Indiana University honored the 40th anniversary of their 1976 undefeated basketball team last night. TheSportsNotebook wants to go one step further and develop a series of blog posts that will celebrate The Spirit of ’76 in this Ruby Anniversary of the American bicentennial. How about we start with the basics, and it’s the teams and individuals who won sports’ most prestigious titles…
*The first event of the sports is the NCAA Tournament, since the Super Bowl is really the champion of the previous calendar year. So the 1976 sports year began with the aforementioned IU basketball team. Bob Knight’s team enjoyed its second straight perfect regular season and this time sealed it with an NCAA title.
The greatness of the accomplishment obscures the fact this was also a changing-of-the-guard moment in college basketball—UCLA was in its first year after John Wooden’s retirement and the Hoosier victory over the Bruins in the Final Four gave the game a natural way to pass the torch. And a footnote to history is that Rutgers also went unbeaten and made the Final Four before losing to Michigan.
*Dynastic reigns—their beginning and ending—were also at the heart of the early summer run of the NBA Finals and Stanley Cup.
The Boston Celtic dynasty was on its last legs and was nearly upended by the Phoenix Suns. But the Celtics won an incredible triple-overtime battle in Game 5 at the Garden that swung the series. Boston then briefly faded from the scene until Larry Bird arrived four years later.
The Montreal Canadiens won the first of four straight Stanley Cups. Montreal had a dynamic group of talent, led by forward Guy Lafleur and goaltender Ken Dryden, and other Hall of Famers like Steve Shutt and Larry Robinson in between. Montreal stopped the Philadelphia Flyers, the famed “Broad Street Bullies” in a four-game Finals sweep.
*Continuing our dynasty theme as we move to tennis, the great Bjorn Borg won Wimbledon, the first of five straight times he would win tennis’ most prestigious tournament.
*On the Triple Crown trail, a horse named Bold Forbes won the Kentucky Derby and he bookended it with a win at the Belmont Stakes. But in between, Bold Forbes came up short at the Preakness, finishing third, four lengths back.
*No one had a really dominant year in golf. The legendary Jack Nicklaus was the earnings leader on the PGA Tour, but he didn’t win any of the four majors. In fact, the four top prizes—the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open and PGA Championship—were won by four different golfers, all of whom were relative no-names. Ray Floyd, Jerry Pate, Johnny Miller and Dave Stockton won, and none won more than four majors for their entire careers.
*Major league baseball brings us back to dynasties, as Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine sealed their place in history. The Reds won their fourth pennant in seven years and their second consecutive World Series. Even more impressive, they swept all the way through October. It was only seven games at this time, but three straight over the 101-win Philadelphia Phillies and four straight over Billy Martin’s New York Yankees was an all-time feat.
*In college football, there was a new kid on the block. The Pitt Panthers were led by a fantastic running back, Heisman Trophy winner Tony Dorsett. The Panthers got an impressive win over Notre Dame to start the regular season, an impressive win over Penn State to end it and then hammered Georgia in the Sugar Bowl to bring home the national championship.
*John Madden’s Oakland Raiders had done a lot of knocking on the door in recent years, but in a period where the AFC had the best teams, the Raiders kept coming up short to either Don Shula’s Miami Dolphins or the Steel Curtain in Pittsburgh. 1976 was finally Oakland’s year—they went 13-1, survived a scare in a controversial playoff win over the New England Patriots and then rolled through the Steelers and Minnesota Vikings to win it all.
The champions of any given year are just the surface story of the year in sports. 1976 is a good example. We haven’t even mentioned Chris Chambliss’ walkoff home run or Purdue’s upset of Michigan on the football field or…but I guess that’s for future posts.