Iowa State’s season-opener vs. UNI Sept. 3 will be the inauguration of a “new era” of Cyclone football with the debut of head coach Matt Campbell.
If that wasn’t enough to get you excited for the kickoff of the new season, the Iowa State Athletics Department will also pay tribute to one of the greatest football teams in school history that day.
The 2016 season marks the 40th anniversary of the outstanding 1976 Cyclone squad and a slew of ‘76ers and Earle Bruce era Cyclones will return to Ames to reunite and reminisce about their glory days donning the Cardinal and Gold.
The 1976 team had it all. Littered with future NFL players – Luther Blue, Buddy Hardeman, Al Dixon, Tom Randall and Mike Stensrud – Iowa State was sound on both offense and defense.
Offensively, the Cyclones were a force to be reckoned with. A pounding running attack led by future All-American running back Dexter Green and dual-threat quarterbacks Wayne Stanley and Hardeman paced the Cyclones to a 33.5 point per game average, a school-record which still stands today.
Stanley and Hardeman also had outstanding targets to throw to in the All-American Blue, Dixon and Ray Hardee.
This incredible offensive balance helped the Cyclones rank second nationally in total offense at 439.6, also a school record which has yet to be broken.
Defensively, the Cyclones were just as stout. Six times the Cyclones held their opponents to under 20 points. Behind the play of the Stensrud brothers – Maynard and Mike – Randall, Otis Rodgers, Tony Hawkins and Tom Boskey, the ISU defense definitely held its own.
Heading into the 1976 season, however, there were many skeptics. ISU head coach Earle Bruce was heading into his fourth season after finishing 4-7 in each of his first three seasons at the helm.
The Cyclones also lost their top returning running back in Mike Williams, who suffered a career-ending knee injury in the preseason after rushing for 781 yards in 1975.
Bruce and the Cyclones desperately needed to be a winner in 1976.
Stanley, a redshirt senior and co-captain of the team, noticed a change in the offseason. It was a step in the right direction.
“I redshirted in 1975 and I got the chance to sit back and observe,” Stanley said. “We had talent and athletes, but what we needed was to be a team. We needed to change our culture. Heading into the 1976 season we worked all summer long. All the guys stayed in town and worked out together. We bonded as a team and as a result we had great success.”
Iowa State roared out of the gates with impressive wins and offensive displays in victories over Drake (58-14), Air Force (41-6) and Kent State (47-7).
Stanley tossed a then school-record four touchdown passes at Air Force.
“All I remember was trying to catch my breath in the high altitude,” laughed Stanley.
A loss to No. 3 Oklahoma was followed up with two more wins, including a 21-17 victory at No. 7 Missouri, one of only two Cyclone victories over a top-10 opponent on the road in school history.
The emergence of Green, a sophomore running back, was key to the Missouri victory and the overall success of the Cyclone offense. Green racked up five 100-yard games that fall, including a career-high 214 yards vs. Missouri, one of only 11 players in school history to rush for over 200 yards in a game.
Green finished the season with 1,074 yards on the ground and garnered immediate respect from the coaching staff.
“He was at his best against the great teams,” Bruce said. “I had many good backs over the years, but not all of them were at their best against the Nebraskas and Oklahomas like Dexter was. He was determined to be a success.”
Sadly, Cyclone Nation lost Green in 2001 when he succumbed to stomach cancer at the age of 46.
The Cyclones continued their resurgence with a win at Kansas on Nov. 6 (31-17) to improve to 7-2. Maynard Stensrud, who was a co-captain along with Stanley, Hawkins and Dave Greenwood, has fond memories of that win. It was a key play by the fabulous brother duo which helped secure the victory.
“One of my favorite personal memories was when my brother, Mike, tipped a pass allowing me to get an interception and run it back for a touchdown against the Jayhawks,” Maynard said. “We were just a bunch of great guys who got along and worked hard.”
Iowa State made an appearance in the national rankings with perennial power Nebraska, ranked ninth nationally at the time, coming to Ames on Nov. 13.
The excitement and buzz around Ames for the game was epic.
“The buildup for Nebraska was awesome,” Stanley remembered. “The community and Iowa State did a great job of setting the stage. We were very confident heading into that game. We were clicking on all cylinders.”
