After going 11-0 in 1976, and being ranked No. 17 nationally with the longest winning streak in college football (via The Argus-Press), Rutgers had made the decision to compete in Division I. As such, the University turned down an opportunity to play in the Independence Bowl (against McNeese State), holding that the postseason bid was simply not prestigious enough.
The Scarlet Knights had been overlooked by the Tangerine Bowl and the Peach Bowl, and now Rutgers was going to prove their detractors wrong. But the announcement to turn down their first postseason invitation sounded like arrogance.
If there's one thing that the football gods detest above all else, it's hubris.
Why would a college that had never been to a bowl game deny their fans a chance to see the team play in the postseason? Why would a college program deny the senior members of the football team an opportunity that they would never again have, and snub the very individuals who had invited the school to participate in a bowl game?
In the following three seasons, football humility would be hoisted upon Rutgers in the form of Joe Paterno and Frank Kush, as Penn State would then beat the Scarlet Knights three times (1977, 1978 and 1979), along with a postseason defeat at the hands of Arizona State, 34-18, in 1978's inaugural Garden State Bowl.
Less than three years after the perfect season, the Scarlet Knights were Division-I paper tigers.
So, it would come as no surprise that when Rutgers traveled to Knoxville to play the Volunteers in 1979, the Tennessee alumni, fans and local press assumed the game would be a laugher, and the jokes soon followed.
Sports columnist Ben Byrd of the Knoxville Journal dedicated an entire article asking, "What's a Rutgers?"
"One housewife told me she bought a pound of them at the supermarket last week for 59 cents," wrote Byrd, "but they must have been on sale because she normally pays 89 cents a pound."
The homecoming game crowd of 84,265 packed Neyland Stadium in Knoxville to watch the perennial SEC powerhouse Volunteers in what would surely be a cakewalk over the Scarlet Knights (h/t USA Today). With legendary coach Johnny Majors walking the sidelines, it wasn't going to be a question of whether the 17th-ranked Volunteers would win, just a question of by how much.
Everything was stacked up against the Scarlet Knights, the upstart Division-I program that had never beaten a meaningful foe.
But the men in Scarlet had done their penance. The gods of football had found new targets, and they were clad in orange and white.
Once the game began, the confidence of the Tennessee faithful was brimming, as tailback James Berry scored early on a one-yard run in the first quarter to give the Vols the lead, 7-0.
But the scoring stopped, and the crowd grew restless when late in the second quarter the Scarlet Knights began to drive. From the Tennessee 37-yard line, Rutgers quarterback Ed McMichael (11-of-12, 174 yards) took the snap and dropped back, firing a scoring strike to "Dangerous" Dave Dorn, whose 4.4 speed easily beat the Volunteers secondary (h/t scout.com). Unbelievably, at halftime Rutgers and Tennessee were tied, 7-7.
In the second half, Rutgers head coach Frank Burns employed a strategy that had served him well in the past: grind down the clock with the running game and let the defense squeeze the opposition like a boa constrictor. Led by DTs Bill Pickel and Dino Mangiero, Rutgers shut down the run. DBs Mark Freeman and Deron Cherry thwarted the Volunteers passing offense, while LB Ed Steward's two interceptions set up 10 of the Scarlet Knights points.
Tennessee would not score again, while Rutgers fullback Bryant Moore was fed the ball again and again racking up 103 yards on 20 punishing carries. Two Ken Startzell field goals stretched the Rutgers lead to six points, and time ran out on the Volunteers, with the final score:
Rutgers 13, Tennessee 7.
Several of the heroes from that Saturday afternoon went on to success in pro football. Dino Mangiero enjoyed an NFL career with the Chiefs, Seahawks and Patriots. Deron Cherry played in the NFL 11 seasons, where he was five-time All-Pro and named to the NFL's All-Decade (1980s) Team.
Bill Pickel was a second-round draft choice of the Oakland Raiders, with whom he won a Super Bowl. Dave Dorn was an eighth-round draft choice of the Raiders, and played briefly for the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL. Quarterback Ed McMichael was a member of the New Jersey Generals of the USFL in the 1980s.
The enormity and significance of this victory was lost in the events of the times before it could be absorbed by the average sports fan. The very next day, November 4, 1979, dissident Iranian students stormed the American embassy in Tehran and seized hostages, 52 of whom would be held for a total of 444 days. The ensuing oil crisis, followed by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan made sports, and the achievements of athletes seem secondary—even tertiary—in American society.
Burns' success at Rutgers remains unparalleled. His .640 winning percentage is still the highest for any Scarlet Knights coach, nearly 30 years since he coached his last game. He took Rutgers to their first bowl game in 1978, and in truth, is the man who built the Rutgers Division-I program.
On Saturday, November 3, 1979, Burns brought a fledgling Division I team into enemy territory and delivered the greatest victory in the history of Rutgers football.