderful book The Biggest Game of Them All illustrates just how this game profoundly changed the way in which television looked at sports. Among other things, it created a demand for media credentials unsurpassed in sports to that time (it took the Super Bowl years before it became as big a media sensation), caused Catholic churches throughout the nation to change confession times so as not to conflict with the game, and became the first sporting event telecast live via satellite in Hawaii.

It may be hard to believe now, but through the 60s and early 70s the televising of college football was a closely regulated business. Teams were limited to the number of appearances they could make on TV each season, and even the biggest games were frequently seen on a regional, rather than national, basis. The Notre Dame-Michigan State game, which was hyped to a level that would be remarkable even today, threatened to change everything.  College football fans everywhere were on the edge of their collective seats throughtout the game, but nobody was prepared for what wound up happening.  Here are the climactic final minutes of the controversial finish, with Chris Schenkel and Bud Wilkinson calling the action:

Well, that was something, wasn't it? How many of you expected that?

It's hard to imagine now, since overtime guarantees a winner in every college football game. It was even harder to imagine, back then, that the "Tying Irish," as they became known, would let the clock run out rather than go for the win. But there was a method to Irish coach Ara Parseghian's madness - he calculated the AP voters would be unlikely to drop Notre Dame out of the top spot because of the tie, particularly since they had rallied from a ten-point deficit without their star quarterback Terry Hanratty, who had been injured early in the game, and star running back Nick Eddy, who missed the game altogether due to an injury getting off the train in East Lansing.

Parseghian also had another ace in the pocket: this game was Michigan State's last, while Notre Dame would finish their season the following week against USC. (Neither team would play in a bowl game that year; Notre Dame had a longstanding policy against bowls that would not end until the early 70s, while the Big 10 prohibited any team from going to any bowl other than the Rose. Michigan State, which had played in the Rose the previous year, was ineligible because of another of the Big 10's rules, the "No-Repeat Rule" that prevented teams from playing in the Rose Bowl in consecutive years.) Notre Dame crushed USC the next week, 51-0, and indeed won the national championship.

Someday when I've got more time I'll go into the cultural rammifications of this game, which were immense, in more detail. But for now let's just concentrate on the game, for which autumn Saturday afternoons were created.
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