For nearly eight decades, the Sugar Bowl has been a staple of the college football postseason, a big-time tradition that has featured nail-biting thrillers, epic clashes, a long-standing tie-in with the Southeastern Conference, and a crucial impact on the declaration of a national champion.
Over the years, the contest also has been extremely lucrative, paying out huge sums to participating schools, providing the game's CEOs handsome salaries and likely generating billions of dollars for the New Orleans area economy.
"From the start, the Sugar Bowl has had a history of success," says John Sudsbury, the game's director of communications and media relations.
That history has been so colorful, in fact, that Sudsbury finds it difficult to single out his favorite moments. "The Sugar Bowl has been blessed with so many great performances, it's tough to pick just one or two as the best ones," he says.
The Dec. 31, 1973, contest between two unbeaten teams — No. 1 University of Alabama and No. 3 Notre Dame — is the same match-up featured in the upcoming 2013 Bowl Championship Series national title game. Four decades ago, the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame pulled out a spine-tingling 24-23 victory over the Alabama Crimson Tide in a clash that earned Notre Dame a national title. That contest still stands as the Sugar Bowl with the highest attendance (85,161) and TV ratings (a 25.3 Nielson share).
Sudsbury also notes two Sugar Bowls — in 2006 and 2007 — that were affected by Hurricane Katrina. The '06 game was played in Atlanta because of the damage Katrina and the levee failures caused a few months earlier. The Jan. 3, 2007, game marked the bowl's return to the Superdome in what Sudsbury calls "one of the first national events to show that New Orleans was still a major player for big-time sporting events."
But a glance through the Sugar Bowl's long, colorful history reveals other contests that were packed with social significance, commercial interests and odd on-field results.
When highlighting the most significant Sugar Bowls, one must mention the very first contest, which kicked off the collegiate pigskin tradition on Jan. 1, 1935. The game was a huge deal for the New Orleans community, the result of a decadelong coordinated local initiative that resulted in the formation of the game's benefactor, the New Orleans Mid-Winter Sports Association. Goals of the initiative included generating significant economic benefits for New Orleans and building the city and the game's prestige nationally.
The game also took on large Big Easy significance because it featured New Orleans' beloved — at least before the rise of the Louisiana State University (LSU) program ‚— Tulane Green Wave, which posted a thrilling, come-from-behind, 20-14 victory over the Temple Owls, thanks to the heroics of the Green Wave's Claude "Little Monk" Simons Jr. Playing in his final contest for Tulane, Simons made a touchdown that saved the game for the Green Wave.
"New Orleans' football year ... ended with one of those furious, heart-gripping gridiron battles of which men talk for years," Meigs O. Frost wrote in The Times-Picayune. "It was a battle staged amid pomp and circumstance rich in color; fitting for what should be a long line of Sugar Bowl contests."
On the other side of the ball that day was Temple College, which in subsequent years downgraded its football program significantly. But Temple wasn't the only squad from the Sugar Bowl's early years that later de-emphasized and downsized its pigskin program. Take the fifth edition of the bowl, played Jan. 2, 1939, in which Texas Christian University (TCU) squared off against the Carnegie Institute of Technology, or Carnegie Tech. At the time, Carnegie was ranked No. 6 in the country and was competitive with college football's big boys. On that day, however, Carnegie Tech lost to TCU 15-7.
Flash forward a few decades. After name changes and mergers, Pittsburgh-based Carnegie Tech now exists as Carnegie Mellon University and its football team plays in the NCAA Division III for small schools. Carnegie's glory days in big-time football have faded into history.
Then there's the eighth Sugar Bowl in 1942, when the Fordham University Rams took the field against the University of Missouri Tigers. Fordham sported a big-time program back in the day, even winning a national championship in 1929. But now the Rams compete at the Football Championship Subdivision and have a much more modest football program. (The 1942 Sugar Bowl, coincidentally, is also significant because of its result — at the end of a fierce defensive battle, the Rams shut out the Tigers 2-0.)
