In a game that featured number one against number two — Notre Dame vs. Michigan State — college football fans were highly anticipating which team would come out on top. But there was no winner or loser at the end of the day. The 1966 match-up between football’s titans ended in a tie.
With intense media interest and a fan frenzy surrounding the “Game of the Century,” Jerry Markbreit recalls the point when the anticipation reached its peak.
“The crowd was stunned,” Markbreit said. “There was absolute silence. When we (the officiating crew) ran out of the stadium, you could hear a pin drop. We got back to the student union and the fans had not moved. They were still in the stadium … waiting for something.”
There was no need for Markbreit and the rest of the crew to hustle out of Michigan State University’s Spartan Stadium to beat the crowd on Nov. 19, 1966. Many of the 77,000 fans in attendance were stapled to their seats after witnessing a 10-10 tie.
The atmosphere surrounding the game between top-ranked Notre Dame and second-ranked Michigan State had been decidedly different leading up to that moment of silence. Before the BCS and the “Game of the Century” became a part of college football’s landscape, the Fighting Irish and Spartans slugged it out.
“Back in those days, we dressed at the hotel,” said Markbreit, who served as the back judge. “The teams were one-two and it was like a national championship.”
That reality was not lost upon the late Howard Wirtz, who headed that Big Ten crew, which included Bob Hepler (umpire), Bill Makepeace (head linesman) and Ed Bronson (field judge), all of whom are deceased.
In a 1985 interview, Hepler, who spent 12 years in the Big Ten and Mid-American conferences before retiring in 1974, commented on the crew’s mentality for the game.
“Early in the season we had some difficulty coordinating our coverage,” Hepler explained. “This was the first year we were assigned as teams (crews) and for some reason we were hesitant in our calls and coverage. I guess each of us was so intent on impressing the other crewmembers, we became overly cautious. I felt we were improving though, for at the Minnesota-Purdue game in Minneapolis the week before we seemed much more comfortable. I knew the game the following week would really test our mettle and be the ultimate criterion on which our performance as a skilled crew would be judged.”
According to Markbreit, the crew had the right referee leading them into the big game. “Howard was a great leader,” Markbreit said. “He knew how important it was. When he walked out, everyone knew it would be done well. He’s the reason our crew got that game. In the pregame meetings, he said, ‘We have to represent all officials in this league and the country.’”
There was no shortage of talent representing the universities. Four players from 9-0 Michigan State were later selected within the first eight picks of the 1967 NFL draft. All-American defensive lineman Bubba Smith and running back Clint Jones went as the first two picks. Linebacker George Webster went fifth and receiver Gene Washington eighth.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame brought its own collection of skill to East Lansing. However, the Irish ranks were depleted both before and during the game. Notre Dame running back Nick Eddy aggravated a shoulder injury when he slipped on ice while stepping off the train in Michigan.
When the teams took the field, the crowd noise was intense, according to Hepler.
“The roar that came down from that upper deck was deafening,” he said. “It reminded me of a combination of wind and thunder in a gigantic storm.”
During the game, a tackle by the Spartans’ Smith sent Notre Dame star quarterback Terry Hanratty out of the contest. While players were pushing for every inch of position in a low-scoring struggle, Wirtz’s crew moved step for step with the action.
“I was too young to get caught up in the hype,” said Markbreit, who was 31 years old at the time. “I was with a wonderful crew and I didn’t realize until later how big the game was. I don’t think I was more nervous than any other game. I was excited. I was a second-year guy in the Big Ten and in the biggest game in 50 years and I was ready for it.”
Both defenses made sure there wasn’t much offensive firepower in the cold environment. Michigan State managed to build a 10-0 advantage, but Notre Dame closed the gap with a 34-yard touchdown pass by backup quarterback Coley O’Brien.
The Irish evened the score when Joe Azzaro made a field goal early in the fourth quarter. When Azzaro later lined up for another field goal attempt to possibly push Notre Dame to a lead, the margin between success and failure was paper thin. “It was just wide,” Markbreit said. “Those days, there was one guy under the goalpost instead of two.”
Later, Notre Dame took possession at its own 30 with a little more than a minute remaining. The Irish elected to run down the clock and preserve a tie.
“The fans felt like they should go for it, but Ara (Parseghian, the Irish’s coach) was a good coach. He knew what he was doing,” Markbreit said.
When the clock expired, the roar of the crowd — the fans who had banners that read “Bubba for Pope” — was replaced by stunned silence.
“The teams were so good and somebody had to win, but nobody won and that’s what makes sports wonderful,” Markbreit said.
One of Markbreit’s great satisfactions was the lack of noise directed at the game officials.
“Both teams played great and a lot of games back then ended in ties. I felt exhilaration. There were a myriad of great players on both teams and not a peep about the officiating. We had no effect on the outcome.”
Personally, Markbreit calls the “Game of the Century” a great cornerstone. “Games like that give you the experience and wherewithal to do anything,” he said.
Wirtz’s watchful eye played a big part in the smooth flow of the game. “Howard had us ready like a fighter,” Markbreit said. “He paid so much attention to me. If I had made mistakes, guys would have said, ‘Why put a second-year guy on that game?’ Howard Wirtz was the Tommy Bell of college officiating.”
Markbreit felt exhilaration at game’s end, but the teams were hit by exhaustion and pain. In his book, Fighting Back, Notre Dame halfback Rocky Bleier described the postgame. “Almost everybody was crying. The emotion of the game, the hitting and violent contact, was converted into the emotion of the locker room,” Bleier related.
The Irish bounced back and went on to defeat USC the following week and claimed a national championship.
Many on the field at Spartan Stadium went on to pro careers. Smith played with the Baltimore Colts and later forged an acting career, starring in TV roles and in the Police Academy movies. Notre Dame defensive lineman Alan Page was a member of the Minnesota Vikings and went on to a Hall of Fame career. His legal career has also had success. Page is a justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court.
Markbreit is now retired. He worked 23 years in the NFL, including four Super Bowls. He now trains officials and also speaks to various groups.
“I speak at a lot of organizations and they always mention the 1966 Notre Dame and Michigan State game when they introduce me, but nobody is old enough in the audience to remember,” Markbreit said.
When Markbreit sees footage of the game that was a predecessor to the BCS and launched so many careers, he has a brief reaction.
“Geez, I look 15 years old. I looked young,” he said.
CAPTION: Michigan State quarterback Jim Raye throws a pass as Notre Dame’s Pete Duranko closes in. Michigan State built a 10-0 lead in the classic 1966 match-up, but Notre Dame came back to even the score late in the fourth quarter.
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