There’s always something special about the month of September if you’re a sports fan. The smell of fall is in the air. Baseball is fun during the long summer, but now it kicks up to an extra degree of intensity. College football and the NFL are getting rolling, giving every weekend the feel of a sports extravaganza. Let’s turn back the clock forty years and recall what sports were like in September 1979 and how they looked to people of that era as they unfolded.
Baseball had only two divisions per league and winners went directly to the League Championship Series. There weren’t as many teams in contention, but for those that were, it was long a month-long Division Series.
In 1979, Major League Baseball was coming off an awful month of August. The New York Yankees were the two-time defending World Series champs and struggling through an off-year. That year turned tragic in August when their captain, catcher Thurman Munson died in a plane crash. A pall was cast over the game in general and the AL East race in particular, where the Baltimore Orioles reached Labor Day with a commanding eight-game lead on the Milwaukee Brewers and were never challenged throughout the final month.
A changing of the guard was unfolding in the West. The Kansas City Royals had won three straight division titles, but it was the California Angels who took advantage of a down year in KC to secure what had seemed a comfortable lead. But would it hold? The Royals were barreling into September and by Labor Day, the lead was down to a game and a half? Would the veterans prevail again or was it time for new blood?
Veterans vs. New Blood was the very definition of two sizzling hot races in the National League. The Pittsburgh Pirates, winners of five NL East titles in the 1970s were battling the up-and-coming Montreal Expos. In the West, a fresh challenger in the Houston Astros had risen up to fight the Cincinnati Reds, who had already claimed five NL West crowns of their own, to go with four pennants and two World Series titles.
In college football, USC and Alabama had split the previous year’s national championship, were ranked 1-2 in the polls again and would stay at or near the top throughout all of 1979. The NFL had its own clear leaders as well–the Pittsburgh Steelers had beaten the Dallas Cowboys in the Super Bowl the prior January. It made the Steel Curtain the first team to win three titles and they were back for more. As for the Cowboys, they still had the legendary Roger Staubach at quarterback, Tom Landry on the sidelines and weren’t going anywhere.
That’s the landscape. Now let’s watch the month unfold…
Saturday, September 1
The college card was quiet on this holiday weekend, unlike the Labor Day Weekend College Football Fest that takes place today. There were only 11 games and none of them of significance.
The big news was the start of the NFL season, with The Tampa Bay Buccaneers opening the season with a Saturday night game at home against a Detroit Lions team that would finish last in the NFC Central (Tampa Bay shared this division with the four current teams of the NFC North).
Tampa’s great defensive end, Lee Roy Selmon set the tone for his season early when he returned a fumble 29 yards for a touchdown. Quarterback Doug Williams found his tight end, Jimmie Giles with a 66-yard touchdown pass that broke the game open in the second quarter and Tampa won 31-16. It was only the Bucs’ fourth year of existence and this year would be their first good one.
Sunday, September 2
The Los Angeles Rams had been a consistent contender throughout the decade, but kept getting stopped short of the Super Bowl. The previous year had seen the Rams lose 28-0 to the Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game at home, the second time in four years Dallas had come west and blasted LA with a Super Bowl trip on the line.
The Rams had the marquee game of Week 1 in 1979, with a home game against the Oakland Raiders, no longer the Super Bowl contender they had been under John Madden or would soon be again under current coach Tom Flores, but still a winning team. The Rams took a 14-0 lead, but with QB Pat Haden throwing three interceptions, the lead evaporated and Los Angeles lost 24-17.
Monday, September 3
The Steelers were set to take the Monday Night stage. Terry Bradshaw was still at the height of his playing days, years away from being an annoying Fox-TV pregame commentator. Franco Harris was a powerful running back, and Rocky Bleier, a Vietnam war hero turned football player, chipped in valuable carries of his own. The receiving tandem of Lynn Swann and John Stallworth was one of the best in the game.
And we haven’t covered the offensive line, anchored by future Hall of Fame center Mike Webster, or the legendary “Steel Curtain” defense, with linebacker Jack Lambert, defensive back Mel Blount and a ferocious front four led by Mean Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood. There was no reason to think the Steelers couldn’t go all the way again and oddsmakers agreed. Pittsburgh was a short (+240) bet to win it all.
They would travel to New England. The Patriots were coming off a division title run of their own in 1978, but organizational turmoil caused a coaching change and while the Pats would be pretty good in ‘79, they wouldn’t make the playoffs. The Steelers escaped Foxboro with an overtime win.