Or take poor St. Mary's College, which lost to Oklahoma State 33-13 in the 1946 Sugar Bowl. After decades of declining success, St. Mary's football program was terminated in 2004. The same fate awaited Santa Clara University of California, which defeated LSU in two consecutive Sugar Bowls in 1937 and '38, but saw its football program eliminated after the 1992 season.
Sports and social relevance often collide as jarringly as a linebacker laying the smackdown on a receiver on a crossing pattern. College football is certainly no exception, and the Sugar Bowl's most important brush with meaningful social change came in 1956, when the the University of Pittsburgh Panthers were scheduled to clash with the Georgia Institute of Technology Yellow Jackets on Jan. 2. A problem arose because the Pittsburgh roster featured fullback Bobby Grier, an African-American, which raised some hackles in New Orleans and the Georgia Tech football sphere, including Georgia Gov. Marvin Griffin. The controversy arose in late 1955, just a month after Rosa Parks triggered the Montgomery bus boycotts by refusing to give her seat to a white person. A coalition of progressive Georgia Tech students and players, civil rights leaders and New Orleanians took action to make sure both teams, including Grier, took the field Jan. 2.
"The issue of racial segregation faded far into the background today when a Negro played for the first time in the ... Sugar Bowl," according to game coverage in The New York Times.
"Mr. Grier played most of the game and was accorded the same treatment as the white players. He received rousing applause several times. The Georgia team, which before the game had evinced cordiality toward his participation, made no effort to 'gang up' on him."
(Perhaps the game's officials, however, weren't as open-minded. Tech's 7-0 victory hinged on a controversial pass interference call against Grier.)
The contest became the first integrated Sugar Bowl, and today is regarded as the first mixed-race college bowl game in the Deep South.
While not as socially and nationally important, more Sugar Bowl milestones occurred in the mid-1970s, when the prestigious pigskin institution moved from its longtime home in Tulane Stadium to the brand-new Superdome in 1975 for the 42nd edition of the contest. On Dec. 31 of that year, Alabama trumped Penn State 13-6 in a game that marked the end of a proud era in New Orleans sports.
Times-Picayune reporter Chris Segura wrote that the "Sugar Bowl Classic had a lid on it for the first time in its history." Despite the change of venue, he added, the famous bowl game inspired celebration: "Both sides ... participated in the New Orleans-style revelry famous throughout the world."
Another key series of developments in the Sugar Bowl's history mirrored college football's evolution as a cash cow. That process included what some saw as a disturbing trend — sponsorship of bowl games by commercial interests — which happened at the Sugar Bowl for the first time in 1987. That's when the now-defunct insurance company USF&G threw its name behind the game as the USF&G Sugar Bowl. Since then, the bowl's title sponsors have changed twice, first to the Nokia Sugar Bowl and now the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
Of course, when you talk about money and bowl games, you simply must include the often convoluted evolution of the financially driven process for selecting a big-time college football "national champion." In 1992, the Sugar Bowl joined the newly formed Bowl Coalition, which soon gave way to the Bowl Alliance and now exists as the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), under which the Sugar Bowl hosted the BCS "national championship" game in 2000 and 2004.
Economic and social significance aside, the quirkiest edition of the Sugar Bowl might have come precisely 25 years ago, in 1988, when the No. 6 Auburn University Tigers squared off against No. 4 Syracuse University Orange in the 54th Sugar Bowl. That contest's claim to fame occurred in the waning seconds of the fourth quarter, when Auburn coach Pat Dye decided to kick a game-tying field goal instead of going for a potential winning touchdown. The result was a frustrating 16-16 tie, which earned the legendary Auburn coach the snide sobriquet of Pat "Tie" Dye.
Overall, the history of the Sugar Bowl is dotted with compelling contests, each noteworthy for different reasons. The cumulative effect is a rich tradition that's uniquely New Orleans.
"It's almost 80 years old," says Marty Mule, a former Times-Picayune reporter who has chronicled the Sugar Bowl for decades and who, like Sudsbury, points to the 1973 matchup as one of his favorites.
"It's one that was born in the depths of the Depression and survived world wars and Hurricane Katrina. It just has a very intriguing history to me. [The Sugar Bowl has] produced some of the greatest college football games in history. It really is an amazing story."