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The history of New Orleans bowl games 

Ryan Whirty on the big bowls, from 1910 to 2013

click to enlarge The old Tulane Stadium, now defunct, was the site of the first Bayou Classic and the Pelican Bowl in 1974.

Photo courtesy Tulane University Archives

The old Tulane Stadium, now defunct, was the site of the first Bayou Classic and the Pelican Bowl in 1974.

There will be 35 NCAA-sanctioned bowl games played in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) — the highest level in collegiate pigskin — during the 2013-14 season. The list of events ranges from Bowl Championship Series events — including New Orleans' Sugar Bowl and the national championship game — to smaller contests like the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, Belk Bowl and Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. More than half of the FBS teams in the country will play in bowl games, which have existed for more than a century, and although the number of bowl games is seen by some to diminish their relevance, they provide us with some good stories. Here are some games featuring New Orleans and Louisiana teams.

   The 1910 Bacardi Bowl, in which the Tulane Green Wave competed, was played in Havana, Cuba. The contest, held sporadically for four decades, usually pitted a team from the southern U.S. against an aggregation of Cuban all-stars. The championship was named after a major sponsor — then-Cuba-based booze-maker Bacardi — a concept that was ahead of its time.

  The game on New Year's Day 1910 was the second version of the contest. The inaugural one in 1907 featured Louisiana State University trashing Havana University 56-0. At the end of the 1909 regular season, The Green Wave received an invitation to compete in the Bacardi Bowl on Jan. 1, 1910, a development greeted with huzzahs by Tulane Weekly, the university's student paper: "The consensus of opinion around college is highly favorable concerning the proposed trip, as the students feel that the team which has so successfully defended the University this year, should receive some reward, and a more fitting reward is impossible to be imagined, for the men will not only receive much pleasure, but they will be benefited as well," read an article in the Dec. 9, 1909 issue. The article proferred that the bowl bid would promote Tulane in Cuba and allow traveling student Green Wave fans to experience a different culture.

  There wasn't much to promote in terms of Tulane's football prowess as the Green Wave choked, losing to the Havana Athletic Club, 11-0. A national newswire story about the contest said the Greenies "were outweighed and outplayed by their opponents," adding that the showdown "was witnessed by a big crowd, among whom were the highest representatives of Havana society."

   The 1958 Oyster Bowl. The regular-season bowl game in Norfolk, Va., pitted the winless Tulane Green Wave against the unbeaten, nationally ranked and highly favored U.S. Naval Academy Midshipmen. Navy was expected to field a blowout, but Tulane pulled off a stunning 14-6 upset in front of about 32,000 fans and had the national media alternately scratching their heads and dropping their jaws.

  "Unsung Tulane, convinced it was a better football team than its 0-4 record indicated, completely overpowered unbeaten Navy," Martie Zad wrote in The Washington Post.

  "For Tulane it was a big victory. After losing to three teams ranked in the Nation's top 20 in close battles, the young Greenies turned on sixth-ranked Navy. ... The Green Wave was a spoiler ... today, but it was no fluke."

   The 1973 Bluebonnet Bowl. Between the Greenies' glory years of the 1920s and '30s and Tulane's unbeaten 1998 campaign, the Wave's best season may have been 40 years ago in 1973, when Tulane alum Bennie Ellender coached the squad to a 9-2 mark in the regular season.

  That record included the Green Wave upsetting its vaunted rival LSU on Dec. 1, 1973, the Greenies' last major win at Tulane Stadium. Less than a week later, Tulane offered Ellender a new 10-year contract, and United Press International later named Ellender its coach of the year.

  Those successes landed Tulane a bid to the Bluebonnet Bowl, playing the University of Houston Cougars at the Astrodome, the Cougars' home field. In the days leading up to the Dec. 29 game, Green Wave players and coaches remained optimistic about their chances against Houston's high-powered offense and stingy defense. That positive thinking didn't transfer onto the field, however, and Houston mauled Tulane 47-7, the Green Wave's most lopsided loss since the Cougars beat Tulane 54-7 in 1968. The 1973 Cougars' 47 points and 40-point margin of victory both were Bluebonnet Bowl records.

  Despite the shellacking, the 1974 edition of the Tulane yearbook, Jambalaya, dedicated a two-page photo spread to the Bluebonnet disaster and summed up the overall season on a positive note: "By compiling a 9-3 win-loss record, the 1973 edition of Tulane football had left its mark. ... The one question that does remain is whether or not the 1974 team will repeat the success of the 1973 squad. Only time will tell."