If you could categorize a team win, this was it. Offense, defense, special teams, you name it, the Cyclones came to play that day. The end result was a 37-28 victory and another top-10 win on ISU’s resume.
“Our defense and offense were clicking, but also our kicker, Scott Kollman, and our punter, Rick Blabolil, were out this world,” Stanley said. “Nebraska just couldn’t get anything going because we were doing everything right. And then the big run by Luther Blue. Awesome. I mean, I still watch it even now because it was one of the best kick returns I have ever seen.”
Stanley’s recollection of Blue’s electric kickoff return is accurate. Nebraska had just trimmed the Cyclone lead to 10-7 before Blue shifted the momentum back to the Cyclones with his 95-yard return. The Cyclones never trailed the rest of the way.
Now 8-2 and ranked 14th nationally, Iowa State had a chance to be co-Big Eight champions and earn a spot in the Orange Bowl with a victory in the season-finale. However, the Cyclones were up against another stellar opponent on the road vs. No. 16 Oklahoma State.
ISU’s Orange Bowl dreams were dashed with a loss to the Cowboys the following week. The loss still disappoints Stanley.
“We needed to win that game, but I couldn’t play because I twisted my knee late in the Nebraska game,” Stanley said. “We had some other guys out, too. I still think we could have won if we had everybody.”
The sting of the OSU loss was only a minor setback compared to what happened next.
Despite an 8-3 record, two wins over top-10 opponents and a top-20 national ranking, the Cyclones were not invited into the postseason. There would be no bowl bid for one of the nation’s best teams.
This snub is hard to imagine in today’s college football world. A record 40 bowls games were played in 2015 with a few teams with losing records invited.
In 1976, the landscape was completely different. Only 12 bowl games were on the schedule and the Cyclones were left out, something Stanley still struggles to come to grips with.
“We knew we were one of the top teams in the nation,” Stanley said. “We regret we didn’t get the opportunity. Now as I look back, I can kind of understand it. Iowa State didn’t have the tradition of winning and the bowls depended on people filling the stands.”
It won’t be a sad reunion for the 1976 team next weekend. There are too many highlights to look back on.
Many of the memories will involve Bruce, a tough, hard-nosed coach who demanded perfection at all times. But beneath the gruff exterior was a coach who deeply cared about his players.
Memories of Bruce’s famous quotes will definitely be recited with a pleasant smile. Sayings like, “nothing is ever as good as it seems, or bad as it seems” or “you can tell a man that boozes by the company he chooses.”
Stanley will be there, along with many others. He cherishes the time he spent with his teammates.
“I am battling cancer and once your life is threatened, you get a little sentimental,” said Stanley. “I started thinking about my teammates, my family that I hadn’t seen in a long time. And then Dexter Green died and Tony Hawkins, one of our captains, he died. I miss those guys. But coming back to Ames, I’m just excited to see my family again.”
The leader of that family will also be there in Bruce.
According to Stanley, he wouldn’t miss it for the world.
“When I mentioned the reunion to coach, he was so excited,” Stanley said. “I asked him if he was sure he was going to make it. He told me, ‘Wayne, you tell them I will be there even if I have to walk.’”
The following Cyclones have already registered to attend the Earle Bruce Era Reunion, Sept. 2-3: Tom Backhus, Sy Bassett, Mark Benda, Rick Blabolil, Don Blake, Luther Blue, Robert Bos, Tom Boskey, Scott Bradley, Earle Bruce, Pete Carlon, Arlen Ciechanowski, Frank Cooper, Cal Cummins, Kevin Cunningham, Mike Gannon, Rocky Gillis, Greg Grove, Buddy Hardeman, Randy Hart, Pat Henricksen, Stan Hixon, Jack Kennison, Ray King, Greg Lempke, Les Leonard, John Less, Charlie Lyle, Richard Mark, Kurt McCaulley, Larry McCaulley, Ron McFarland, Steve Meinen, Steve Meis, Tom Miller, Rich Miller, Jim Nissen, Jerry Petsch, Frank Randall, Glover Rogers, Karl Schueneman, Jack Seabrooke, Mark Settle, Forry Smith, James Solus, Wayne Stanley, Lloyd Studniarz, Steve Szabo, Mike Tryon, Bob Tucker, Rick White, Mike Williams