Sept. 29, 2006
By Pete LaFleur
Notre Dame always has been a school that knows how to celebrate reunions, whether it be for an entire class or a smaller group. Such a reunion is on tap this weekend, as the 1966 Notre Dame football team reassembles to celebrate the 40-year anniversary of its national championship season. Some 70 individuals - players, coaches and student managers - are expected to be on hand as the 1966 squad relives its season of glory, back on their beloved campus at Notre Dame.
Notre Dame's domination on both sides of the ball in the 1966 season (9-0-1) was born out in the numbers - including a full dozen players who collected All-America honors. The Irish outscored their opponents by an eye-popping 362-38 margin, finishing as the nation's top-scoring team (36.2 points per game) while allowing just 3.8 points per game (second-best in the nation). The balanced offense (391.5 yards per game/third in the nation) included passing and rushing attacks that both ranked among the national top 20, with the defense yielding an average of just 187.6 yards per game (fourth-best in the nation).
If there was a statistic that measured competitiveness, the Irish would have graded out near the top in that category as well. That competitive spirit even extended to the coaching staff - just ask Johnny Ray, who oversaw the defense.
"We gave up 38 points all season and Johnny Ray actually was upset with the offense, because they gave up 10 of those points," remembers halfback Bob Gladieux, one of the heroes from the "Game of the Century" versus Michigan State.
"Leroy Keyes from Purdue took back an interception for a touchdown and we had a kick blocked to set up a field goal in another game. So, in reality, our defense only allowed 28 points. We had six shutouts in a 10-game season - that defense was awesome, with so many proven veterans."
While the defense was led by seniors and juniors, several sophomores - including Gladieux, quarterbacks Terry Hanratty and Coley O'Brien, wideout Jim Seymour and standout two-way lineman Bob Kuechenberg - stepped forward to fill key roles on offense.
"Our class served as a real complement to the older players on the offensive side. We helped fill in some of the weaknesses and the end result was a great team," says Gladieux, who returned to his alma mater in the late 1980s as a graduate assistant on Lou Holtz's staff and has remained in South Bend, operating a local travel agency alongside his wife.
Linebacker Jim Lynch - a unanimous All-America selection - led a defensive unit that also included All-America safety Tom Schoen and three All-Americans across the defensive line: end Alan Page (a consensus pick) and the tackle tandem of Pete Duranko and Kevin Hardy. The 1966 offense actually produced more All-Americans (seven) than the Irish defensive unit (five), led by unanimous All-America halfback Nick Eddy. The team's tailback, Conjar, also was tabbed for All-America honors, as were the "fling-and-cling" passing combination of quarterback Terry Hanratty and receiver Jim Seymour. Three offensive lineman likewise were tabbed for top national honors, with guard Tom Regner a consensus pick while center George Goeddeke and tackle Paul Seiler rounded out the top honorees.
The 1966 season marked the third year under head coach Ara Parseghian, who nearly guided the Irish to the national title in his debut season (9-1-0). Two years later, a senior class that had been forced to watch the dismal 2-7 season in 1963 was concluding their Notre Dame careers as the consensus national champions.
Hanratty and Seymour had been working together during the previous winter, developing their timing and patterns in anticipation of filling key roles as sophomores on the 1966 team. "Fling" and "Cling" ended up forming what remains one of the top passer-receiver combinations in Notre Dame history. Hanratty finished sixth in the 1966 Heisman Trophy balloting, three spots behind his own teammate Eddy, while Seymour made eight touchdown catches (despite playing just seven games) and set a Notre Dame record by averaging 123.1 receiving yards per game.
The Irish passing duo combined for a record-setting day in the opener, hooking up 13 times for 276 passing yards and three touchdowns as the sixth-ranked Irish defeated an eighth-ranked Purdue team (26-14) that went on to play in the Rose Bowl. As for the Notre Dame defense, they would allow another score the next week at Northwestern (35-7) before yielding just 17 total points over the final eight games.
Blowout wins over Army (35-0) and North Carolina (32-0) elevated Notre Dame atop the polls, with a well-hyped game at 10th-ranked Oklahoma next on deck. The Sooners - noted for their speed and strength - were supposed to provide a stern test but it turned into a laugher, as the Irish rolled to a 38-0 victory.
