Undefeated season. Great aspiration, tough execution. The 2014 PHS football team is in the running to “Keep the Zero,” a feat done only twice by Piedmont teams since 1950. The last time was 38 years ago. That 1976 Clan team started the season carrying low expectations from the East Bay football community, only to cap the campaign as champion of the NCS Division II, the only undefeated team in the East Bay, ranked third in the East Bay poll and in the Top Ten of the entire Bay Area.
The 1976 squad may have been under-rated by others, but they brought their own confidence to every game. These guys knew each other well; they’d been playing together since touch football. The first action of that 1976 season, the ACAL “Football Festival” featuring two-quarter length scrimmages, foreshadowed the season. In the scrimmage, the PHS team was matched against the pre-season pick to win the league, Alameda. Undeterred by the apparent mismatch, the Clan’s road-paving rushing attack scored three times and its smothering defense allowed less than 80 yards of Hornet offense. The league was stunned. But it was only the start.
This team had what was described as “attitude.” It was sparked from the top, by first-year coach Kevin McNair, a particularly intense individual who had coached the PHS track team to be undefeated for nearly three years. He believed in creating psychological advantage. The football team embraced this intensity, and delighted in the “psyche-out” approach. On defense, the exhortation to “give no ground” meant not only stopping the opposition cold, but to crush the opposition’s will. Need an illustration? In the run-up to the playoffs that year, the Clan defense pitched three shut-outs in a row, including the League Championship game. Need another? They allowed an average of one touchdown per game. They dominated: in 44 quarters of football played in 1976, this Clan team trailed in exactly two. Opposing running backs averaged less than three yards per carry; opposing quarterbacks completed no better than 40 percent of their passes.
Okay, so the defense was comprised of a bunch of quick, canny, tough guys who, to a one, enjoyed mixing it up on the field. That’s what makes a great defense. What made this team’s attitude different – what made them dominate their opposition – was that the offense was equal to the defense in “feeding off the battle.” The 1976 offense was run-oriented; rushing for nearly 200 yards per game. But the rush was used not only to gain ground, but to punish the opposing defense. Play after play, the offensive line would pound the defense front. Clan running backs (which included Jeff Haile, recently inducted into the Piedmont Hall of Fame) averaged nearly five yards per play, and more often than not had to be brought down by the other team’s defensive backs. No one on the opposing defense was spared, and none relished the next down they would have to play.
No undefeated season is foreordained. Small events can become momentous points. For example, the 1976 team had two games (including the NCS Championship game) in which opposition teams had first-and-goal within the three yard line. Had the Clan defense not held, the 1976 team would have been known as a good team, but not out of the ordinary. But they dug in, and they held. Another example: Toward the end of the regular season, the team lost to injury one of its best two-way players (Kent Jordan, who would win All-League Offense and Defense honors nonetheless). It could have been disastrous, but other players stepped up to fill the void, and “Kept the Zero.”
In the end, as the 1976 team showed, going undefeated is a mix of skill, execution and a bit of luck. But mostly it’s having – as a team – an indefatigable attitude that they would not stop, not ever stop, until the last whistle was blown.
Many thanks to Don Hannaford for writing this article about the 1976 season. Don is a PHS grad and unofficial chronicler of the 1976 season, who was a former writer for the Piedmonter and Highlander newspapers.