The 1976 college football season saw several new teams step up and reach the four major New Year’s Day bowl games. No team made a bigger splash than Pitt, who produced the Heisman Trophy winner in Tony Dorsett, displaced Penn State as the top team in the East and eventually won the national title.
Pitt got its chance to win the national title in the Sugar Bowl and took advantage in a win over Georgia. No one could call the Bulldogs a new team on the national stage, but they did manage to end Alabama’s five-year run atop the SEC.
Other new teams included Houston, Maryland and Colorado. Houston won the Southwest Conference in their first year of membership, vaulting over traditional powers Texas & Arkansas. Maryland went undefeated and matched up with Houston in the Cotton Bowl. Colorado shared the Big Eight title and got the Orange Bowl bid out of a conference that usually produced Oklahoma or Nebraska.
Only the Rose Bowl went according to form. The Big Ten & Pac-8 races came down to winner-take-all finales between Michigan-Ohio State and USC-UCLA. The Wolverines and Trojans won and each went into New Year’s Day holding out hopes of a national championship if Pitt lost. Ohio State got the consolation prize of the Orange Bowl over UCLA.
You can read about the season-long paths of all eight participants in the major bowl games and how each one unfolded, at the links below.
The 1977 Orange Bowl was a consolation prize for the Ohio State Buckeyes, who had gone as high as #2 in the polls during the 1976 college football season, but lost their shot at the national title and then lost the Rose Bowl bid to Michigan. The Buckeyes met the Colorado Buffaloes, a program for whom this prime-time date in Miami was anything but a consolation prize. Let’s look back on the road Ohio State and Colorado took to reach this game.
Woody Hayes had taken Ohio State to four straight Rose Bowls from 1972-75, although the Buckeyes lost three of them, including the most recent to UCLA, which cost Ohio State a national championship. They were still loaded for bear and ranked #4 to open the 1976 season.
The Buckeyes had All-Americans on each side of the ball in offensive tackle Chris Ward and defensive end Bob Brudzinski, and they controlled the tempo of games with a powerful ground attack. Jeff Logan ran for over 1,200 yards to lead the team and powerful fullback Pete Johnson ground out over 700 more. The two quarterbacks, Jim Pacenta and Rod Gerald only threw a combined 94 passes all season long.
Ohio State opened the season by blasting Michigan State 49-21, and some upheaval among other top teams, quickly moved the Buckeyes to #2. The next game was a trip to Penn State, the first one Ohio State would ever make to Happy Valley.
The Buckeyes played opportunistic football against the seventh-ranked Nittany Lions. They forced a pair of turnovers in the red zone, built a 12-0 lead and then hung on after Penn State rallied. Ohio State forced one more turnover with 1:41 left and secured a 12-7 win.
But a letdown did the Buckeyes in back home in Columbus. They faced a Missouri team that was decent, but on their way to a 6-5 season, the Tigers should not have been able to compete with Ohio State. Instead, Hayes’ team suffered a 22-21 loss and skidded back to #8 in the polls. The schedule didn’t get easier with a road trip to fourth-ranked UCLA, but the Buckeyes ground out a 10-10 tie in Los Angeles.
The national championship was gone, with a loss and a tie, and Ohio State took it out on their next six Big Ten opponents. The conference only had one other winning team beyond OSU and Michigan, and that team—Minnesota—was only 6-5. Ohio State had to win a 9-3 battle with the Gophers, and rolled into their traditional season-ending battle with Michigan undefeated in league play and still ranked #8 nationally.
Another bitter home loss awaited. The game was scoreless in the first half when Gerald threw an interception in the end zone just prior to halftime. That was the last time Ohio State seriously threatened to win the game, as Michigan took over the second half and won 22-0. The Buckeyes dropped to #11 and the decision of the Orange Bowl to take them over higher-ranked UCLA was controversial.
The rationale of the Orange Bowl was about business—Ohio State would bring more fans than UCLA, and the bowl committee wanted an Eastern/Rustbelt presence to balance off Colorado. But it has to be said that even on the football merits, Ohio State had played UCLA to a tie on the road and it was reasonable to argue the Buckeyes simply deserved this bid.
