Dynasties overshadowed the year in 1978 sports. Whether it was a dynasty holding back a feisty challenger, a dynasty starting, a dynasty derailing or two dynasties colliding, 1978 had it. Here’s a look back on those historic moments in 1978 sports…
THE COYOTE CHASING THE ROADRUNNER
If you’re of a certain age you remember the cartoon where Wile E. Coyote always chased the Roadrunner. Often, Wile E. would appear to have his prey cornered. Only the Roadrunner would escape, the Coyote would bang his head against the wall in frustration and we’d start the whole routine all over again. In 1978 sports, there were no less than five battles that felt like this…
*The Boston Red Sox, in the days prior to 2004, were still chasing that elusive first World Series title. When they took a 14-game lead over the defending World Series champion and longtime nemesis New York Yankees, a return to the postseason seemed assured for Boston. Only the Yankees chased the Red Sox down and eventually won the AL East in an epic one-game playoff at Fenway Park. New York won another World Series. Boston went home.
*Joe Paterno was already a legend, after his perfect 12-0 seasons of 1968, 1969 and 1973. But those seasons saw Penn State football go uncrowned and Joe Pa was a legend without a ring. In 1978, the Nittany Lions again produced an undefeated regular season. This time they were ranked #1 going into the bowls and controlled their fate. In a physical Sugar Bowl battle with Alabama, Penn State was stuffed by a historic goal-line stand from the Tide and lost 14-7. Alabama shared the national title with USC. Penn State licked their wounds and had to wait four more years.
*Duke basketball, before Mike Krzyzewski, was still a Cinderella story. The Blue Devils had a magical year, led by the trio of Jim Spanarkel, Gene Banks and Mike Gminski and made the Final Four. After beating Notre Dame on Saturday, the last hurdle in their way was Kentucky. The Wildcats were every bit the blueblood program then that they are today. On Monday night in St. Louis, Kentucky’s Jack Givens dropped 41 points and the ‘Cats hung another banner. Duke had fourteen more years to wait for their first national championship.
*The Boston Bruins didn’t have the same kind of star-crossed history that the Red Sox did, having won Stanley Cups in 1970 and 1972. But the Bruins were very much in a Wile E. Coyote situation against the archrival Montreal Canadiens. In 1977, Boston’s return to the Finals ended with a sweep at the hands of Montreal (the playoffs were bracketed without regard to geography prior to 1982). The B’s made it back to the Finals in 1978. The Canadiens were waiting.
This time around, Boston was competitive, winning the middle games at home and tying the series 2-2. But Montreal won Games 5 & 6 and, like the Yankees, were able to celebrate in front of the great Boston fans.
*The two best horses on the Triple Crown circuit were Affirmed and Alydar. They ran 1-2 in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes. Each time it was close. And all three times, Affirmed was the winner. He would be the last Triple Crown winner until American Pharaoh did it in 2015.
DYNASTIES STARTING & DERAILING
*Any conversation about the best female tennis players of all-time has to include Martina Navratilova, with her aggressive play at the net. In 1978, Martina won Wimbledon. It was her first major title and the first of nine times she would win tennis’ most prestigious tournament. Before her career was over, Martina tacked on three championships in the Australian Open and four at the U.S. Open. The clay of Roland-Garros was more of challenge. She “only” won the French Open twice. A legend was born in 1978.
*The Portland Trail Blazers looked on their way to a dynasty. They won the NBA title in 1977 and Bill Walton was the game’s rising star. A big man who could score, rebound and had exceptional court vision in his passing, Walton had the look of someone who would lead a team to multiple titles. The Blazers were 50-10 in 1978 and primed to repeat. Then Walton broke his foot. His career was never the same. And the dynasty was derailed.
THE CLASH OF DYNASTIES
1978 was a seminal season in the history of the NFL. The league expanded its schedule to 16 games. They added a fifth team per conference to the playoffs, necessitating a wild-card round for the first time. And they drastically limited what defenses could do in their efforts to stop the passing game.
No one adjusted better to the latter change than the Pittsburgh Steelers. Their Super Bowl titles of 1974 and 1975 had come as a running team, with Franco Harris leading the way. In 1978, Terry Bradshaw was unshackled and shared the MVP award with Houston Oilers’ running back Earl Campbell. Pittsburgh rolled to the 1-seed in the AFC and then blasted their way through the playoffs and a return to the Super Bowl.
The Dallas Cowboys had won the Super Bowl in 1977 and with their own great defense, the dynamic running of Tony Dorsett and the crafty veteran Roger Staubach at quarterback, the Cowboys were primed for another run. Ten games in, they were sluggish, at 6-4. But Dallas reeled off six straight wins to close the year. They went on the road in the NFC Championship Game and blasted the Los Angeles Rams.
The Cowboys and Steelers, along with the Dolphins and Packers were the only teams to have won the Super Bowl twice since its founding in 1966. The Dallas-Pittsburgh battle in Super Bowl XIII at the Orange Bowl would decide the first franchise to win three championships. In a terrific football game, the Steelers won 35-31. For good measure, they won a fourth crown in 1979.