The country was 200 years old, and a peanut farmer from Georgia was elected president.

It was 1976, and among the movies of the time: Rocky (the first one), The Bad News Bears (the original), A Star Is Born (the remake), and The Omen (the first one).

On TV, an incandescently brilliant ensemble cast was debuting: Hello Steve Martin, and Chevy Chase, and Gilda Radnor, and John Belushi, hello to Saturday Night Live.

Up and down your radio dial you were listening to such diverse artists as Diana Ross, The Grateful Dead, David Bowie, Chicago, Genesis, the Isley Brothers and the Eagles (not our Iggles).

The Summer Olympics were held in Montreal. Bruce Jenner won the gold medal in the decathlon and a sweet pugilist named Sugar Ray Leonard, who, it seemed, could dance on the ceiling, headed up the strongest fist-fight team in American history.

Along with a battalion of journalists, I spent every other night at the gymnastics competition where a 14-year-old hollow-eyed waif from Romania, light as a sunbeam, was introducing the world to a new numerical concept: 10. And on a scale of 1 to 10, Nadia Comaneci was, indeed, an 11.

This being the Bicentennial, just about everything sporting was held in Philadelphia in 1976: the National League won the All-Star Game, 7-1, at a stadium called the Vet, with five Reds voted starters by the fans in a successful ballot-box stuffing.

The East beat the West, 123-109, in the NBA All-Star Game, with Washington's Dave Bing and his silk-on-satin jumper named MVP, while the winning coach was Boston's gravelly-voiced Tom Heinsohn, who in his playing days was known as "Tommy Gun" for his penchant for squeezing off long bursts.

The National Hockey League All-Star Game was . . . well, there was about as much defense as there was in the NBA's game. Checks were by invitation only.

The Final Four was held here, in an arena called the Spectrum, and Indiana, coached by a tempestuous tyrant named Bobby Knight, capped an undefeated year with the title. The off-the-court highlight was Knight's picking up a heckler and depositing him in a garbage can. We would host one other Final Four, in 1981, and just our luck, Knight won again.

So what else transpired in 1976?

Well, on the eighth day of the second month, Eagles owner Leonard Tose, having fired three coaches in the preceding five years, hired a 39-year-old Californian named Dick Vermeil, whom he had stumbled upon while watching Vermeil's UCLA team win the Rose Bowl.

Vermeil was inheriting a franchise that hadn't had a winning season in the previous nine years and that had mortgaged its future, trading away its top three picks in the next two drafts and its top two the year after that.

On one rain-lashed afternoon, Vermeil had the team bused to Widener College, which had an indoor facility. The Birds were barely 10 minutes into practice when the Widener women's field hockey team arrived and booted them out. Back out in the driving rain, Philadelphia's football players, by now surly and sodden, discovered their buses had left. Vermeil began to butt his head against a brick wall. It all seemed omen-like.

One midsummer night in '76, while Vermeil was conducting a film study, there arose a great clatter from outside. Vermeil threw open a window and demanded to know the source of the clamor.

"The birthday, Coach," he was told.

"Whose birthday?"

"Uh, well, the country's. It's the Bicentennial. You know, the Fourth of July."

"Well tell them to hold it down, will ya?"

Eventually, still oblivious to the rest of the world, he coached the E-A-G . . . to the Super Bowl.

In the world of baseball in '76, the Big Red Machine was inhaling everyone else. The Reds were under the tender loving care of an engaging, unaffected, uncomplicated, malaprop-spouting, silver-maned (remind you of anyone around here?) manager named George Anderson, alias Sparky, and also alias Captain Hook for his impatient tendency to yank pitchers.

In 1959, in his one and only season playing in the bigs, Sparky Anderson was employed as an infielder by the Phillies. In 477 at-bats, he hit .218 and was advised - not too gently - to pursue the game from a different angle.

As for the Phillies of 1976, Michael Jack Schmidt led the league in home runs for the third straight year. He did this without pharmaceutical aid, which helps explain how "only" 38 round-trippers could take the crown.

The Phillies' outfield hit better than .300 - reading left to right, Greg Luzinski, Garry Maddox, and Jay Johnstone. Whenever a fly ball was struck, there would be an immediate chorus imploring: "Lotta room, Garry Lee. Lotta room."