Thursday, September 6
A Thursday night game was a novelty in the late 1970s, and the Rams played one in Denver for Week 2. They trailed the Broncos, the two-time defending AFC West champs and future wild-card team this year, 9-6 in the fourth quarter.
Linebacker Jack Reynolds then recovered a fumble inside the Bronco 5-yard line and waltzed in for the winning touchdown. Los Angeles wasn’t looking good by any means, but they escape with a split against two good AFC West opponents.
Saturday, September 8
Top-ranked USC was known as “Tailback U” back in those days and Charles White was the latest heir. White rolled for over 2,000 yards rushing and won the Heisman Trophy in 1979. He had a backup running back who didn’t turn out too badly either—Marcus Allen ran for 694 and finished eighth in the Pac-10 in rush yardage.
White and Allen were just two pieces of what was a loaded team. Brad Budde led the offensive line at guard and won the Lombardi Award. Dennis Johnson was an All-American linebacker. Future NFL players in linebacker Chip Banks and defensive backs Dennis Smith and Joey Browner were in the lineup. There was a future NFL head coach in defensive back Jeff Fisher.
And the fourth defensive back? Another guy who turned out well, in safety Ronnie Lott, merely the consensus choice as the best to ever play his position in the NFL.
Given all that, USC’s 21-7 opening day win at Texas Tech wasn’t quite the statement you might have expected.
Alabama head coach Bear Bryant did it by constantly moving a plethora of good players in and out of the lineup. Steadman Shealy took most of the snaps at quarterback and though he only threw 81 passes all season, Shealy was the team’s leading rusher with 791 yards.
The running backs were a cadre of Steve Whitman, Major Ogilvie, Don Jacobs, John Hill and Billy Jackson, whom Bryant kept moving in and out and constantly attacking defenses with a fresh back behind an offensive line led by All-American guard Jim Bunch.
The top receiver was Keith Pugh, and in this offensive system, his 25 catches for 433 yards seemed to make him look like an early version of Jerry Rice.
Defensively, Alabama only had one All-American, corner Don McNeal. But the whole was much greater than the sum of the parts—the Tide gave up just 5.6 points per game, the best in the land. They won at Georgia Tech 30-6 to start the season–yes, Alabama actually played a non-conference game at another school’s campus all the way back in 1979
It was a new era in the Big Ten. Ohio State began a football season without Woody Hayes for the first time since 1951. Earle Bruce was the new man in town and the Buckeyes were not in the preseason rankings, while three Big Ten rivals–Michigan, Purdue and Michigan State were in the Top 10.
The Buckeyes sent the first warning shot across the bow with an easy 31-8 win over Syracuse. The other three teams all had conference games to open with and they all won without incident. Michigan beat Northwestern, Purdue knocked off Wisconsin and Michigan State defeated Illinois.
Sunday, September 9
It was a rematch of the AFC Championship Game, as the Houston Oilers visited the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was also a matchup of the co-MVPs from 1978. Houston’s powerful running back Earl Campbell had joined Steeler quarterback Terry Bradshaw in getting recognition for the award.
Campbell had been shut down on an icy field in the previous years’ playoffs, a 34-5 Pittsburgh rout. On this September day, the Steel Curtain showed it wasn’t about the weather. Campbell was held to 38 yards and Oiler quarterbacks Dan Pastorini and Gifford Nielsen were intercepted a combined five teams. Pittsburgh won 38-7 and sent a clear message about who the team to beat still was.
Monday, September 10
1978 had been the first year of multiple wild-cards in the playoffs and the first-ever wild-card game came when the Philadelphia Eagles lost a heartbreaker in Atlanta on Christmas Eve. The Falcons came north to old Veterans Stadium for Monday Night rematch in Week 2.
Eagle quarterback Ron Jaworski played well, going 16/27 for 214 yards, hooking up nine times with Carmichael. But the Philly running game never got going, while the Falcons were more balanced.
Atlanta got out of town with a 14-10 win, but this game would not prove to be any indicator of where the teams were going. The Falcons failed to get back to the playoffs. The Eagles improved on the previous year, advanced in the postseason this time around and continued an upward trajectory that would get them to the Super Bowl in 1980.
Tuesday, September 11
The big showdowns in major league baseball were about to start. Cincinnati trailed by a half-game as Houston came to old Riverfront Stadium for a two-game set.
