The 1966 football showdown between Notre Dame and Michigan State remains one of the most iconic moments in Fighting Irish lore. Backup quarterback Coley O’Brien was thrust into the spotlight early in the contest as starter Terry Hanratty was knocked out of action. We are very fortunate to have received a detailed account by Mr. O’Brien regarding his career and unique “Game of the Century” perspective through fellow alumnus Dennis Fitzgerald ’73, who provided the narrative and questions below. We also thank Mr. O’Brien for his valuable time and gracious cooperation. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did.
PROLOGUE by DENNIS FITZGERALD CLASS OF ‘73
Both Michigan State and Notre Dame were destined for a titanic showdown on November 19, 1966. Each team was loaded with All Americans and future Hall of Famers. Number one rated Notre Dame had Nick Eddy, Terry Hanratty, Alan Page and Jim Lynch. Notre Dame was led by the dynamic and charismatic Ara Parseghian, in his third season as the Irish head coach.
Michigan State (ranked #2) had a crushing defense led by Bubba Smith and George Webster. With a strong wind playing such a decisive factor that day, the Spartans possessed a weapon in their barefoot Hawaiian kicker, Dick Kenney. They were led by Duffy Daugherty, a wise-cracking, irreverent savant who looked more like a leprechaun than the mascot.
The squads featured a combined 13 consensus All Americans on both sides of the ball.
It was a dreary, howling, windy day. The wind was as bitter as a “mother in law’s kiss”. Notwithstanding the cold, the crowd was electric. During the night, Notre Dame faithful had painted shamrocks on the sidewalk leading to “Sparty”. Prior to kickoff, airplanes dropped leaflets on the crowd extolling each school’s cause and the partisan crowd was chanting “Kill Bubba Kill”.
I was fifteen years old and sitting on the Michigan State 35 yard line with prime tickets courtesy of Jon Bennington, the reigning Head Basketball Coach. I was anxiously awaiting the unfolding of “the Game of the Century”. As an ardent Notre Dame fan, I knew every starting roster position of the Notre Dame players by heart, but I had never heard of Coley O’Brien. This is his story.
Dennis Fitzgerald (DF): What made you decide to enroll at Notre Dame as a scholarship player?
Coley O’Brien (COB): I grew up in a Navy family and thought I would eventually follow my Father to the US Naval Academy. Being Irish I knew about Notre Dame, but didn’t follow them like I did the Midshipmen. I even took the physical at the Academy when I was a high school junior. However, my eyesight was below pilot standards and they told me I would never fly. My Dad, James M. O’Brien, was a test pilot who served in 3 wars and I wanted to follow in his footsteps. Consequently, my interest in the Academy waned and I started to evaluate other offers. I had about 22 scholarship offers and took 4 campus trips – North Carolina, Duke, Boston College and Notre Dame.
DF: What memories stand out regarding the recruiting process?
COB: The Notre Dame invite came directly from Coach Parseghian. I met him at the Washington DC Touchdown Club Annual Football Banquet in January 1965. I received the award as the Outstanding Washington Prep Player and Ara was getting the award as the Outstanding College Coach. The Washington Touchdown Club Banquet brought together each year outstanding athletes and politicians. In 1965, Vice President Humphrey attended as well as many Senators and Congressmen. Ara was joined on stage by Coach Bear Bryant and a host of athletes being honored including Dick Butkus, Jerry Rhome, Lenny Moore and my Naval Academy hero Roger Staubach. Each athlete being honored was introduced with a short highlight tape. Ara must have liked my highlights because he approached me after the dinner and asked if I would like to visit campus. Without hesitation, I accepted enthusiastically. This was my first contact with Notre Dame.
DF: When did you realize the talent of the 1966 national championship team?
COB: I realized the talent of our ’66 National Championship team in the fall of 1965 when, as freshman, we scrimmaged the varsity everyday to prepare them for their fall football opponents. The ‘65 defense was outstanding and we had a talented group of freshmen in skilled positions that clearly would complement the returning players in ’66.
This experience and youth generated great anticipation by the Irish in the fall of 1966.