Steve Carlton won 20 and, in that pre-pitch-count era, had 13 complete games. That didn't even qualify for the top five. And the guileful, soft-tossing Randy Jones of San Diego, a preview of Jamie Moyer, threw 315 innings and did not have to wear his left arm in a sling.

In Los Angeles, Walter Alston retired as the manager of the Dodgers after 23 years. Twenty-three years. And that wasn't even the good part. The good part was that he had 23 one-year contracts. Clearly a man devoid of job insecurity.

And what of the Blade Runners of 1976? Montreal sipped from the Cup. The Canadiens had "The Flower" (Guy Lafleur), who skated curlicues all over the ice. And Ken Dryden, so cerebral and so impregnable, in goal. And Larry Robinson, stoic and stonefaced, as The Enforcer.

The Flyers were swept by Montreal in the finals after finishing first with a 48-16-16 record in the Patrick Division. Reggie "The Rifle" Leach scored 61 goals, a team record. Bobby Clarke finished second to Lafleur in scoring. This was the advent of the LCB Line - Leach, Clarke, and Bill Barber, toothless muckers and grinders and snipers and instigators who combined for 141 goals. It was almost like taking candy - well, let Leach describe it:

"It's so easy," he said. "All I have to do is get in the slot and wait for Clarkie to get me the puck."

On Jan. 11, the Flyers found themselves in a unique position. Here were the Broad Street Bullies, the bane of the NHL with their eagerness to drop gloves and splatter the ice with blood, some of it theirs, some of it the opponent's, and they found themselves the champion of the sport.

The mighty machine from the Soviet Union, the Central Red Army, was winding up a tour in which the NHL was about to be embarrassed, and here were the Black Sheep of the league defending its honor.

International goodwill? Hah! In the words of that noted ambassador, Clarke: "I hate the sons of bitches."

It was 4-1, and it was even more convincing than that because the Russians were so obviously cowed before the first puck was dropped, skating backwards, heads on a swivel, wondering, "Where is this Schultz Hammer fellow?" So intimidated were the visitors that they left the ice for 17 minutes before being induced to come back out and take their beating.

Thirty-three years later, it still ranks right up there with the two Cups.

In the year of the 200th birthday we conclude with the sport invented by Americans. Well, if you don't count the peach baskets nailed up in the Y by that Canadian divinity guy, Dr. James Naismith.

And what, in the year of '76, were the 76ers about?

Glad you asked. For this was a fascinating collection of inflated egos and talent to match. Also deeply flawed. George McGinnis, upon whose physique one could strike a match, averaged 22.0 points a game; Doug Collins, the jump-shooter, 20.8. The contract of a doctor named Julius was bought from the New York Nets, and Dr. J became a Philadelphia icon.

There was Lloyd Free, who, in a burst of modesty legally changed his name to World B. And Joe "Jelly Bean" Bryant. You may have heard of his kid, who plays for Lakers. And Steve Mix and Harvey Catchings and Darryl Dawkins, alias Chocolate Thunder. Impressed by his body, the Sixers plucked him from high school. Video is still in circulation of the times he dunked so hard that the backboards exploded in a shower of glass.

In the 1976-77 NBA finals, Dawkins and Portland's Maurice Lucas squared off and did a passable impersonation of two dancing bears. Dawkins, ejected, retired to the Sixers' locker room and took out his pique on the plumbing. He ripped one door off its hinges.

The Sixers proceeded to come apart almost as forcefully. Led by Bill Walton, Portland lost the first two games and then proceeded to sweep Philly, which was widely regarded as the best team in the league. As part of the fallout, the Sixers embarked on a most unfortunate promotional campaign.

The sainted Dr. J held up one long forefinger, and in a manner most solemn, and with due deliberation for emphasis, looked into the camera and made this pledge: "We . . . owe . . . you . . . one."

That debt, as you know by now, climbed relentlessly. We owe you two . . . we owe you three . . .

Eventually it would be paid.

And when they finally won the championship, a certain writer (ahem) cowrote a book. The title was the easiest part: We Owed You One.

It could be our theme song.