Colorado’s path to Miami was quite different. Bill Mallory had taken over a struggling program and gotten a Bluebonnet Bowl invitation in 1974, but there were no signs of the Buffs being ready to challenge Nebraska, and certainly not Oklahoma, who had won the last two national championships. Colorado was unranked to start the 1976 season, and a road loss to what would prove a good Texas Tech team didn’t raise anyone’s expectations.
The Buffs bounced back with a win at Washington and then beat a bad Miami team at home. A rout of Drake sent Colorado into the Big Eight schedule, which they opened with a 24-12 loss to Nebraska.
Colorado bounced back with a 20-10 win at Oklahoma State, moving them into the Top 20 and a 33-14 rout of #16 Iowa State gained the Buffs further credibility. Oklahoma was coming to Boulder on October 30, and while the Sooners weren’t a vintage Barry Switzer powerhouse, they were still ranked #13.
The Buffaloes pulled off a 42-31 upset and the Big Eight race was officially in chaos. Colorado, Nebraska and Oklahoma State were each 3-1 in league play, with Oklahoma and Iowa State both giving chase at 2-2. The Orange Bowl bid, which went automatically to the league champ, was in the grasp of more than half the conference as November opened.
Colorado gave some of their progress back with a 16-7 loss at Missouri—the Tigers, even though their season was disappointing, still managed to beat both entrants in the Orange Bowl in 1976. The Buffs quickly responded with a blowout of Kansas and the conference race was now a four-way tie at the top.
That Mallory had his team still holding a chance at the Orange Bowl bid with one game left was still amazing. He had only one All-American, defensive back Mike Davis. Quarterback Jeff Krapple only completed 44 percent of his passes. The offense relied on 1,200-yard rusher Tony Reed. Now this team needed to just beat Kansas State and get some help.
Colorado upheld their end of the bargain in Manhattan, winning a wild game. They had won a share of the league crown, as had Oklahoma State. One more team was poised to claim a piece of what would be a tri-championship, and it was going to be the winner of the Nebraska-Oklahoma game, played six days later on Black Friday.
The Buffs needed the Sooners to win—since Colorado had beaten both Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, they would win the tiebreakers for the Orange Bowl nod. A Nebraska win, and the higher-ranked Cornhuskers would likely go to Miami. OU did its part to help the Cinderella story with a win, and the Buffs were going to South Beach.
Colorado looked like they might continue this magical ride a little longer when they jumped on top of Ohio State early in the Orange Bowl. The Buffs got an early field goal and they converted a big 4th-and-2 on the Buckeye 11 for a touchdown and a 10-0 lead. And they would win the turnover battle 4-2.
But in spite of falling behind, losing the turnover battle and having a completely inept passing game, the Ohio State running game was just too good. Logan bolted 36 yards up the middle for one touchdown and a field goal tied it up in the second quarter. Before halftime, Ohio State went on a 99-yard touchdown march that was capped off with a Johnson TD run. It was 17-10 at half, and the Buckeyes continued to control the second half, winning 27-10.
Mallory would go on to more success as a head coach, here, at Northern Illinois and at Indiana, but he never again reached a major bowl game. More surprising is that this game is the last big bowl Woody ever won. His team lost the Sugar Bowl the next year at Alabama, and one year later was the infamous Gator Bowl defeat where he punched an opposinag player and got fired. Had this been known at the time, the 1977 Orange Bowl win would have been more than just a light ending to a day when the national champion had already been crowned much earlier.
Upstarts crashed the 1977 Cotton Bowl. The Houston Cougars were in the first year of the old Southwest Conference, which had the bowl’s automatic bid. Rather than pay deference to legendary coaches in Texas’ Darrell Royal and Arkansas’ Frank Broyles, both in their final year, Houston quickly won the league. Their opponent was Maryland, who rose up to enjoy an undefeated season. Here’s how they arrived in Dallas following the 1976 college football season.
Bill Yeoman had taken over the Houston program in 1962, and after nine straight winning seasons, the Cougars fell to 2-8 in 1975. Nothing suggested a turnaround was in the offing. They were unranked to start the year. An opening day road win over what would prove to be a pretty good Baylor team was promising, but the Cougars promptly lost 49-14 at Florida on September 18.
September 25 was what gave Houston fans real hope that this year would be different. They hosted ninth-ranked Texas A&M. The Aggies had a terrific running back in George Woodward, who would average 144 yards-per-game this season. Houston shut him down.
