Ara Parseghian is 88 years old, and I am not aware of how well he might be aging, but I have to think that if he’s able, he will be watching CBS with the rest of us on Saturday night. They’re calling it the Game of the Century, largely because college football’s marketing terminology is still mired in the Sterling-Cooper-Price era, and so this is what we’ve evoked anytime the top-ranked and second-ranked college football teams in America have met on a football field for at least five decades. Nobody knows that better than Ara. Forty-five years ago this month, when Parseghian was at Notre Dame, he coached the Irish through a contest that is regarded as the true Game of the Century despite — or more likely because — it featured the most frustrating ending in the history of the sport.
You may know the details, but in case you don’t: On November 19, 1966, Michigan State, ranked No. 2 with a largely black starting lineup, hosted Notre Dame, ranked No. 1 with a largely white starting lineup. The Spartans took a 10-0 lead, and the Irish lost starting quarterback Terry Hanratty after he was Hightowered on a quarterback draw by the late Bubba Smith. Even so, Notre Dame managed to tie the game at 10-10 behind backup Coley O’Brien, and the Irish had possession on their own 30-yard-line with 1:10 to go. And that’s when Ara made perhaps the most controversial decision in college football history: He chose to sit on the ball, run out the clock, and preserve the tie. He was villified for his perceived cowardice. Sports Illustrated’s Dan Jenkins wrote that Ara had chosen to “Tie one for the Gipper,” and Parseghian spent the following four decades defending his decision, his argument buoyed largely by the fact that Notre Dame finished No. 1 in the polls at the end of the season.
That climax occurred amid the era of subjectivity in college football. There were ties and overwhelming regional biases and no strict bowl affiliations, and national champions were determined by soused sportswriters at P.J. Clarke’s and by the whims of Richard Nixon. Almost everything about college football is better now. The NCAA adopted its overtime rules in 1996, and while these statutes occasionally cause entertaining stalemates to degenerate into six-overtime shootouts that are decided on the whims of a fade route, nobody is really arguing for the return of the tie.
Except for me, I guess.
Don’t get me wrong: I wouldn’t like to see it reinstated for good. I’d just like to see it brought back for this particular weekend. Most of the time, when No. 1 meets No. 2, at least one side has an explosive offensive attack, but this is not really the case with Alabama and LSU. We have been told to expect a Herculean defensive stalemate. I don’t think there’s been a Game of the Century quite like it since Alabama upended Penn State in the 1979 Sugar Bowl on a goal-line stand that never should have been a goal-line stand since Matt Suhey scored on third down, and I assure you this comes from an utterly objective viewpoint.
But I digress. My point is this: We all envision this game at 3-3, or 6-6, or 10-10, in the fourth quarter. And so let us picture what would happen if Les Miles and/or Nick Saban were faced with a decision to win or to tie. Never would there be a more fitting assessment of Miles’ reputation as college football’s Kanye West than this; I imagine if he had the ball in on his own 8-yard-line with 12 seconds to go in a 3-3 tie, he would run one of those triple reverses straight out of Friday Night Lights. And never would there be a sharper reason for all of college football nation to rekindle its simmering hatred of reborn Mr. Nice Guy Saban than if he chose to down the ball at his own 40, tied 9-9, with 28 seconds remaining, knowing that all he’d have to do is win out and he could play for the BCS title anyway.
Nobody likes ties. I’m sure Ara, even now, hates ties more than all of us. But sometimes, the very prospect of kissing one’s own sister is enough to make these Games of the Century even more compelling than they already are.
Previously from Michael Weinreb:
The Real Rocky
Who Invented the Seven-Game Series?
The Best Passing Quarterback Ever
Read more of The Triangle, Grantland’s sports blog.
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