DF: Tell us the Nick Eddy story from your perspective?
COB: The Nick Eddy story was simple. He was a great football halfback with size, speed and elusiveness, which he displayed in every game he played in 1966. I was not sitting near Nick on our train ride to Michigan State for the Game of the Century. It was a cold and snowy trip on the rails to East Lansing that November. The train steps were metal and very slippery, and I was told Nick slipped as he was leaving the train. He wrenched his shoulder because he was holding on the handrail as he slipped descending the stairs. As a result, our All-American halfback never played a down in the Game of the Century and was only available for spot duty the next week against Southern Cal.
DF: How hostile was the East Lansing crowd on the cold windy November 19, 1966 day.
COB: The crowd was enormous, loud and overflowed on to the sidelines and behind our bench. This created a somewhat chaotic and disruptive bench situation. The weather was cold and overcast and Spartan fans were yelling “Kill Bubba Kill”. Other than that, it was just a normal Notre Dame–Michigan State football game.
DF: Describe circumstances of starting quarterback Terry Hanratty’s injury in the first quarter.
COB: I didn’t see “Bubba kill” Terry Hanratty’s football season. However, the game film showed Terry engaged with a tackler when Bubba delivered the knockout blow – a crushing tackle. I then heard the coaches yell my name and told me to get ready to enter the game. George Goeddeke, our starting center, was also injured and Tim Monty came in to center for me. Rocky Bleier also went to the sidelines with an injury in this game.
DF: Had you as a back-up sophomore ever entertained your unlikely insertion as the quarterback against Michigan State’s Bubba Smith and George Webster (both First Team All Americans and members of the NFL Hall of Fame)?
COB: The pregame hype and publicity for this game was unprecedented. Because I didn’t expect to play, I slept very well the night before the Game of the Century. Terry’s injury gave me the opportunity to bring the Irish back from an early 10-0 deficit. Ara and the Notre Dame coaching staff always advocated “The Next Man Up” sports mantra. In other words, if called upon because of injury, be prepared to fill in seamlessly for your teammate with no drop off in performance. The “Game of the Century” was a great test of “Next Man Up” because of all the injuries previously mentioned.
DF: Down 7-10, what was the mood of the locker room; what did Ara or your position coach say to you? What was your physical situation at halftime?
COB: My 34-yard touchdown pass to Bob Gladieux late in the 2nd quarter lifted the spirits of the entire team at halftime (10-7). Three points was not a huge deficit to overcome even against that great Spartan defense. We stayed with our game plan in the second half mixing runs and passes based on down and distance and tied the game with a field goal as the 3rd quarter ended. I’ve heard many accounts of my physical condition during the critical 4th quarter of this game. Although I was diagnosed with diabetes only four weeks before this game, my sugar was under control throughout the game and had no impact on my performance. We played to win from start to finish and I was crushed walking off the field that afternoon thinking that the 10-10 tie cost us our opportunity for a National Championship. You could hear a pin drop in our locker room after the game. Ara then rallied the team by saying that the Spartans didn’t beat us at their stadium. We were ranked No.1 coming into the game and we still had one game remaining. A convincing win over Southern Cal, the PAC-8 Champions heading to the Rose Bowl, should give us another chance for a National Championship. We left East Lansing with renewed hope that a National Championship was still a possibility.
DF: When were you diagnosed as diabetic?
COB: The night before the October 22, 1966 game at Oklahoma I was up with frequent urination to the consternation of my roommate Terry Hanratty. On the return flight I was chronically thirsty and not feeling well. The trainer had blood work done and I was hospitalized for a week and missed the Navy game in Philadelphia.
My diagnosis was four weeks prior to the Michigan State game, but my diabetic condition was managed by insulin taken in advance of the game. Diabetes did not affect my athletic stamina. We were all tired because it was a hard hitting “donnybrook” where both teams left it on the field. It was a thrill to be interviewed by Michigan Legend, Tom Harmon on radio after the game.
DF: Tell the alumni about playing Southern Cal at the Coliseum the next week?
