The 1976 Tiger football team will be honored as a Team of Distinction at the Towson University Athletic Hall of Fame Banquet on Friday, October 16. This is their story.
In 1976, America was celebrating its bi-centennial. The summer was filled with parades, tall ships, special ceremonies and fireworks.
Meanwhile, a fledgling Towson football team was starting its eighth season of intercollegiate competition.
Coach Phil Albert and the Tigers entered the 1976 season with a veteran lineup, a talented defense, an All-America quarterback and plenty of high hopes.
Two years earlier, Towson had compiled a perfect 10-0 record but did not earn a spot in the NCAA Division III playoffs. That disappointment was fresh in the players' minds.
"To understand the success of the 1976 team, you have to go back to the 1974 team," recalls Coach Albert. "We were undefeated in 1974 and didn't get a chance to go to the NCAA playoffs.
"In 1975, we thought we could go the NCAA's but it didn't happen for us," he added. "By 1976, we had an experienced team that was very focused and determined to have a great season. The 1976 team had great leadership and everything was set up for a great season."
The season began with an impressive 30-0 win at Maryland Eastern Shore. However, the Tigers dropped a pair of close games in the following weeks, losing a 2-point decision at James Madison and falling to Guilford, 7-6.
"Even though we lost both of those games, we still had a lot of confidence," Coach Albert remembers. "Two losses by a total of three points? It was tough but we weren't discouraged. The Madison game went back-and-forth and it could have gone either way. The loss to Guilford came on a dreary night and it was raining most of the game. We knew we were better than a 2-2 record."
With a 2-2 record, the Tiger defense took control of the team's destiny. Over the next five games, the Tigers allowed a total of only 13 points.
Led by linebackers Donnie Gibson, Richard Wheeler and Jack Ervin, the Tigers shut out Frostburg State, 12-0, dealt Glassboro a 21-3 loss, blanked Bowie State, 30-0, trimmed Salisbury, 21-3 and knocked off long-time nemesis, Hampden-Sydney, 26-7.
When the Tigers finished off the regular season with a 32-14 win at Cheyney State, they were confident that their 8-2 record and a six-game winning streak would earn them an NCAA playoff berth.
"We were confident but we were cautious," recalled former offensive center Jim Holdridge, one of the Tiger captains. "We knew that we belonged in the NCAA playoffs. We had a very talented team with great coaching and great leadership. Most of us had been playing together for three years and we were all very close."
During the regular season, Towson's defense smothered the opposition. In ten games, the Tigers gave up only 77 points and recorded three shutouts. Towson was even better after halftime, holding the opposition to just 27 points in the second half.
Senior safety Paul White led the Tigers with 91 tackles and four fumble recoveries. Gibson had 87 tackles from his linebacking spot while Wheeler and Ervin teamed up for 114 tackles.
On the defensive line, middle guard Joe Waggoner led the way with 59 tackles, including two quarterback sacks. Defensive tackle Donnie Redman made 48 tackles with six sacks while Eldridge Haley made 46 stops.
"We had a lot of confidence in our defense," said Dan Dullea, the Tigers' All-American quarterback. "They were a very tough bunch. On the offense, we knew how good they were because we played against them in practice all the time."
After briefly celebrating their berth in the Division III playoffs, reality struck. In the quarter-finals, Towson was matched up against powerful C.W. Post, generally considered the top team in the East.
"Back then, it never occured to me that we wouldn't get selected to play in the NCAA's," said Dullea. "Before the season ever started, I stopped by 'Coach A's' office and he was telling me that we had a chance to play a game in Puerto Rico after our season ended. Without ever mentioning it, both of us knew we weren't going to play in Puerto Rico because we would be playing in the NCAA Tournament."
Coach Albert recalls, "I don't remember how they seeded the teams back in 1976. But it seemed to me that C.W. Post might been the number one seed and we were eighth. But we didn't care about that. We just wanted to play."
Once again, the Tiger defense came up with some big plays. With C.W. Post on its way to an apparent 10-7 win late in the fourth quarter, sophomore defensive back Randy Bielski recovered a fumble at the Pioneers' 23-yard line. Four plays later, tailback Mike Maloney gave Towson a 14-10 lead when he scored on a one-yard touchdown run.
The Tigers clinched their 14-10 win when White ended the Pioneers' hopes with an interception with ten seconds remaining.
"They were really a mouthy team," recalls former linebacker Joe Kelley, who captained the team along with Holdridge and Dullea. "When the clock was winding down and we were going to win, all we said to them was 'tick, tick, tick.'"
In the semi-finals, the Tigers hosted St. Lawrence at Burdick Field. The offense took control. Led by Dullea, Towson jumped out to a 17-0 lead in the first quarter.
