As the distant glow from their glory days grows increasingly sepia-toned, it's easy to recall the powerful 1976-78 Phillies as flawless heroes.

Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton, Garry Maddox, Larry Bowa, Greg Luzinski, and Tug McGraw - even now, three-plus decades later, that litany of legends conjures up an image of invincibility.

Those players were the core of what was the most consistently successful team in club history, the only one to capture three straight division titles until their 2009 counterparts matched the feat.

Twice those teams won 101 games, a franchise best. Hall of Famers anchored their lineup (Schmidt) and rotation (Carlton). They played superb defense, possessed an outstanding bench and bullpen, drew an average of 2.6 million fans a season to Veterans Stadium, and had a temperament that provided constant fodder for the city's four daily newspapers.

And yet, when you cut through the nostalgia and adjust the rearview mirrors for reality, what you'll find is that though those teams produced unprecedented success and excitement, their ultimate legacy was one of maddening frustration.

While their 2009 counterparts at least have a World Series title to assuage whatever awaits them in this postseason, those Phillies wound up with nothing but disappointment to show for three consecutive outstanding seasons.

They lost all three National League Championship Series, never getting as far as a fifth game in any of them.

Cincinnati's Big Red Machine made them quickly disappear with a three-game sweep in 1976. Black Friday's voodoo stuck them in '77. Maddox's two 10th-inning errors eliminated them a year later.

"I guess all the bad things happen to the good guys," Danny Ozark, their manager, said in '78 after the Los Angeles Dodgers eliminated them in four games for a second straight year.

Just as so many of Ozark's strategies would be questionable, so was his assessment of his team as "good guys."

Those Phillies were frequently confrontational - with the fans, with the media, with themselves. Carlton didn't talk to reporters. Ron Reed was terminally surly. Maddox was moody. Luzinski was sensitive. Bowa was volatile. Schmidt was perplexing.

"The players seem to hate the fans," McGraw, who died in 2004, said at the time. "They seem to hate the press. And then, when they come in the clubhouse, they seem to hate each other."

"Hell's team" was what Daily News beat writer Bill Conlin called them. New York Daily News columnist Mike Lupica termed them "as much fun as subway crime."

Larry Christenson, a pitcher on all three teams, admitted that their clubhouse was not for the faint of heart.

"Bowa and Bull had a love-hate relationship," Christenson said, using Luzinski's nickname.

"Schmitty would sit there for an hour with reporters, explaining his theories on hitting, and that drove Bull crazy," he said. "Bull used to have a real simple approach: 'See the . . . ball. Hit the . . . ball.' "

"There were a lot of things going on," Christenson added. "There were some players who were so jealous that they rooted for certain teammates to fail. It was a strange bunch."

Pete Rose saw the same kind of dynamics when he arrived - in no small part to cure the clubhouse ills - as a free agent in '79.

"That team needed a leader," Rose would say in 2000. "When I got there, they were all jealous of each other."

"Bowa was afraid Boonie would get more hits than him," he said, referring to Bob Boone. "Schmitty didn't want Bull to get more homers than him. Bull didn't want Schmitty to get more ink than him. There was a lot of that."

In retrospect, the '76-'78 Phils were probably more insecure and immature than evil. They were a young team that for all its success was unsure of itself, that wouldn't gain confidence until Rose arrived and helped them win both redemption and a championship.

But for those three promise-packed seasons in the late 1970s, Ozark's division champions produced nothing but memorable regular seasons and painful Octobers.

Schmidt, Luzinski, Bowa, Boone, and Christenson were all products of a farm system Bob Carpenter had been reviving since he bought the woeful franchise for $400,000 in 1943.

General manager John Quinn and his successor, Paul Owens, supplemented the young talent through acquisitions. St. Louis sent Carlton here in '72 for Rick Wise, a deal initially scorned by Phillies fans. Second baseman Dave Cash, whose optimism helped counter some of his teammates' inherent negativity, arrived in a trade from Pittsburgh in October 1973, followed in succeeding years by McGraw and Maddox. Pitcher Gene Garber was snatched from Kansas City.

After six straight losing seasons, the Phillies finished 10 games above .500 in 1975 and second to the rival Pirates. Then, following a slightly stumbling start to the Bicentennial-flavored '76 season, the Phillies hit their stride.

At the All-Star Game, at Veterans Stadium, the National League team included five position players from the home team - Boone, Bowa, Cash, Luzinski, and Schmidt. By Aug. 24, the Phillies had a 151/2-game lead on Pittsburgh, eventually finishing nine games ahead with a 101-61 record.

Schmidt led the league in home runs and was third in runs, walks, and RBIs. Maddox batted .330 and won a Gold Glove. Carlton was 20-7. When Total Baseball parsed the '76 statistics to compile its annual rankings of the league's best players, Schmidt finished first and Maddox third.

Still, in their first postseason appearance in more than a quarter-century, the Phils were no match for the veteran Reds.

"They just blew us away," Christenson said of the three-game sweep, "though I recall that all of the games were close."

The Phillies would win 101 games and the Eastern Division title again in 1977. Widely remembered as the best team in franchise history, their usual mix of statistical excellence was enhanced by Luzinski's best year ever, in which he had 39 homers and 130 RBIs.

When they split with the host Dodgers in the first two games of the best-of-five league championship series, they headed home confidently for the next three.

The Phillies led, 5-3, with two outs and no one on base in the ninth inning before the calamity that will forever be known as Black Friday unfolded. They lost that game and, a night later in a persistent, dreary rain, Game 4 as well.

"I think the biggest thing about those three teams was the fact the NLCS was five games back then," Christenson said. "That puts an enormous amount of pressure on you. It's why you see so many upsets in that format. We fell victim to it for three straight years."

Injuries and growing disenchantment with Ozark resulted in a slight falloff in 1978. The Phils won the division title again, but with only 90 victories this time, a slim 11/2 games better than the Pirates.

Again, their rivals in the league championship series would be the Dodgers. And again, they were beaten in four games. This time, it was a pair of miscues by Maddox on consecutive balls hit to him in the 10th inning of Game 4 that nailed shut the coffin.

Three division titles. Three defeats in the league championship series. From the clubhouse to the grandstands to the front office, everyone was left shaking his head.

"I knew in my heart that the Dodgers didn't belong on the same field with us in '77 and '78," Owens, who died in 2003, would say in 2001. "We just lacked that intangible something a great team needs to have."

Eventually, the Phillies determined that the needed intangible was a cocksure spark plug like Rose. He joined the team for the '79 season, but the Phils were banged up and never found their legs. On Aug. 31, Owens finally fired the laid-back Ozark, replacing him with Green.

"If Danny Ozark had one fault, it was that he was too damn nice," said Ruly Carpenter, then the owner. "He was tremendously loyal to his players. There were just times when he should have been a hell of a lot tougher."

Between their fiery new manager and Rose, who immediately became the clubhouse leader, the bad chemistry was altered sufficiently.

"Pete came in and gave everyone nicknames, really loosened up our clubhouse," Christenson said. "Most importantly, he got Schmitty to realize what a great player he was. That changed everything."

In September 1980, at nearly the end of a tumultuous season, the Phils caught fire. They won the division title, beat Houston in an excruciatingly tense league championship series, and won the World Series that would forever change their reputations.

"Could we have won one earlier? Hell, yeah," Owens said in 2001. "But thank God we got that one in '80."

Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.