Going into the 1966 Rose Bowl, the Michigan State Spartans were the toast of the country. Under Head Coach Duffy Daugherty they had began the season unranked, but made a steady climb to reach #2 in both the AP and UPI Polls by the 6th week. When they dispatched #6 Purdue on October 23rd , they found themselves atop of both polls. The next three weeks they crushed three opponents by a combined score of 111-20, setting themselves up for their showdown with #4 Notre Dame in South Bend.
Under the Golden Dome, and before 80,000 fans, the Spartans sealed the view that they were the best team in the land with a 12-3 victory. That win completed their regular season at 10-0.
UCLA’s journey to the big game was somewhat different. At the start of the season they were even less regarded than Michigan State. Their coach was in his first year in Westwood, having led the Oregon State Beavers into the Rose Bowl the previous season. Tommy Prothro was an offensive coach of great skill, but his team was led by a 19-year old quarterback of with very little experience, Gary Beban.
Prothro was also saddled with a brutal schedule, the toughest in the land. They opened with a road game against unranked Michigan State, followed that with another road game against Penn State. They would split those two (lost to MSU, 3-13, beat PSU, 24-22), before coming home to beat Syracuse. Another road game immediately followed at Missouri, which resulted in a 14-14 tie. They then ran off two straight wins, home against Cal and on the road against the Air Force Academy and finally entered the top 10 at #8 the first week in November. Wins over Washington and Stanford put them at #7 entering their showdown with #6 ranked USC for the conference championship.
The young Beban led the Bruins to a dramatic 20-16 come from behind victory over the hated Trojans (they were down 16-6 with four minutes to go), thus securing a spot opposite Michigan State in the 1966 Rose Bowl. The last AP Poll came out on November 29th even though the Bruins had one more game to play. Now ranked 5th they traveled to Memphis, Tennessee to face the #7 ranked Tennessee Volunteers. In a controversial, tense, and hard fought game the Vols prevailed, 37-34. Prothro was so upset at the officiating at the end of the game that the Memphis born coach lamented to the press, “For the first time in my life, I am ashamed to be a southerner.” The consensus of the observers of the game agreed with the Bruin coach. The controversial loss left UCLA at 7-2-1 entering the Rose Bowl.
Just to be clear, entering the Rose Bowl, UCLA had faced four teams currently in the top 10; #1 Michigan State, #6 Missouri, #7 Tennessee and #8 USC. Their record in those games was 1-2-1. Michigan State, on the other hand had faced two such opponents, UCLA and #9 Notre Dame. Despite the Bruins impressive resume, and the fact that the Bruins gave the Spartans one of their toughest tests in the season opener, Michigan State was favored by two touchdowns.
Michigan State was led by future Hall of Famer Gene Washington on offense and the giant Bubba Smith (6’7”, 265 pounds) on defense. UCLA was led by the young Beban and running back Mel Farr on offense. The defense was small but effective, known as the “Gutty Little Bruins”.
The weather was sunny and 65 degrees. The crowd topped 100,000 to see if the little Bruins could stay with the powerful Spartans. UCLA received the opening kickoff, and on the first play from scrimmage Beban ran for 26 yards. The Bruins failed to score on the drive, but the Bruin defense held their own against Michigan State’s massive offensive line and neither team scored in the first quarter.
UCLA was forced to punt late in the quarter, but Michigan State fumbled on the return and UCLA recovered on the Michigan State six. Two plays later and Beban scored on the first play of the second quarter.
Prothro then stunned the Spartans by calling for an on-side kick, which the Bruins executed perfectly and recovered near mid field. Mel Farr then scampered for 21 yards followed by a Beban pass to Kurt Altenberg that put the Bruins on the one yard line. Beban took it in again from the one and UCLA had an astonishing 14-0 lead.
With the lead it was up to the Bruin defense. They bent, but did not break. Later in the second quarter the Spartans drove deep into UCLA territory, but Michigan State quarterback Steve Juday dropped the ball while scrambling and UCLA defensive end Jim Colletto pounced on it at the Bruin 19. On Michigan State’s next possession they missed a 23-yard field goal. “The Gutty Little Bruins” went into halftime still holding the mighty Spartans scoreless.
The second half was dominated by the Spartan’s offensive line, but the Bruin defense continued to make big plays and the score remained 14-0 late in the 4th quarter. With 6:19 left in the game Michigan State started a drive on their own 20. This time they couldn’t be stopped. Juday hit Gene Washington for a 42 yard gain to the Bruin 38. Fullback Bob Apisa then broke free for a 38-yard gallop for a touchdown. The Spartans lined up for the extra point, but Daugherty tried some trickery of his own, and ordered a fake attempting to get two points. The gambit failed as the UCLA defense wasn’t fooled and pressured Juday into an incomplete pass.
The Bruins failed to run out the clock and were forced to punt. When Bubba Smith blocked the Bruin punt, Michigan State took over at the Bruin 49. With the game coming to a close, the Spartans began their last drive. Three times they went for it on 4th down, and three times they made it. Finally with 31 seconds left, Juday scored from the one and suddenly Michigan State was a 2-point conversion away from a 14-14 tie. Daugherty called an “option pitch” to Bob Apiso. As he ran right and turned the corner he seemed to have a clear path to the end zone, but out of nowhere Bruin safety Bob Stiles appeared and hit Apiso at the one. Stiles fell unconscious on the field, but Apisa was also down and he was not in the end zone. The Spartans attempted an on-side kick, but it failed and the UCLA Bruins were Rose Bowl Champions for the first time, 14-12.
The aftermath of the Rose Bowl was profound, but only because of the result of the other New Year games. Not only did #1 Michigan State fall in the Rose Bowl, but #2 and undefeated Arkansas fell to LSU in the Cotton Bowl. When #4 Alabama then beat #3 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl the chaotic day ended with the AP Poll looking like this:
- Alabama (9-1-1)
- Michigan State (10-1)
- Arkansas (10-1)
- Nebraska (10-1)
- UCLA (8-2-1)
- Missouri (8-2-1)
- Tennessee (8-1-2)
- LSU (8-3)
- Notre Dame (7-2-1)
- USC (7-2-1)
The irony of the final order seems to indicate that the job the officials pulled on December 9th at the Liberty Bowl Stadium in Memphis probably cost UCLA a “National Championship”. The Bruins played a brutal non-conference schedule. They played road games against teams that finished #2, #6, and #7. They later faced #10 on a neutral site at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, and finally the #2 team again in the Rose Bowl. That’s 2-2-1 against the top ten. When they weren’t facing these powerhouses they were up against traditional powers such as Penn State (5-5), Syracuse (7-3), Washington (5-5) and Stanford (6-3-1) . They only played one team that lost more games than they won (Air Force 3-6-1) and the overall record of their opponents was 74-34-6 (a .685 winning percentage). Has any team ever gone through this kind of test? If UCLA wins the game against Tennessee, that there’s lots of evidence that they really did, the Bruins would have finished 9-1-1, and with that schedule would have been #1. Even at 8-2-1 they had an argument.