The next three games yielded a 135-7 margin, with Notre Dame dismantling Navy (31-7, in Philadelphia), Pittsburgh (40-0) and Duke (64-0). The national championship was in sight, but reaching that goal would require navigating past road tests versus a pair of top-10 opponents.
Notre Dame already had played in a "Game of the Century" during the first half of the 1900s (winning 18-13 at Ohio State, in 1935) and a game with comparable buildup arrived on Nov. 19, 1966, as the top-ranked Irish prepared to battle number-two Michigan State.
Defensive lineman Bubba Smith - who might be better-known to younger football fans for his role in the Police Academy movies - was the enforcer for a tough Michigan State defense and the 280-pound menace imposed his will early in the showdown with Notre Dame. Goeddeke's ankle and Hanratty's shoulder were rearranged by crushing first-quarter tackles from Smith, thrusting two backups into the game with the driver's seat to the national title hanging in the balance.
O'Brien - diagnosed with diabetes only a few weeks earlier - came on as the Irish signal caller but the untested sophomore soon was staring at a 10-0 deficit early in the second quarter. O'Brien was receiving the ball from another mid-game replacement, as his classmate Tim Monty entered for the injured All-American Goeddeke.
"The most courageous guy on the field was Tim Monty," says Rocky Bleier, the 1966 team's regular starter at left halfback. "After Goeddeke was hurt, Michigan State moved Bubba Smith to nose guard. So here was this awesome, 280-pound lineman-you know, the whole 'Kill, Bubba, kill' thing-and Tim was just 215 pounds. But he fought and clawed and held on. He never let Bubba penetrate."
Notre Dame actually lost one of its top players before the game ever began, as Eddy was sidelined with a shoulder injury. A lineup shift moved Bleier to Eddy's spot on the right, while Gladieux was elevated to the starting right halfback role.
Amidst all the new faces - and in a hostile environment, to boot - Notre Dame was able to crack the end zone, as O'Brien directed a 54-yard drive in just four plays. He connected with Gladieux on an 11-yard strike and with Bleier for nine more yards before the play of the game, a perfect 34-yard spiral to Gladieux that put the visitors on the board.
"It was a `trips right' formation," recalls Gladieux. "I was on the wing, Rocky in the slot and Seymour wide. I was to clear out `center field' for Jim and drive the safety deep. I took off straight down the field but the defense was more concerned with the others, and I was wide open.
"I went about 12 yards before working into the middle and just started waving to Coley. I was supposed to be just a decoy, there to clear out the area. Thank God that Coley saw me and that I caught it."
Gladieux reached for the ball at the two-yard line, with Jesse Phillips in hot pursuit, and crossed the goal line for the momentum-shifting touchdown.
"That play was huge from a confidence standpoint and our defense really shut them down in the second half," says Gladieux, who watched Michigan State fail to gain any rushing yardage over the final two quarters.
Bleier had plenty of perspective on the game-changing touchdown play.
"All week long, I practiced that play," says Bleier, who fittingly now serves as a motivational speaker.
"The right halfback went in at close formation, in a flanker position. We put that play in for Michigan State's defense. As it turned out, Bobby made a great catch and gained some fame. For all of us, it was a huge game. It was rare to have 1-versus-2, with the championship on the line."
Joe Azzaro's 28-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter produced the 10-10 final score. "It was like Ali and Frazier fighting to a draw," Gladieux later would say.
Notre Dame stayed atop the polls heading into the final game at 10th-ranked USC and a 51-0 win left little doubt, as Notre Dame went on to earn its eighth consensus national title.
Page later became an NFL Hall of Famer (spending most of his career with the Minnesota Vikings) - and now is a Minnesota Supreme Court justice - while Lynch enjoyed a solid career with the Kansas City Chiefs before carving out a successful post-playing life in that city. Bleier didn't fare too shabby on the next level either, making an inspiring return from injuries suffered in the Vietnam War before playing on four Super Bowl championship teams with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Lynch enjoyed the thrill of playing in Super Bowl IV with the Chiefs, but his comparison of the two biggest games in his career helps but a cap on the memories of the 1966 season, saying: "The Super Bowl was not as big as that  Michigan State-Notre Dame game."
That's what makes championship seasons - and the reunions that celebrate those memories - so special.