I know, I know — The Citadel didn’t play Air Force at Johnson Hagood Stadium. The game was played at Falcon Stadium, in Colorado Springs. “Hagood History” is just a way to identify historical game reviews, which I may do from time to time.
Also, you can’t beat the alliteration.
I first thought about taking a closer look at the 1976 game between The Citadel and the Air Force Academy while reading a post from The Citadel’s new “Off The Collar” blog:
[The current president of The Citadel Football Association, John Carlisle] inherited a project started by former CFA president Charlie Baker to digitize and make available to Citadel fans as many football game films that he could find. That collection currently stands at almost 400 and growing.
I’m not really a connoisseur of game film, but I was intrigued at the list of games, and decided to check one out. I picked The Citadel-AFA 1976 because of its relative anonymity, at least when compared to other notable Bulldog victories.
Ben Martin was a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy who began his head coaching career at Virginia. In two seasons in Charlottesville, his teams compiled a cumulative record of 6-13-1, but despite that Martin was hired by the Air Force Academy to take over as its football coach in 1958. He succeeded AFA’s first-ever varsity head coach, Buck Shaw, who lasted two seasons in Colorado Springs before moving on to the Philadelphia Eagles (where Shaw would win the NFL Championship in 1960).
Air Force’s 1958 campaign, which was also the senior year of the first class of academy graduates, would be high on any list of “most surprising seasons” in modern college football annals. Air Force had been 3-6-1 in 1957, but in Martin’s first year in charge the Falcons went undefeated, finishing 9-0-2.
The two ties were each rather impressive. The first was an early-season road game at Iowa, which went on to win the Big 10 and the Rose Bowl; the Hawkeyes finished the year ranked #2 in both the AP and UPI polls. The Falcons’ other tie came in the Cotton Bowl, against Southwest Conference champ TCU. Air Force’s victories that year included wins over 8-3 Oklahoma State, 8-3 Wyoming (coached by Bob Devaney), and 7-3 New Mexico (helmed by Marv Levy).
Other than that magical 1958 run, Air Force had mostly mediocre records for the next ten years, with the exception of 1963 (when the Falcons made an appearance in the Gator Bowl). Starting in 1968, however, Air Force ran off a string of six consecutive winning seasons. In 1970 the Falcons won nine games and played in the Sugar Bowl.
By 1976, though, Air Force’s fortunes on the gridiron had declined. The Falcons only won two games in both 1974 and 1975. Ben Martin began his nineteenth season at the academy probably knowing that he was close to the end of his career.
After an easy victory over Pacific to open the ’76 season, Air Force was thrashed the next two weeks by a combined score of 81-13. Admittedly, the two opponents (Iowa State and UCLA) were both very good teams. The Falcons played creditably against a solid Kent State outfit in their fourth game, but lost 24-19.
However, the following week Air Force beat Navy, 13-3. That meant the Falcons would win the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy for the first time if they could defeat Army at West Point.
Before traveling east, though, Air Force had to play two more home games, against Colorado State and The Citadel. Colorado State whipped Air Force, 27-3, dropping AFA to 2-4 on the season.
Would the Falcons look past the Bulldogs with the game versus Army looming on the horizon? AFA quarterback Rob Shaw didn’t think so. “We can’t afford to look past them,” he said.
In 1961, The Citadel won its first Southern Conference championship. It was the culmination of a three-year stretch in which the program won 23 games. However, The Citadel would not have another winning season until 1969. The Bulldogs were 8-3 in 1971, but only won twelve games over the next three years.
In 1975, The Citadel finished 6-5, its third winning season since 1961 and first under head coach Bobby Ross, who had taken over in 1973. The Bulldogs achieved this despite the loss of all-conference running back Andrew Johnson to a knee injury in the second game of the season.
Johnson had been the SoCon’s player of the year in 1974 after rushing for 1373 yards. Without him, and with injuries throughout the season to other key players, the offense averaged only 13 points per game (10 points per game if you don’t count the 44 the Bulldogs ran up on hapless Davidson) and was shut out three times.
The team managed to win six games that year anyway, though, thanks to an amazing defensive effort, as the Bulldogs only gave up 97 points all season (8.8 points/game average). In eight of the eleven games, The Citadel allowed fewer than 10 points.