The Cougar defensive front was led by Wilson Whitley, who won the Lombardi Award and would go #8 overall in the coming spring’s NFL draft. Houston won the game 21-10, then blew out West Texas A&M two weeks later to move into the Top 20.
Houston thumped SMU, but then dropped a tough 14-7 decision at home to Broyles and Arkansas. The loss sent the Cougars back out of the polls. They began another climb and this time they didn’t stop.
The Cougar running game was led by Alois Blackwell, who rushed 934 yards and they had a ballhawking defensive back in Anthony Francis, who intercepted ten passes. Houston blasted winless TCU to move into the polls and then opened everyone’s eyes when they went into Austin and shut out Texas 30-0. It’s true that was not a vintage Longhorn team for Royals’ final year—they went 5-5-1—but beating Texas in any era is significant and certainly a road shutout in the mid-1970s.
It set up Houston’s biggest game, at unbeaten and fifth-ranked Texas Tech on November 20. The winner would hold the inside track to the Cotton Bowl. Cougar quarterback Danny Davis was often erratic—even by the standards of the era, his 47.8% completion rate was low, but he led an offense that put up 27 points in Lubbock. Houston led 27-19 late in the game and an interception killed a final Red Raider drive.
The victory moved Houston to #7 in the polls and they took care of three-win Rice a week later to sew up the Cotton Bowl spot. A non-conference home win over Miami, 21-16, had the Cougars ranked #6 when New Year’s Day arrived.
Maryland was a program that head coach Jerry Claiborne had moving up, with a 25-10-1 record in the coach’s first three years in College Park. All three years had resulted in bowl appearances, but the Terps had yet to play on the New Year’s stage. They opened the 1976 season ranked #12.
The Terrapins opened with seven games that were relatively easy. Villanova, then playing Division I football, was the only one of the seven to finish with a winning record, and Maryland won all seven games. They elevated from #12 to #5 in the process.
Maryland, like Houston, was led by a great defensive tackle. Joe Campbell was an All-American and would be chosen one spot ahead of Whitley in the coming NFL draft. The Terps also had two excellent guards in Ed Fulton and Tom Shick, and tackle Dave Conrad rounded out a very good offensive line. The line cleared the way for fullback Tim Wilson, running back Alvin Maddox, and running quarterback Mark Manges.
The biggest game of the year wasn’t an ACC opponent—it was a home date with Kentucky, the place Claiborne had gone to school and would eventually return to coach in 1982. The Wildcats would finish the season 7-4, and had beaten ranked teams in Penn State and LSU. Kentucky came to College Park on October 30 and Maryland answered the bell with a 24-14 win.
Claiborne’s team followed that up with a win over eight-win Cincinnati, and then shut out Clemson and Virginia. It put a lock on not just an ACC title and not just a Cotton Bowl bid, but an undefeated season.
Maryland was ranked #4, but had no real chance at the national championship. Another undefeated upstart out of the East, the Pitt Panthers, were ranked #1 and in the Sugar Bowl. If Pitt lost, the polls would surely crown the winner of Michigan-USC in the Rose Bowl, the two teams immediately behind Pitt in the rankings. Neither were undefeated, but the Terps simply lacked the respect and the weakness of the ACC at this time didn’t help.
There might not have been a national title to settle in Dallas, but the winner of this game would end up in the Top 5 of the final polls, a much better neighborhood than either team was accustomed to.
The weather was ice cold in Dallas, and it was Houston who came out and struck very quickly. After a touchdown drive, the Cougars blocked a punt to set up another quick score. Then they recovered a fumble and scored again. It was 21-0 and all three touchdowns had come within a 5 ½ minute span.
But Maryland stormed back. Manges ran for a touchdown in the second quarter. Houston answered that one, but missed the extra point. In the third quarter, Manges both ran and threw for a touchdown and now it was 27-21. Houston was backed up on their own goal line in the fourth quarter facing third and long. Davis made one of the biggest throws of the season, converting the first down. Later in the drive, on 4th-and-1, Yeoman went for it, and it kept a drive for a clinching field goal alive.
Houston won 30-21, keyed by Blackwell going for two touchdowns and over 160 yards against a defense that hadn’t allowed a rushing touchdown for 22 quarters coming into the game. The Cougars got into the Top 5, finishing fourth in the final poll.