The Reds turned to the legendary Tom Seaver, while Houston went with rising star J.R. Richard. Neither pitcher had his good stuff. The Astros led 7-6 in the seventh, when light-hitting shortstop Dave Concepion hit a two-run homer for the Reds. Slugging leftfielder George Foster hit another blast. The Reds hung on to win 9-8.
Wednesday, September 12
The bats continued to roll in Cincinnati, with the Reds getting three hits apiece from Dave Collins and Ray Knight. But the big difference was that Cincy found a pitcher who could settle things down. Frank Pastore came out of their bullpen and and delivered 3.1 innings of one-hit ball. Cincinnati won 7-4. .
Saturday, September 15
Notre Dame was two years removed from a national title and had won a thrilling Cotton Bowl the previous January. But the Irish said goodbye to quarterback Joe Montana and were doing some rebuilding. They traveled to Michigan to start the year with Rusty Lisch at quarterback.
Michigan’s expectations were high as usual, especially with Ohio State seemingly in turmoil and transition. The Wolverines were ranked #7 to start the season and had opened up with a 49-7 thumping of Northwestern.
Notre Dame’s offense indeed bogged down. But the kicking game and the defense bailed out the Irish. They clung to a 12-10 lead in the game’s closing moments. Michigan lined up for a short field goal try to win it. Notre Dame linebacker Bob Crable blocked the kick.
It was the first big play of what would be many for Crable in his college career. A sophomore in 1979, he would make All-American each of the next two years, and he joined with freshman defensive back Dave Duerson—a future starter with the 1985 Chicago Bears, to give Notre Dame a good young crop of defensive talent.
But the talent overall was still too young for the Irish. They weren’t a part of the national title conversation in 1979, though they would return to contention a year later. Michigan also had a relatively down season before getting back on top of the Big Ten in 1980.
The most notable upset was that Wake Forest upset #12 Georgia. The Demon Deacons were coached by John Mackovic and would turn in an 8-3 year. The loss for the Bulldogs was the start of a disappointing 6-5 campaign. They clearly needed Herschel Walker, who would arrive next season and immediately lead the program to a national championship.
Sunday, September 16
Dallas was hosting the playoff-bound Chicago Bears in the late afternoon window. The Cowboys were winning their early games, but not looking good in the process.
Today, the running game got rolling, as Tony Dorsett waged battle with another future Hall of Famer, Chicago’s Walter Payton, each going over 100 yards. Staubach again was the difference-maker late. He threw three touchdown passes and the last one was a 22-yarder to Hill in the fourth quarter to win it, 24-20.
Monday, September 17
The Pirates and Expos were tied and Pittsburgh went north of the border for a two-game series. Don Robinson faced off with Montreal ace Steve Rogers in Monday night’s opener, and Robinson met the moment—a six-hit complete game delivered a 2-1 win.
Meanwhile, the Angels arrived in Kansas City for four games and their lead sitting at three. California turned to Chris Knapp, who was promptly crushed by a hot Royal lineup. The 16-4 result kept KC’s momentum going.
Tuesday, September 18
Montreal and Pittsburgh were tied tied 3-3 in the 11th inning, when Willie Stargell came through, blasting a two-run homer to dead center.
Pittsburgh was now up two games, but the Expos would play better coming out of the series. The Pirates split their next six. Montreal capitalized and Pittsburgh trailed by a half-game when the teams began their final head-to-head series of the year, a four-game set that would open the regular season’s final week.
Kansas City looked ready to pick up where they left off when they tagged Dave Frost for four runs in the first inning. But Frost settled down and delivered one of the clutch pitching performances of the season for the Angels. He worked into the ninth, Kansas City never scored again, and California rallied to a 6-4 win.
Wednesday, September 19
It was another 6-4 final in Royals Stadium, but this time KC came out on top. Reliable lefty Larry Gura beat Nolan Ryan.
Thursday, September 20
In the series finale, eventual AL MVP Don Baylor hit an early home run for California and the game was tied 2-2 in the seventh. The Angels then unloaded, scoring six times, with Brian Downing’s three-run shot being the big blow. The 11-6 win ensured California left town with their lead still intact at three games.
Friday, September 21
It was the penultimate weekend of the season. The Reds had upped the lead to 2 ½ games and were in Houston for a three-game set.
Friday night was another Seaver-Richard battle. Ray Knight got to the Houston ace for a two-run shot early, but Richard settled down. Even though Seaver pitched well, the Astros chipped away for a couple runs. The game stayed tied 2-2 and both aces gave way to the bullpens. Extra innings arrived Houston won it in the 13th.