The highlight of the year was probably the Bulldogs’ 6-3 victory at VMI, which featured game-saving plays by Brian Ruff and Ralph Ferguson. Both Ruff and Ferguson made the all-conference team after the season, as did tight end Dickie Regan. Ruff was also named the league’s player of the year (and the SoCon Male Athlete of the Year).
For the 1976 season, Ferguson, Ruff, and Andrew Johnson served as team captains. Anticipation for the upcoming campaign was palpable. Despite an exorbitant price of $25, season tickets sold at a record rate. The local newspaper preached caution, however, noting that the Bulldogs faced “a grueling schedule, [with an] unproven offense and [a] lack of depth.”
Indeed, that lack of depth started to come into play before the season began, with an injury to defensive end Alan Turner. This caused some reshuffling on the two-deep, and would unfortunately be the start of an unbelievable stretch of injuries suffered by the Bulldogs, a run of bad luck that would eventually affect the team’s ability to win.
The Citadel opened with a tough loss at Clemson, falling 10-7 in a game the Bulldogs probably should have won. The second game of the season was the home opener, and a big crowd at Johnson Hagood Stadium watched the Bulldogs outlast Delaware 17-15. In that game, Andrew Johnson scored two touchdowns in a ten-second span, thanks in part due to a miscue by Delaware’s kickoff return team and an alert play by Jennings Dorn.
The Bulldogs then beat Furman for a sixth consecutive season, 17-16, taking advantage of four Paladin turnovers and a missed extra point. That game was followed by a disappointing (but not entirely surprising) 22-3 loss to East Carolina and a 14-10 victory at home over UT-Chattanooga.
The Citadel then beat Richmond, 20-7, thanks to two TD passes from Marty Crosby to Doug Johnson and some typical heroics from the Bulldogs’ D, including a fourth down stop by Ruff inside the five-yard line and an interception by Kevin White inside the 20. The Citadel moved to 4-2 on the season and prepared for the trip to Colorado Springs to play Air Force.
Most of The Citadel’s concerns for the game had to do with the ever-present injury issues. Dickie Regan had been lost for the season after suffering knee damage against Richmond. That followed season-ending injuries to Mike Riley (hurt on the last play of the game at Clemson) and Ronnie Easterby (injured while playing East Carolina). Alan Turner was back, however, after missing the first six contests.
One of the preview articles in The News and Courier centered around The Citadel’s secondary, known for its ball-hawking tendencies (a specialty of Ralph Ferguson in particular) and ferocious hitting (a specialty of seemingly every defensive back on the roster). Tony Kimbrell had this to say about the Falcons:
They do a lot of things, but some of [them] they don’t execute well. They’ll throw the ball 75%-80% of the time. [Quarterback Rob] Shaw is the best athlete on the team. He has a quick arm and quick feet…I haven’t noticed any super receivers. They try to find an opening and get someone under the coverage.
Air Force had generally featured a short, controlled passing game during Martin’s time as head coach, and the 1976 season was no exception. However, there were indications that Martin was going to change things up for the game against The Citadel. According to the Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph, even the Air Force players themselves weren’t going to know who was starting until just before gametime.
- Tangent: The Gazette-Telegraph newspaper was most famous for an erroneous advertisement (placed during the 1955 holiday season) that inadvertently led to the ‘NORAD Tracks Santa‘ program. I thought that was worth mentioning.
“We’re just trying to get on the right track and put our best foot forward,” said Ben Martin. The Gazette-Telegraph suggested that changes might be coming due to an “almost totally inept” Falcons running game. Bobby Ross had described the situation a bit differently, suggesting that Air Force “[did not] concentrate on running since passing was [its] game”.
Martin, according to the Gazette-Telegraph, also “indicated that he wanted to see more of freshman quarterback Dave Zeibart under fire.” Martin wasn’t kidding, as he actually started Zeibart against The Citadel, using him in a veer formation. Ziebart made history as the first freshman to ever start a game at quarterback for Air Force, but he wound up being “under fire” a lot more than Martin would have liked.
October 23 turned out to be a good day to play football, with excellent weather conditions for the players and fans (total attendance: 29,138). The game kicked off as scheduled, at 1:30 pm Mountain Time. It was Band Day at Falcon Stadium, with 53 bands from five different states in attendance.
