This year marks the 40th anniversary of one of the great unknown stories in college sports—the 1976 Rutgers Scarlet Knights became the only team in the modern era to have an undefeated regular season in both basketball and football.
The basketball team is the better known of the two, although even they’re buried beneath the Indiana team that went unbeaten and won the national championship. Among college basketball history junkies, Rutgers at least lives on as the “other” undefeated team in Philadelphia for the Final Four.
Tom Young became the basketball coach in 1974 for a program that had never made the NCAA Tournament. Young got the Scarlet Knights to the 32-team field in 1975 where they lost in the first round. In 1976, led by Phil Sellers, they took off.
Sellers averaged 19ppg and attacked the glass. He got excellent support from the perimeter with Mike Dabney, who also knocked 19 a night. Eddie Jordan, the current head coach at Rutgers, was a good playmaker and Hollis Copeland kicked in 13ppg. The Scarlet Knights sent a message right out of the gate when they beat Purdue, who would go on to finish third in the Big Ten—trailing only NCAA finalists Indiana and Michigan.
Victories over NCAA-bound UConn and Princeton were other highlights. The final win before the NCAA Tournament came in Madison Square Garden over St. John’s. The Redmen had given Indiana a tough go of it at this same venue earlier in the year and were tourney-bound themselves. In a great showcase game, Rutgers won 70-67 and ran their record to 27-0.
Two rematches opened the NCAA field. Rutgers barely got by Princeton 54-53. The Scarlet Knights did not shoot the ball well, but Jordan’s 7-for-11 from the field and 16 points were enough to save his team. The offense got unleashed in a second game against UConn, scoring 53 in the first half and winning 93-79. The regional final against VMI was no contest—Dabney and Jordan each scored 23, while Sellers posted 16 points/12 rebounds. Rutgers was up 48-34 by halftime and won 91-75.
The run finally came to an end in the Final Four with a loss to Michigan and another loss to UCLA in the third-place game that existed through 1981. But Rutgers had its place in history with its undefeated season. And after summer break, the students would come back to more of the same on the gridiron.
Frank Burns was more than just the name of a character on the then-popular TV series MASH. Burns was in the fourth year of what would be an 11-year run as the football coach. He had already posted winning seasons in his first three years and in 1976, Rutgers led the nation in scoring defense. They gave up just 7.4 points per game. Sure, the schedule wasn’t particularly good, but that’s still some good D. Linebacker Jim Hughes and defensive back Bob Davis each intercepted five passes.
The offense relied on running back Mark Lassiter and Glen Kehler sharing the load. The junior Lassiter had his most productive season running the ball, while sophomore Kehler was building steam for stronger seasons the next two years.
Rutgers didn’t throw the ball much—only 141 times in an 11-game schedule—but that was par for the course for college football in 1976. The Scarlet Knights’ still got decent quarterback play from Bret Kosup. In his junior year and on his way to becoming a four-year starter, Kosup was pretty good at getting the ball down the field, with 7.8 yards-per-attempt.
The highlight of the season was its finale. Just like the basketball team got a shot in Madison Square Garden, the football team was able to play its last game at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford. The opponent was Colgate, who came in at 8-1. Rutgers won 17-0 and finished at #17 in the final polls.
The weakness of the schedule prevented Rutgers from getting a bowl bid. That’s unfortunate. Football in the East wasn’t highly regarded at the time, but Pitt had gone 11-0 and would validate their standing by crushing Georgia in the Sugar Bowl for the national championship. Maryland went 11-0 and got an opportunity to play in the Cotton Bowl, where they lost to Houston.
I’m not saying Rutgers deserved marquee bids like that, but it would have been nice to see how they matched up against better teams. For example, the Peach Bowl pitted Kentucky (7-4) against North Carolina (9-2). Couldn’t Rutgers have taken one of these spots? Even better, how about the Fiesta Bowl (which was not a major bowl at this time and played on Christmas Day) choosing the Scarlet Knights instead of 8-3 Wyoming as the opponent for eighth-ranked Oklahoma?
It would have been interesting. But more than that, the entire sports year of 1976 was interesting for the fan base of Rutgers. They did something unprecedented in the modern era. How about a little love for these 1976 Rutgers teams on their fortieth anniversary.