Saturday, September 22
Tensions grew higher for Reds fans on Saturday. They got a run in the first inning, but did not score again in a 4-1 loss. Cincy loaded the bases in the seventh with no outs, but failed to score, as three consecutive pinch-hitters were unable to do the job. Sunday’s finale would be a game for first place.
The most notable college football results came from Chapel Hill and West Lafayette. Pitt, ranked #17 in the country, lost 17-7 at North Carolina. It was the only loss all season for the Panthers and freshman quarterback Dan Marino.
Notre Dame visited Purdue and the Irish shortcomings began to be exposed. The Boilermakers, led by quarterback Mark Herrman, moved the ball well and won 28-22. It was the start of a big year in West Lafayette, as Purdue would finish the regular season 9-2, win the Bluebonnet Bowl and end up 10th in the nation.
Meanwhile, Alabama kept it rolling and hammered bowl-bound Baylor 45-0.
Sunday, September 23
It was an NFL Sunday, and Reds-Astros would be played with a football-level intensity. Pastore got the ball and again delivered. He went the distance, scattered nine hits and gave up only one run. Foster homered early, Knight had three hits and five-run fourth inning gave Cincinnati an easy 7-1 win. They still had the NL West lead, but at 1 ½ games, with a week left, it wasn’t time to celebrate just yet.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were a good team in 1979 and hosted the Los Angeles Rams. Jim Youngblood got the game started for the Rams with a 31-yard interception return for a touchdown. But the extra point was missed and Los Angeles didn’t score the rest of the day. Haden was 13/27 for only 64 yards and later replaced by Vince Ferragamo in a 21-6 loss. The good news for Los Angeles? It wasn’t the last time they would be in Tampa this season.
Monday, September 24
The Cowboys were still not playing to expectations and that could be measured by their performance against the Las Vegas spread. If you were betting the Cowboys and giving the points, you’d lost all three bets even as the team went 3-0.
That turned into an actual on-field loss in Cleveland. The Browns were a decent team, growing into a contender and the Cowboys played poorly in a 26-7 loss, turning it over five times.
In Pittsburgh, the Pirates and Expos played a doubleheader. Bill Robinson hit a big home run for Pittsburgh in a three-run sixth inning that keyed a 5-2 win in the opener. The Pirates were poised to sweep when they led the second game 6-3 in the eighth inning, but a blown save by submarine-style closer Kent Tekulve allowed Montreal to rally and reclaim first place with a 7-6 win.
Kansas City made their return trip to Anaheim still trailing California by three games. Minnesota was four games out, but with the Royals and Angels playing head-to-head it would take the equivalent of an inside straight for the Twins to pull it out.
Monday night saw a Ryan-Gura rematch, and Nolan fell behind 3-0 early, with a couple defensive miscues bearing a big portion of responsibility. The big flamethrower settled down though, and California’s Dan Ford became the hero of the game. The rightfielder hit a two-run single with two outs in the third, then hit sac flies for runs in the fifth and seventh, as the Angels won 4-3.
Tuesday, September 25
The Twins lost, so as the late game progressed on the West Coast, the Angels knew they could clinch with a win. Frank Tanana was on the mound. The lefthander would pitch two clinching games and tonight was the first (the second would be in Detroit in 1987). His complete-game five-hitter started the party in Anaheim. They would be going to Baltimore for the American League Championship Series.
Tuesday and Wednesday would b the biggest nights of the 1979 NL East race. Tuesday’s game was tied 3-3 in the fifth, when the Pirates unloaded and won 10-4. Then on Wednesday, they bashed Rogers for ten more runs, and took a 1 ½ game lead with four days left.
Thursday, September 27
Pittsburgh lost a makeup game with St. Louis. Their record was 96-63, while Montreal was at 94-63. The potential for two days of Expo makeup games loomed if the weekend didn’t settle things. Both teams were at home, the Pirates with the Cubs and the Expos against the Phillies.
Friday, September 28
Dave Parker hit a second-inning home run, kickstarting a four-run rally and the Pirates won 6-1. The Expos went to 11 innings, but lost to the Phils. Pittsburgh now had the lead in the loss column and controlled their own fate.
Cincinnati had nudged their lead back to 2 ½ games, and they controlled the half-game in the event that makeup games were required on the following Monday. That meant the magic number was one.