I received two DVDs for this game. One was the actual game film, 43 minutes of action (no sound) in black-and-white. It made for a solid viewing experience. The only issue I had was trying to read the numerals on The Citadel’s white jerseys.
That problem was largely alleviated by the second DVD, which was Ben Martin’s coach’s show. This was a pleasant surprise, as I wasn’t expecting it. Even better, despite the package description of it being in black-and-white, the show actually featured highlights in color, with narration from an off-screen Martin.
The Citadel wore all-white uniforms; a white helmet with a light-blue “block C” helmet logo (very similar to the 2012 helmet logo), pants with a light blue stripe, and light blue numerals with no names on the back of the jerseys. They looked great. Air Force wore dark blue jerseys (with names on the back) and white pants, with white helmets featuring the “lightning bolt” logo.
The end zones also featured painted lightning bolts, and also some type of lettering that I’m sure meant something; I just have no idea what. Two small jets were parked on the Air Force side of the field, away from the majority of the cadet corps, which sat on the other end of the home stands. A sheet hung on the wall beneath one of the cadet sections read “Hi Mama Whitehorn – The Kids”.
The very first play from scrimmage set the tone for the rest of the game. Zeibart took the snap from center, rolled right, hesitated, and then got crushed by David Sollazzo for a ten-yard loss. It would be the first of eight sacks recorded by the Bulldogs. Sollazzo had two of them; his second sack, later in the first quarter, landed him a spot on the front page of the Gazette-Telegraph‘s Sunday sports section.
The Citadel didn’t try to do too much on offense. Marty Crosby only attempted twelve passes during the game, completing eight of them. Basically, the Bulldogs let their defense and special teams dictate the game.
The first touchdown of the game came on The Citadel’s second possession. Air Force was forced to punt deep in its own territory, and then proceeded to interfere with a fair catch attempt, leading to the Bulldogs beginning the drive on the AFA 27.
The Citadel scored in four plays, with most of the yardage coming from Andrew Johnson, including a three-yard TD run. Two different Falcon defenders had an angle on Johnson, but he brushed them aside with relative ease and cruised into the end zone.
During his coach’s show, Martin was effusive in his praise for Johnson. “He’s a very good running back. He could play for anybody,” Martin said.
On the ensuing kickoff, there was a brief delay when the ball fell off the tee as Paul Tanguay ran up to kick. On his second run-up, he boomed the ball through the end zone, a recurring theme throughout the afternoon. Tanguay and punter/linebacker Kenny Caldwell were both outstanding, and a big reason why Air Force had poor field position during much of the game.
All six of Tanguay’s kickoffs resulted in touchbacks. Meanwhile, Caldwell averaged 44 yards per punt, and Air Force wound up with more penalty yardage on its punt returns than return yardage.
Air Force picked up two first downs on its next drive but was forced to punt. The Citadel marched down the field. Marty Crosby was particularly effective on the possession, with a couple of nice throws to Doug Johnson extending the drive, but things eventually bogged down thanks in part to a penalty for illegal motion. The second quarter opened with a 47-yard field goal by Tanguay, which he made with room to spare.
Rob Shaw entered the game at quarterback for the Falcons, but there was no immediate change in Air Force’s offensive fortunes, as the Bulldog D forced consecutive three-and-outs. After yet another kick-catch interference penalty on Air Force, The Citadel took over in good field position, but that drive stalled and Tanguay’s 49-yard field goal attempt was deflected.
Air Force’s first play from scrimmage after the missed field goal was an eighteen-yard run, but any momentum for the Falcons was short-circuited on the next play by Ruff, who essentially knocked down every member of the AFA backfield. Two plays later, Randy Johnson swooped in for one of his four sacks, and the Falcons were forced to punt again.
A promising drive for the Bulldogs on the next possession ended when Crosby fumbled at the Air Force 10-yard line. The Falcons’ first sustained drive of the half was too little too late, and a 57-yard field goal attempt was well short. The Citadel led 10-0 at halftime, and if anything the score flattered Air Force.
Ben Martin’s highlight narration stopped briefly for a clip showing some of the many bands at the game playing on the field at the half, followed by a closeup shot of a stunningly beautiful white falcon. “That’s our white falcon,” the coach noted. “We don’t fly him too often, he’s just for looking at.”