  And time told a sad tale as the 1974 Green Wave went 5-6. Tulane didn't go to another bowl until 1979, when it lost to Penn State 9-6 in the Liberty Bowl. Tulane didn't win a post-season game until the 1998 Liberty Bowl, when it defeated Brigham Young University 41-27.

Over the years, the Crescent City has held its share of monumental pigskin matchups, from the Sugar Bowl to the Super Bowl. But for two years in the mid-1970s, New Orleans played host to what was billed as the "black college national championship" — the Pelican Bowl.

  The first edition of the Pelican Bowl was played in Durham, N.C., in 1972, when Louisiana's Grambling State University Tigers devastated the North Carolina Central University Eagles, 56-6. After skipping a year, the big game came to New Orleans in 1974, and Tulane Stadium was selected for the showdown between the respective champions of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) and the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC).

  The announcement elicited a plea for local black fans to attend the contest by Louisiana Weekly sports editor Bobby Hall. "[T]here is no excuse this year," Hall wrote. "Top-notch football right in your backyard."

  The Pelican Bowl was preceded by a clash that simply meant more to football fans among historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs): the first Bayou Classic, now a yearly confrontation between Grambling and Southern University that has blossomed into the premier HBCU gridiron event in the country. In the first meeting in 1974, Grambling, led by quarterback Doug Williams, beat the Southern Jaguars in a contest at Tulane Stadium that attracted nearly 77,000 fans, the largest crowd ever at that facility.

  In the Pelican Bowl a week or so later, SWAC champion Grambling swamped MEAC leader South Carolina State 28-7. But attendance at the event was thousands less than the earlier Bayou Classic, making the 1974 Pelican Bowl anticlimactic. That lack of enthusiasm was evident the following year, when the Pelican Bowl almost didn't happen due to apathy and a lack of support among HBCUs. In fact, Grambling coach Eddie Robinson refused to play in the 1975 game. "As far as the Pelican Bowl is concerned, I don't want to play it, " Robinson told Ebony magazine sportswriter Doc Young.

  Organizers of the Pelican Bowl scrambled to get teams for what turned out to be its final game, settling on Grambling's Louisiana rival, Southern University, and the South Carolina State Bulldogs. Though played in the brand-new Louisiana Superdome, the contest was lackluster, with the Southern Jaguars scoring a tepid 15-12 victory over the Bulldogs.

  Fans cared so little about the 1975 Pelican Bowl that it received no coverage in the Louisiana Weekly, and the "HBCU national championship" died a quiet death.

  Today, the Sugar Bowl dominates the college bowl season in New Orleans. But the city also hosts the New Orleans Bowl, which was founded in 2001 and features top teams from Conference USA and the New Orleans-based Sun Belt Conference, which signed contracts in August for six-year commitments to the bowl.

  While not as well-known as the Sugar Bowl, the New Orleans Bowl has a television contract with ESPN and decent attendance — a game-record 54,700 fans watched the University of Louisiana-Lafayette eke out a 24-21 victory over hometown Tulane last week — and as of 2011 offers a $500,000 payout to participating teams. This was the Ragin' Cajuns' third straight New Orleans Bowl victory,

  The question is whether we need the New Orleans Bowl or the other three dozen post-season college football contests, especially with the Sugar Bowl already in New Orleans.

  New Orleans Bowl and conference officials, including Sun Belt Conference Commissioner Karl Benson, say instead of too many college bowls, there aren't enough ­— because some teams with winning records (like 8-4 Middle Tennessee State University of the Sun Belt last year) are left without a bowl invitation. Benson disagrees with the notion that the New Orleans Bowl is pointless because of the Sugar Bowl, saying the New Orleans Bowl has more modest expectations than the BCS game and that those expectations are more than being met.

  "We might not have the same type of prestige or history [as the Sugar], but for the past [few] years, with Louisiana-Lafayette playing, we have had the type of energy, excitement and form of attraction," he says. "It may be on a different stage, but for the last [few] years, it's been on a big stage."

  New Orleans Bowl officials echo some popular arguments for the crowded college bowl season. Billy Ferrante, executive director of the New Orleans Bowl, believes his contest and other bowl games, have value and relevance because they provide revenue for the local hospitality industry, donations of time and money for community groups, positive press for New Orleans and a reward for hard-working student athletes.

  "When anybody raises that point [of irrelevance], I say to look at each of the last [three] years at what it's done for the Louisiana-Lafayette players, and at the last [14] years and what it's meant to all those players," Ferrante says. "[The bowl system] allowed 35 teams to win their last game last year."

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