Given Frank Pastore’s clutch pitching in this month, it was fitting that he have the ball tonight at home. Pastore tossed a four-hit shutout against the Atlanta Braves for the home fans, and the party could start in Riverfront.
Saturday, September 29
Fate reversed itself in the NL East. Pittsburgh’s Bert Blyleven coughed up a 3-0 lead on Saturday, and the Pirates ultimately lost 7-6 in 13 innings. Montreal won 3-2 and the loss column was again even.
Penn State had come within inches of the national championship in 1978, being stopped on an epic goal-line stand by Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. The Nittany Lions would have a rebuilding year in 1979 and that became apparent today. Nebraska crushed Penn State 42-17.
The Cornhuskers won their first ten games and were sniffing a national title of their own. But in this era, Oklahoma was always the roadblock for Nebraska. The Huskers lost 17-14 to the Sooners and then suffered another 17-14 heartbreak in the Cotton Bowl against Houston.
The bad year UCLA would have, finishing 5-6, was by no means apparent at this time, though they had lost to Houston already. The Bruins were still ranked #17 when they hosted Ohio State and bolted to a quick 10-0 lead. For the second time in the month of September, Ohio State faced a double-digit deficit.
Buckeye running back Calvin Murray ripped off a 34-yard touchdown run and after three quarters the game was tied 10-10. UCLA got a field goal and drove deep into Buckeye territory before missing a chip shot field goal.
Ohio State got the ball on their own 20 with 2:21 left. Art Schlichter calmly completed six straight passes, including the winning touchdown with 46 seconds The 17-13 win vaulted the Buckeyes to #8 in the rankings.
And the two big powers? Alabama predictably crushed Vanderbilt 66-3. USC had what looked like a tough game on the road against 12th-ranked LSU and won 17-12. But it turned out the Tigers were mediocre and this win looked less impressive for the Trojans as the season wore on.
Sunday, September 30
All eyes were on Pennsylvania, with the Pirates fighting it out and the Steelers playing a showcase game in Philadelphia in the early afternoon time slot.
The Pirates knew that if they won, Montreal would need to first take its own finale, then win two makeup games and then meet the Pirates in a one-game playoff. In a big game who better than Stargell to take over? Pops homered, Parker had three hits and the pitching combination of Bruce Kison and Kent Tekulve delivered a 5-3 win.
And the word from Montreal was good news for the Steel City—Philadelphia sent their ace, lefty Steve Carlton to the mound and he shut out the Expos 2-0. The NL East race was over.
On the football field, the Eagles were a four-point underdog, but got a strong game from Wilbert Montgomery who ran for 98 yards against the Steel Curtain defense. Jaworski and Terry Bradshaw didn’t do much in the air, each throwing a couple interceptions, so that running effort was the difference. Philadelphia prevailed 17-14.
Dallas returned to the win column in the late afternoon and finally covered a pointspread. Dorsett ran for 119 yards against the lowly Cincinnati Bengals and Dallas covered a (-10) line in a 38-13 win
Winning ugly would prove to be foreshadowing for Dallas. Even though they finished 11-5 and got the #1 seed in the NFC, they were far from dominant. They needed a dramatic rally from Staubach in the season finale against Washington to win the division. Then they missed chances to put the 9-7 Rams away at home in the playoffs. Eventually Los Angeles pulled out a 21-19 win and made an improbable Super Bowl run.
USC’s questionable early performances didn’t stop the Trojans from having a great season, but they did foreshadow at least a little bit of a stumble. USC blew a 21-0 lead against Stanford and finished in a 21-21 tie. That was their only blemish and it cost them another co-national championship.
Alabama had no such problems running the table and sealing the national championship with a Sugar Bowl win over Arkansas. Ohio State had reached the Rose Bowl undefeated and had a shot at their own share of the title, but an explosive second half from Charles White gave USC the 17-16 win in Pasadena..
But the big story of 1979 came in Pittsburgh. The Pirates swept the Reds in the National League Championship Series and them met the Orioles in the World Series. After losing three of the first four, they forced a seventh game. More Pops Stargell heroics won it for Pittsburgh, as he got a sixth-inning home run just over the outstretched glove of Ken Singleton.
In January Steelers won another Super Bowl. They again beat Houston for the AFC Championship, although this game was more competitive than the rout of 1978. The feisty Rams made the Super Bowl itself more competitive than most expected, but Pittsburgh asserted control in the fourth quarter for a 31-19 win. The Steel City had been turned into Title Town.