After a three-and-out by The Citadel to begin the third quarter, Air Force actually had good field position. It did nothing with it, though, and had to punt. The snap was high, and the punt was blocked by Alan Turner. The Bulldogs could not take advantage, however.
The next two drives would prove decisive. Air Force drove from its own 12-yard line to the Bulldogs’ 29, but on fourth-and-two Shaw was stuffed for no gain by Tony Starks, with assistance from Ruff.
The Citadel took over on downs, and 66 yards later, the Bulldogs were at the Falcons’ 5-yard line, facing third-and-goal. The Citadel had enjoyed success throughout the afternoon throwing to tight end Al Major, and went to the well again, this time for a touchdown. Major made a nice catch while falling down in the end zone for his first career TD.
He then got up…and did the Funky Chicken TD dance, a la Billy “White Shoes” Johnson. I laughed hard when I saw that on the DVD.
Ben Martin thought it was funny, too:
That seems to be [in] vogue these days. We’ve got to get our guys to practice [that]. If we ever get in the end zone we might use that one.
I enjoyed Martin’s narration of the highlights, and not just because of the action on the field. He was relaxed, mild-mannered, almost light-hearted; not exactly what I was expecting from a veteran coach circa 1976.
With the Bulldogs ahead 17-0 late in the third quarter, Air Force was up against it. The next series didn’t help. After a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct (a receiver angry at The Citadel’s gang-tackling threw the ball at a Bulldog after the whistle had blown), Shaw was intercepted on his own 20-yard line by Billy Thomas. That led to another Tanguay field goal (37 yards).
Two possessions later, Shaw threw a first-down pass late and over the middle. Everyone knows what happens when a quarterback throws late and over the middle. Ralph Ferguson intercepted the pass and ran it back 31 yards for a touchdown, helped by a nice block from Bob Tillman. The PAT was blocked, but it didn’t really matter. The Citadel led 26-0 with 8:44 to play, and the game was all but over.
Ferguson’s interception was the thirteenth and last of his career at The Citadel, which at the time was tied for the most by a Bulldog. He is still tied for second all-time in career interceptions, behind only J.D. Cauthen (who picked off 18 passes from 1985-88).
After it got the ball back, Air Force tried a third quarterback, Jim Lee. The lefthander guided the Falcons to their only score of the day, though by that time both teams were playing multiple reserves. Having said that, Lee played well and made a fine throw under heavy pressure for the TD (a 22-yard pass to tight end Scott Jensen).
Air Force actually had the edge in total offensive yardage for the game, 310-240, but 147 of the Falcons’ 310 yards came after Ferguson’s TD iced the game for The Citadel.
From the Gazette-Telegraph:
The near free-for-all that cleared both benches on the game’s final play [note: this was not on either DVD] only added to the embarrassment of a beaten Falcon team annihilated by its opponent from the not-too-highly reputed Southern Conference…
The Citadel…presented its case for entrance into the [Commander-in-Chief's Trophy] race — even though it might not want it — by thumping the Falcons.
…Brian Ruff is a 6’1″, 225 [lb.] senior, an Associated Press second-team All-America linebacker last year. He should get Air Force’s vote for the first team. Ruff finished with 19 tackles, 10 solos, and spent more time in the Air Force’s backfield than three Falcon quarterbacks…
Of course, Ruff wasn’t the only Bulldog who had a good game, particularly on defense. Sollazzo, Starks, Randy Johnson, Ferguson, Keith Allen (who had 13 tackles) — heck, I could name about 15 guys on that side of the ball who played well. They played with reckless abandon, too.
There was some serious hitting in this game from both teams, but The Citadel probably had the edge in that category, as it did in most categories on the day. As Bill Greene of The News and Courier put it, “The Bulldogs were much, much better than Air Force. They simply ruled the contest.”
A few other notes from the game:
- If you ever watch a game on TV in which one (or both) of the teams involved is a military school, you will undoubtedly hear an announcer start talking about how players at military schools have great on-field discipline. I think it’s in the broadcasters’ manual. I would hate to have had an announcer try to justify that statement for this game, though.
There were 21 combined penalties in the contest, a staggering 11 of which were “major” (the Falcons were guilty of six of those). The Citadel had 13 penalties for 115 yards, while Air Force had 8 for 96.
