This article offers a snapshot of 1976 sports, a year that saw future legends like Bob Knight and John Madden win their first championships, and the Big Red Machine solidify their place in history.
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
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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.
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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.
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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.
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