COB: I was under much more pressure to perform against Southern Cal the following week because I knew I was the starter and I only had a week to prepare. I felt the pressure all week. However, I knew that our team could bounce back and play at a championship level in spite of our injuries. Our defense played an outstanding game shutting out the Rose Bowl bound Trojans. Our offense overwhelmed Southern Cal with running and passing and a 51-0 final score. I completed 21/31 passes for 255 yards and 3 touchdowns (no interceptions). It was the only game I started at quarterback in my Notre Dame career. My dad, James M. O’Brien, flew out on a Navy plane to see this game.
DF: Take us through the rest of your ND football career?
COB: The rest of my career at Notre Dame involved backing up Terry again our junior year and shifting to halfback my senior year. Joe Theismann was a sophomore our senior year and eligible for the varsity. We had three senior quarterbacks and the coaches asked me to shift to halfback my senior year to make room for Joe. I gladly made the change because it gave me the opportunity to be a starter at halfback, which I did for 8 games my senior year. Our final game against Southern Cal ended in a 21-21 tie. One of our scores was a touchdown pass I threw to Theismann from the halfback position. Our defense held O.J. Simpson to his lowest college rushing total – 55 yds.
DF: List your family achievements and proudest moments outside football?
COB: I graduated from Notre Dame Law School in 1972 which included studying for one year in our London Program. I became a member of the Virginia Bar after graduation but opted to pursue a Washington legislative practice instead of a legal practice. I married Barbara ‘Barbie’ Powell a Maryland University grad from Silver Spring, Maryland. She was a business major and worked for IBM. We both loved the beach, skiing and running. She ran the Marine Corps Marathon in 1985, while my longest run was the Falmouth (Mass.) Road Race (7 miles). We have three children Christin (35), Conor (33) and Cara (30). All were athletes in high school but only our youngest Cara played lacrosse in college at Longwood University. Christin graduated from Notre Dame and Conor graduated from George Mason University. All are married and fully employed and have given us four beautiful grandchildren.
DF: Who are your closest friends on the 1966 team and/or your sophomore class?
COB: There were no teammates from the Washington area so I remained very close to my ND roommate Frank Criniti. Frank had a great accounting career after settling in Granger, IN. Dan O’Connor another teammate and quarterback from Chicago continues to be a close friend today. The remaining members of the ’66 team are all close friends but are spread throughout the country.
DF: What life lessons did you learn from Ara and coaching staff?
COB: Ara was a leader and a football genius. He challenged his players to be their best. He prepared his teams to beat any opponent and we believed we could. He was inspirational. He also demanded discipline and effort.
As any great leader, Ara hired outstanding assistant coaches who were essential to establishing a winning program at the highest level of Division 1 football.
DF: Does film of the game exist?
COB: The film from the ’66 Game of the Century does exist but I can’t tell you how to get it.
DF: How did the discipline of football prepare you to be a lawyer, lobbyist, and advocate?
COB: Sports prepares you to work hard to be successful and win. If you’re competitive on the field you will take that desire and work ethic to whatever you do in life. In my lobbying practice, on the golf course or just shooting skeeball at the beach, I always played to win.
DF: Who has a better story, you or Rudy?
COB: Rudy’s story was inspirational to millions, including my children. I greatly admired my teammates who walked-on to our football team and endured the physical punishment and injury of college football without a scholarship. Rudy exemplifies all walk-on players who love the game above all else. My story is the story of the 1966 National Championship Irish team and our legendary coach Ara Parseghian. I was the Next Man Up on the quarterback roster and was fortunate to be successful when Coach Parseghian and the ’66 team needed me.
DF: Tell us your thoughts on returning to campus for Ara’s funeral?
COB: The huge turnout of former players for Ara’s funeral was testament to the high esteem and love his players had for him. The University did an outstanding job in paying tribute to a great coach and outstanding Notre Dame Man.
DF: Do you assist in ND recruiting?
COB: You (as an alumnus/former player) can no longer assist in recruiting high school players.
DF: Can Notre Dame still compete at the elite level of other programs?
COB: Last years CFB playoffs demonstrated ND can compete at highest level of college football.