Air Force committed not one but two kick-catch interference penalties, an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, a late hit, and threw in a clip for good measure. The Bulldogs had personal fouls for a late hit and a facemask, among others, and were also flagged eight times for false starts/offsides.
(Not penalized: Major’s end zone dance. It was perfectly legal to do the Funky Chicken back in those days.)
- The Citadel’s defensive formation was the old wide tackle 6, with an incredible amount of stunting and blitzing. You don’t really see that look anymore, thanks mostly to the development of modern passing attacks. There are schools that run variations of it, though, including Virginia Tech. Frank Beamer was on the staff at The Citadel in 1976, and brought a similar defensive philosophy to Blacksburg when he became the Head Hokie.
- Bobby Ross said after the game that the victory “was a prestigious win for the school and the city of Charleston.” He was far from alone in making that assessment, as approximately 400 fans greeted the team at the Charleston airport when its airplane landed shortly after midnight on Sunday.
Things didn’t get better for Air Force the following week, as the Falcons lost 24-7 at Army, and thus did not win the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy for the first time. However, Ben Martin managed to rally his troops down the stretch, and Air Force won two of its final three games to finish the season with a 4-7 record.
The Falcons were down 15 points before storming back to beat Frank Kush’s Arizona State squad, 31-30. In its season finale, Air Force upset Wyoming 41-21 (the Cowboys, coached at that time by Fred Akers, would go on to play in the Fiesta Bowl).
Martin coached Air Force for one more year, retiring following the 1977 season. His replacement in Colorado Springs was none other than Bill Parcells, who lasted just one year at the academy before taking a coordinator’s job in the NFL. Parcells was followed by Ken Hatfield and, later, Fisher DeBerry.
During much of DeBerry’s long, successful run at Air Force, the analyst for the Falcons’ radio network was Ben Martin.
The Citadel hit a brick wall after the win over Air Force, losing three consecutive games. Injuries took their toll on the Bulldogs. Starting center Danny Eggleston joined the list of sidelined players when he dislocated his elbow in the Air Force game, and Kenny Caldwell was limited to punting duties after re-injuring his shoulder prior to the VMI contest. Sidney Wildes and Randy Johnson both got hurt against Appalachian State.
However, there was still one goal left to accomplish — a winning season. The opponent in the year’s final game was Davidson, and the Bulldogs took care of business, winning 40-6. For the first time since 1960-61, The Citadel enjoyed consecutive winning campaigns. Afterwards, Brian Ruff said:
This is the game we’ll remember, the last game. It’s nice to go out a winner, both in the game and the season.
The day after the Davidson game, WCSC-TV televised a 30-minute special called “Brian Ruff — A Study In Confidence”. Ruff would repeat as the league’s player of the year in football and as the SoCon Male Athlete of the Year. He also became the first (and only) player from The Citadel to be named a Division I-A first-team AP All-American, which got him an audience with Bob Hope.
Ruff was one of three Bulldogs to receive All-Southern Conference honors in 1976, along with Ferguson and Andrew Johnson. Those three joined Starks, Caldwell, and Regan on that season’s All-State team, as well.
Bobby Ross coached at The Citadel for one more season, and then left to become the special teams coach for the Kansas City Chiefs (under Marv Levy). Of course, Ross is now well-known for an outstanding coaching career that included ACC titles at Maryland and Georgia Tech (where he also won the national title), and a Super Bowl appearance with the San Diego Chargers. He even managed to lead the Detroit Lions to the playoffs.
1976 was a year that featured the Bicentennial celebration, along with the syndicated-TV debut of The Muppet Show. Jimmy Carter was elected president, and the Olympics were held in Montreal. A new band formed in Dublin, Ireland, that would later call itself U2.
However, without question the highlight of the year was The Citadel’s victory over Air Force in Colorado Springs. That’s why we will always remember 1976.
Filed under: Football, The Citadel | Tagged: Air Force, Al Major, Andrew Johnson, Ben Martin, Bobby Ross, Brian Ruff, David Sollazzo, Frank Beamer, Marty Crosby, Ralph Ferguson, Randy Johnson, The Citadel, Tony Kimbrell, Tony Starks | 8 Comments »