For at least the first half of the 20th century, college football was more popular than the professional version. So, when powerhouses met then, the games often had a larger-than-life quality. On rare occasions, the combination of blueblood programs, high stakes and intense media coverage created a matchup that transcended all others. Those games were billed by the media as a “Game of the Century.” Here is a look at seven such games from the 20th century and what made them so special.
1. November 2, 1935: Ohio State vs. Notre Dame
What made it special: This was the first game the media called “The Game of the Century,” and despite the fact that it was contested in the midst of the Great Depression, demand for tickets was off the charts. Some tickets sold for $50 each, and rumors of counterfeit tickets abounded.
The 81,018 in attendance at Ohio Stadium in Columbus saw Notre Dame rally to win a battle of unbeaten teams, 18-13—all the Irish’s points came in the fourth quarter. Grantland Rice, then the most famous sportswriter in the country, wrote: “Notre Dame came out of the maw of hell to beat Ohio State 18 to 13 today before 81,000 and with the greatest football victory in the long and brilliant history of the Blue and Gold.”
2. December 1, 1945: Army vs. Navy
What made it special: In an era when both service academies were also football powerhouses, Army came into the game ranked No. 1 and Navy No. 2. World War II had ended three months earlier, and President Harry S. Truman attended.
Despite plenty of patriotic fervor and the presence of the commander-in-chief at Franklin Field in Philadelphia, the game didn’t live up to the hype. Army jumped to a 20-0 lead after one quarter, and Navy, while it played much better for the final three quarters, could never draw close. Army won, 32-13.
Grantland Rice, though he acknowledged Army’s greatness, almost seemed more impressed by Navy in defeat, writing, “While Army proved its greatness in vital spots, Navy was the day’s big surprise and deserves enduring credit for the showing it made against a bigger, better and more experienced squad.”
3. November 19, 1966: Notre Dame vs. Michigan State
What made it special: This was another matchup of the top teams in the country, one in which 10 future NFL first-round draft picks dotted the rosters, and 31 future pros in all participated. A television audience of 33 million and the crowd in East Lansing, Michigan, however, was left wanting more at the end.
With the score tied at 10, top-ranked Notre Dame got the ball back at its 30-yard line with 1 minute, 24 seconds remaining. Fighting Irish coach Ara Parseghian had his team run the ball on six straight plays, including a fourth-down conversion from Notre Dame’s own 39-yard line. Michigan State fans booed the conservative strategy, and famed Sports Illustrated college football writer Dan Jenkins famously wrote that Parseghian had decided to “tie one for the Gipper.”
In the South Bend (Indiana) Tribune, Michigan State defensive co-captain George Webster summed up the feelings of many when he said: “I’d like to play another half—right now.” In the final Associated Press poll of the season, Notre Dame was No. 1 and Michigan State No. 2.
4. December 6, 1969: Texas vs. Arkansas
What made it special: The game did a 50 share on television, meaning that half the TV sets in the United States were tuned in. President Richard Nixon attended, braving the cold and rain of Fayetteville, Arkansas, with 40,000 other fans. He declared beforehand that he would give a plaque to the winner proclaiming it the nation’s top team, to the great annoyance of third-ranked, unbeaten Penn State and its fans.
Top-ranked Texas was on an 18-game winning streak, and Arkansas had won 15 in a row. The Razorbacks held a 14-0 lead heading to the fourth quarter, but Texas rallied with 15 unanswered points to win, 15-14, and receive that plaque from the president.
As for those angry Penn State fans, well, the president seemed amused by the furor his pregame comments caused, saying with a grin that he was amused “Penn State has given me a lot of flak this week.”
5. November 25, 1971: Nebraska vs. Oklahoma
What made it special: The Cornhuskers were the defending national champions and had a 20-game winning streak, as well as the nation’s top-ranked defense. Second-ranked Oklahoma, which used a run-heavy Wishbone offense, was on its way to averaging an NCAA-record 472 rushing yards per game. A then-record 55 million viewers watched the game on ABC.
Nebraska’s Johnny Rodgers, who would win the Heisman Trophy the following year, delivered the game’s iconic play in Norman, Oklahoma, breaking several tackles on a 72-yard punt return for the opening score. The teams traded scores, with a late Nebraska touchdown providing the 35-31 final margin
In the immediate aftermath, the contest was regarded as the greatest college football game played, a distinction it still holds with many historians. Wrote Dave Kindred of the Louisville Courier-Journal: “They can quit playing now, they have played the perfect game.”
6. January 2, 1987: Miami vs. Penn State
What made it special: This Fiesta Bowl clash in Tempe, Arizona had it all—it featured the nation’s best teams and it was moved moved to January 2 instead of its traditional slot before the Rose Bowl on January 1 to further highlight the stakes. Under head coach Joe Paterno, Penn State had cultivated a clean-cut, gritty image. Meanwhile, Jimmy Johnson’s Hurricanes deplaned in Arizona wearing military-style fatigues, giving this game a “good-versus-evil” theme for the media.
Dave Wannstedt, then a first-year defensive coordinator for Miami, recalls that his team was focused despite all the attention surrounding the Hurricanes’ attire. “Nobody at Miami overreacted,” he says. “The players were getting ready to go and win a national championship, and they knew it was going to be a battle.”
Wannstedt’s defense certainly did its job, holding Penn State to 162 yards, but seven turnovers—including five Vinny Testaverde interceptions—doomed the favored Hurricanes, and Penn State won, 14-10, to earn the national title.
7. November 13, 1993: Florida State vs. Notre Dame
What made it special: Much like the Miami-Penn State showdown in 1987, there was a “good-versus-evil” element that much of the media played up. But David Haugh, who covered the game as a columnist for the South Bend (Indiana) Tribune, says the label didn’t quite fit Florida State.
“It was difficult to cast them as the villain because they had the world’s friendliest, most cordial coach in Bobby Bowden, who was telling jokes at every turn,” he recalls. Florida State also had quarterback Charlie Ward, whom Haugh remembers as charismatic and eloquent.
Haugh says that animosity toward the Seminoles could not even being ginned up after their players toured the Notre Dame campus wearing green hats featuring shamrocks and gold Florida State initials.
“They relished being sort of the villain,” Haugh says of Florida State. “They did play into that a little bit more. But it seemed like this was a team that was trying hard to be dislikable, but they were kind of hard to dislike.”
Ultimately, the game lived up to the hype. Ward’s attempt at a late rally fizzled when Notre Dame’s Shawn Wooden batted down a pass to the end zone, sealing a 31-24 victory for the Irish.