Bob Knight and John Madden are two names who have become synonymous with their sports, college basketball and the NFL respectively. Knight would become the ultimate love-him-or-hate-him figure in his time at Indiana when he won three national championships. Madden won a Super Bowl with the Oakland Raiders, would go on to become a famous as a TV analyst and get the NFL’s most popular video game eventually named after him. 1976 was the year they both got over the hump and won titles.
Indiana went undefeated through the 1976 college basketball season. The previous year had seen them go unbeaten in the regular season, but a key injury cost them in the NCAA Tournament. Nothing stopped the Hoosiers in ’76 as they won the national title with a perfect record, something no team has done since.
The Oakland Raiders knew frustration to an even greater degree. The franchise had lost the previous three AFC Championship Games, lost the legendary “Immaculate Reception” game in 1972 and lost an AFC title game in 1970, all under Madden’s leadership. In ’76, the Raiders went 13-1, got help from controversial officiating in their first playoff game and then dominated both the conference championship game and Super Bowl Read more about the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers Read more about the 1976 Oakland Raiders
True greatness wasn’t confined to teams that were coming off postseason frustrations. The Cincinnati Reds—the famed Big Red Machine had broken through their own string of playoff shortcomings when they won the World Series in 1975. Thus liberated, the Reds simply dominated in 1976.
They won 102 games and then went 7-0 in what was then a two-round postseason format. The Reds swept the Philadelphia Phillies in the League Championship Series and the New York Yankees in the World Series. No team matched that feat in the remaining years of the two-round format through 1993, and certainly not since.
Cincinnati’s dominance might have been stripping October baseball of its drama, but the Yankees and Kansas City Royals filled the void. The American League Championship Series was one of the great postseason battles fought, with its ending alone telling the story—trailing 6-3, the Royals tied the game with a three-run blast from George Brett. In the ninth, the Yankees won the pennant on a walkoff shot by Chris Chambliss, getting to the World Series for the first time under George Steinbrenner’s ownership. Read more about the 1976 Cincinnati Reds Read more about the 1976 American League Championship Series
The Boston Celtics and Montreal Canadiens are the proudest franchises in their respective sports and the won the NBA title and Stanley Cup respectively. But the two teams were going in opposite directions. For the Celtics, this championship was the last gasp of a veteran team that would fall apart one year later. For the Canadiens, it was the first of four straight titles.
Boston’s battle with the Phoenix Suns in the 1976 NBA Finals is remembered most for an incredible Game 5, one that went triple-overtime before the Celtics finally won. Montreal’s Stanley Cup matchup with the Philadelphia Flyers was a clash of powers—the Flyers had won the previous two Cups and the ’76 Finals proved to be a changing of the guard moment. Read more about Game 5 of the 1976 NBA Finals Read more about the 1976 Stanley Cup Finals
The NBA season produced more than just an incredible Finals game. Phoenix’s road to the Game 5 dramatics was an unlikely one to begin with. The Suns finished 42-40, and were taking on heavily favored Golden State in the conference finals.
The Warriors were the defending champs and # 1 seed. Their key player, Rick Barry was an elite star at this time. Phoenix stayed in the series, trailing 3 games to 2, and winning Game 6 with a driving layup at the buzzer by Alvan Adams for a 105-104 win. They then beat Golden State on the road in Game 7. The final was 94-86 and ESPN’s Bill Simmons, author of The Book of Basketball, insists that Barry intentionally sabotaged the second half after his teammates didn’t rush to his defense during a first-half brawl.
A more significant long-term development for the league as a whole and the West in particular, took place in Los Angeles. The Lakers had gone 30-52 in 1975 and were looking for a way to rebuild, just four years removed from their 1972 championship season, a year in which they set a league record with 33 consecutive wins. Prior to the 1976 season, Los Angeles found the way out—they acquired Kareem Abdul-Jabbar from Milwaukee. The results for the team weren’t immediate—the Lakers again missed the playoffs—but Jabbar won the league MVP award and gave the franchise a foundation for its eventual return to greatness
College football had a surprise year, something that was quite rare in the pre-parity era of 1976. Oklahoma, the two-time defending national champion had a down year, and the door opened for a national contender from the East to finish #1. What was surprising is that the team was not Penn State, but their then-rival Pitt. The Panthers got a Heisman Trophy year from running back Tony Dorsett, went undefeated and then sealed it with an easy win over Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. Read more about 1976 Pitt football