The 1976 USC football team was one going through change. The Trojans were one of college football’s top programs under the leadership of John McKay. After taking over in 1960, McKay had a splendid 16-year run in Los Angeles that included three national championships. Now, he was off to coach the NFL’s new expansion franchise in Tampa Bay. John Robinson took over. Moreover, Robinson was inheriting a team that had come off a disappointing four-loss season in 1975. Robinson needed to put USC back on top of the Pac-8 and return them to the national elite. He did exactly that in 1976.
The Trojans were led by Ricky Bell, who ran for over 1,400 yards and finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting, trailing only the great Tony Dorsett at Pitt. Charles White was the #2 back, a future Heisman winner himself, and he added over 700 yards. All-American offensive lineman Marvin Powell anchored the trenches.
There were two good receivers in Shelton Diggs and Tandy Simmrin and a future NFL starter in Vince Evans at quarterback. USC’s offense would rank fifth in the nation for points scored by season’s end.
Defensively, the Trojans were also in the national top ten. Tackle Gary Jeter and corner Dennis Thurman—both future pros—got All-American notice. Respect for the USC program was high enough that, even with the down year in 1975 and the coaching transition, they still were ranked #8 in the preseason polls.
The season opener was at home against Missouri. The Tigers had a strange season. They ended up a pedestrian 6-5. They lost to several mediocre teams. But they beat a lot of good, ranked opponents. And USC was one of them. A shocking 46-25 beatdown at the hands of Mizzou was a less-than-ideal start to the Robinson era, and the Trojans went tumbling out of the national rankings entirely.
An early conference game, at Oregon, got USC back on track. They beat a bad Ducks team 53-0. That put the Trojans back in the rankings. And with college football off to a volatile start in 1976, a 31-13 win over mediocre Purdue pushed USC back to #12 by the time September ended.
Another game against a bad Big Ten team resulted in another blowout—this one a 55-zip whitewashing of Iowa. From there USC settled into five straight games against the Pac-8 undercard. They didn’t play well at a subpar Washington State but won 23-14. They crushed lowly Oregon State 56-0 and beat mediocre Cal 20-6. Stanford was a respectable opponent, and the Trojans won 48-24. A 20-3 victory over Washington set the stage for the season’s defining moments.
USC was up to #3 in the polls. They were tied for first in the Pac-8 with crosstown rival UCLA, who was ranked #2 nationally. The Trojans and Bruins would play on November 20 for the Rose Bowl bid. That would be followed by a visit from Notre Dame on November 27. USC needed to win both, beat the Michigan–Ohio State winner in the Rose Bowl, and hope that top-ranked Pitt stumbled somewhere along the line.
Thus, at the L.A. Coliseum, USC and UCLA took the field playing for both conference and national stakes. And the Trojan defense dominated. For 53 minutes of play, the Bruins gained only ten yards on USC’s side of the field. The defense forced a turnover that set up the game’s first touchdown. The Trojans took a 10-0 lead into the locker room.
In the meantime, Bell was pounding away. He got the ball 36 times and gained 167 yards. Early in the fourth quarter, the dam broke, and USC scored two touchdowns. A brief flurry from UCLA—two touchdowns in the final minutes—made the final score cosmetically respectable at 24-14—but the Trojans were dominant. And they were up to #2 in the polls.
On Black Friday, USC watched with disappointment as Pitt handled its business in a big rivalry showdown with Penn State. But the Trojans still had their business to take care of. Notre Dame was not a great team in 1976, but they were still pretty good, coming in at #13 in the polls. USC chiseled out a 17-13 win.
The stage was set for New Year’s Day. USC and Michigan were playing in Pasadena in the 2-3 spots in the rankings. Pitt was going to the Sugar Bowl to play #5 Georgia. A Panther loss meant the Rose Bowl would settle the national championship. The Sugar Bowl was played in the early afternoon, so everyone in Pasadena would know the stakes when they kicked off.
There was no such luck in the national picture–Pitt routed Georgia. But the pride of the Rose Bowl rivalry was more than enough for both schools. Particularly with Michigan’s Bo Schembechler having never won a Rose Bowl and Robinson coaching in his first.
USC got off to a rough start. Bell was knocked out on the second play of the game and Michigan got the game’s first touchdown. But the extra point was blocked. It was a point that would loom large the rest of the afternoon and marked a shift of momentum to the Trojans.
White took advantage of the opportunity Bell’s injury offered. He ran for 114 yards in his breakout game on the national stage. Evans would throw for 181 yards, including a big 4th-and-goal rollout touchdown run that gave USC the lead.
The 7-6 score held much of the second half. With three minutes to play. White ran in for a touchdown. With overtime not yet in existence, the 14-6 score all but assured USC of at least a tie. They had to make one last stand. Michigan drove into Trojan territory and had a 2nd-and-4 situation set up. But the defense came through one more time—three straight incompletions secured the win.
After the tough year of 1975, the tough transition, and the tough opening of 1976, USC football was back. They were #2 in the nation, and they weren’t going anywhere. They won a share of the national championship in 1978 and finished #2 again in 1979. The Robinson era was off and running.