Dan Devine was in his second year as the head football coach at Notre Dame when the 1976 season began. Devine’s first year had not gone well, at least by the lofty expectations at South Bend. Notre Dame lost three games in 1975 and did not go to a bowl game.
Part of this was due to the fact there were only eleven bowl games in ’75 and another part due to the fact the Irish generally declined minor bowl invites then. But in either case, it underscored that Devine’s effort to replace the legendary Ara Paraseghian was off to a slow start and it needed to change. It took some time, and a lot of stops and starts along the way, but the 1976 Notre Dame football team brought about that change and laid the foundation for even bigger things ahead.
The 1976 college football season did not begin well for Devine. The Irish were ranked #11 and hosting ninth-ranked Pitt in the September 11 opener. The 1976 Pitt football team was led by running back Tony Dorsett, on his way to a Heisman Trophy season. The Pitt defense dominated, Dorsett ran over the Irish defense in the second half and Pitt won 31-10. It was the start of a national championship season for the Panthers and for the Irish, the questions lingered as they fell out of the polls.
Notre Dame was able to take care of three Big Ten opponents, Purdue, Northwestern and Michigan State. All were decisive, but none of the three would finish the year with a winning record. A similar win over a non-descript opponent in Oregon made Notre Dame 4-1 and they were back up to #14 in the polls.
The Irish still had a lot to prove, but they were winning—and if nothing else, the fact the nearby Cincinnati Reds had just won the World Series gave at least part of the fan base something to celebrate as the meat of the college football season awaited.
South Carolina would only finish the year 6-5, but when Notre Dame traveled to Columbia on October 23, but at the time the Gamecocks were ranked #19. Notre Dame’s defense, led by defensive end Ross Browner, led the way to a 13-6 win. Browner was on his way to an Outland Trophy at year’s end and the Irish were now at #11, right on the brink of the Top 10.
The #11 spot was where Notre Dame held after they beat Navy in a neutral-site game at Cleveland. The 27-21 score to a team that would only win four games might have raised some concern. And those concerns came back full-bore when Notre Dame traveled to Georgia Tech a week later, played another team that would only win four times, and ended up losing 23-14.
Back down to #18 in the polls, Notre Dame coaches were dealing with the reality that the talent on this team just didn’t’ have much experience. While Browner and tight end Ken McAfee each made first-team All-American, neither was a senior. Only one Irish player—1,000-yard runner Al Hunter—would be chosen in the coming spring’s NFL draft, and that wasn’t until the fourth round.
Quarterback Rick Slager was in his second year as a starter, but no one in South Bend would complain a year later when Joe Montana took over. And Hunter would be replaced by high-quality backs in Vagas Ferguson and Jerome Heavens. For right now, in the world of 1976 though, Devine had to make do with what he had, as his talent gained experience.
The growth project took a big step forward with a 21-18 win over Alabama. This wasn’t a great Crimson Tide team, but like Devine, head coach Bear Bryant had a team on the verge of great things (in fact, these teams would be 1-2 in the final polls of 1977). Notre Dame’s win moved them back up to #13 and they again knocked on the door of the Top 10.
A win over Miami set up the season-ending battle at USC, where a Top 10 spot was on the line. Notre Dame played competitively against a Trojan team that was still very much in the mix for the national championship. The Notre Dame defense that had begun the year facing Dorsett concluded it by facing Heisman runner-up Ricky Bell. They were more competitive, but USC chiseled out a 17-13 win.
Notre Dame decided to accept a Gator Bowl bid this time around. The fact they got the chance to play another storied program in Joe Paterno’s Penn State surely affected the decision, as did the chance to build momentum for the coming year. And the Irish took full advantage of the opportunity, with Browner’s defense playing a great football game and Notre Dame won 20-9.
The 1976 Notre Dame football team might have lost three games and never did crack the Top 10, finishing at #12. But the way they finished the year—beating Alabama, beating Penn State and hanging in on the road at USC, foreshadowed great things ahead. The arrival of Montana and another national championship were just around the corner.