"We were stunned at how the game started," said Kelley. "We were playing great defense and we knocked their quarterback out of the game. We were feeling pretty good about our chances of winning until the second quarterback came in. He was better than the starter."
Dullea fired four touchdown passes as the Tigers built a 38-22 lead. St. Lawrence scored two late touchdowns as the Tigers pulled out a 38-36 win.
"Even though St. Lawrence was coming back on us, we weren't worried," says Dullea. "We knew they would stop them."
Preparing for their appearance in the Stagg Bowl, Holdridge recalls that the Tigers had to make an adjustment to their practice schedule.
"When we beat St. Lawrence, it was a balmy day, almost spring-like," he said. "But then the weather turned cold and we had snow all over our practice field. We ended up practicing in the brand new Towson Center. We all joked that we were the first team to play in the Towson Center."
Playing for the national championship, the Tigers traveled to Phenix City, Alabama to face powerful St. John's of Minnesota in the Stagg Bowl. St. John's had earned a spot in the national championship game with a 61-0 win over Buena Vista.
The Johnnies were heavily-favored to beat the upstart Tigers. Before a national TV audience on ABC-TV, St. John's took advantage of several Towson turnovers and rolled to a 28-0 lead after three quarters.
"We were totally out of rhythm," recalled Kelley. "It was the worst that our defense had played all year. I don't know if we were nervous or what. At one point, we were standing on the field and nothing was happening. I asked the referee why there was a time out and he told me 'we gotta sell some soap.' He was reminding me that the game was on television and there was a commercial."
In the fourth quarter, everything changed.
A 57-yard pass play from Dullea to freshman Ken Snoots moved the ball inside the Johnnies' five-yard line. On fourth down, Maloney scored on a one-yard run to put the Tigers on the scoreboard. Moments later, the Tigers cut their deficit to 28-14 when Dullea fired a 40-yard TD pass to Snoots.
"In the fourth quarter, Coach A changed our game plan," Dullea remembers. "He told me to forget about running the ball and just spread them out and see what happens. It didn't take too long for us to realize they couldn't cover our receivers."
The Tigers' comeback hopes were diminished when the Johnnies used a time-consuming drive to move into Towson territory. With 2:14 remaining, the Tiger defense held St. John's on fourth down, giving the offense another chance.
Wasting no time, Dullea led the Tigers on a 68-yard, five-play drive that resulted in a 22-yard touchdown pass to Snoots with 1:03 remaining in regulation, cutting the deficit to 28-21.
Holdridge will never forget what happened next. He said, "Every Thursday, we practiced an onsides kick where Doug Pompa would take out the guy who we were kicking to. We practiced it every week and we never used it.
"So, there was a minute to go in the Stagg Bowl and we needed an onsides kick. Randy Bielski did a great job with the kick and Doug took out his guy so Rick Bielski could recover. It worked perfectly."
Trailing by 28-21, the Tigers had great field position and moved toward the end zone. A clutch reception by senior tight end Skip Chase moved the ball inside the ten-yard line.
With 30 seconds left, Dullea fired a six-yard TD pass to Mike Bennett. When Randy Bielski made the conversion kick, the Tigers had tied the game.
"I was fortunate to have some very good receivers," said Dullea. "Mike (Bennett) came to us from the University of Virginia and it was easy to see that he played at a higher level. Skip (Chase) and I had been teammates for three years and he never dropped a pass. We could tell how good Kenny (Snoots) was going to be and he really stepped up in the playoffs."
Unfortunately, the Johnnies still had 30 seconds to try and win the game. Although the St. John's offense had been quiet for most of the fourth quarter, the Johnnies came to life. A 58-yard pass play to Jeff Roeder moved the ball inside the Tigers' five-yard line.
On the final play of the game, Jeff Norman kicked a 19-yard field goal and St. John's pulled out a 31-28 win.
In the NCAA playoffs, Dullea played at a high level. He threw for 682 yards and seven touchdowns in three games. Bennett caught 15 passes for 249 yards in the post-season, scoring three touchdowns. Snoots had 14 catches for 219 yards and 2 TD's while Chase had 11 receptions for 171 yards and two touchdowns.
"Dan Dullea was a complete quarterback," said Bennett. "He had a very accurate arm and a nice touch on his passes. He read defenses well and was a great team leader."
Although the 1976 Tigers fell three points shy of winning the national championship, their success provided the foundation for the football program.
Two years after the Stagg Bowl, Towson played its first game in its brand new stadium, a 5,000-seat facility with lights. In 1979, the Tiger program moved up to NCAA Division II status.
After eight years as a Division III, the Tigers became an NCAA Division I-AA team.
Now, the Tigers play in the Colonial Athletic Assocation, the toughest FCS conference in the nation. And they call the 11,198-seat Johnny Unitas Stadium their home.
It all started in 1976.