|22nd Annual Sugar Bowl Classic ~ January 2, 1956
"At first, we were offended," said guard Hal Hunter, one of the Panther co-captains.
"Then, to loosen him up and try to take the pressure off him, we played practical jokes on Bobby during practice for the Sugar Bowl."
The Pitt players were hoping to ease the pressure of standout Bobby Grier becoming the first African-American player in the Sugar Bowl.
But things turned pretty grim quickly once the Sugar Bowl began.
As the game began, the Tulane Stadium clock malfunctioned - which would have ramifications throughout - and an immediate controversy involving Bobby Grier flared up.
From the Pitt 32, where Tech recovered a fumble, quarterback Wade Mitchell lofted a soft pitch to right end Don Ellis near the goal.
The ball sailed over both the heads of Ellis and defender Grier.
Interference on Grier was called.
"I was outside in what we called an ‘Eagle' defense," said Grier. "I went back with the player and when I turned to look up and see where the ball was. I got pushed in the back. The ball was over his head and I was lying on the ground, then he (back judge Frank Lowry) threw a flag and said I pushed him...with me lying on the ground, looking up and the ball over both our heads."
Ellis said, "I got behind him. Then, when I turned around to look for the pass, he shoved me in the stomach, knocking me off stride. It was a fine pass, and I think I could have caught it."
The film was inconclusive, but indicated Grier may have been out of position, stumbled, and fell a few yards in front of Ellis. A roar of protest erupted from the stands as the ball was placed on the 1-yard line. Immediately the reporter sitting next to legendary New Orleans sports writer Buddy Diliberto began typing a bulletin that read, "Bobby Grier, the first Negro to play in the Sugar Bowl, was roundly booed by a crowd of 80,175 spectators today in Tulane Stadium."
"You don't REALLY believe that, do you?" shouted the incredulous Diliberto. "They're booing the call, not Grier!"
After Pitt was penalized a half-yard for offsides, Mitchell followed the surge of his line and made into the end zone by inches. He then added the extra point.
The Panthers took complete control in the second quarter, allowing the Yellow Jackets just five plays. With time being kept on the field, a 79-yard drive put Pitt at the Tech 1 with time running out in the first half. Franklin Brooks and Allen Ecker stopped what appeared to be a hurried quarterback sneak on fourth-and-goal. "Corny" Salvaterra, the Pitt quarterback, said he thought there was plenty of time to at least get a play off.
Pittsburgh had two opportunities to score in the third quarter, driving to the Tech 16, with a 26-yard crowd-pleasing run by Grier that almost went all the way, where an interception ended the threat; and to the 7, where a fumble killed the drive.
In the fourth period, third-string quarterback Darrell Lewis lit a fire under the Panthers, and would have scored himself on a sweep but for a last-second tackle that sent him pin-wheeling out-of-bounds at the 10.
Before going to the huddle, Lewis asked an official how much time remained and he said he was told two minutes and 39 seconds. Hunter also asked and said he was told only 39 seconds. In either case there was enough time for several plays. Ralph Jelic gained five yards on a power play. As Pitt lined up again, the officials began waving their arms, signaling the game's end. "I thought we could get off another play easily," Lewis protested.
Time has a way of affecting memory, particularly in a game like this where Pitt had all the stats and Georgia Tech had the scoreboard. Both Hunter and Lewis felt the loss was racially motivated, pointing to a "crew of Southern officials." It may or may not have been competent, but it was not a crew of Southern officials. It was a split crew, and one agreed to beforehand by Pittsburgh.
In a sort of coda, it should be noted Grier finished as the Sugar Bowl's leading ground-gainer with 51 yards.
The game was a distinct landmark in Sugar Bowl history. From its inception the Mid-Winter Sports Association strived for intersectional pairings. But after the 1956 game, the Sugar Bowl was forced to retrench because of the political climate of the times, and the Louisiana Legislature. For the next decade the Sugar Bowl would have great teams and great games. But not a single team would come from outside the Southeastern, Southwest, or Atlantic Coast conferences.
Recap excerpted from the book "Sugar Bowl Classic: A History" by Marty Mulé, who covered the game and the organization for decades for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.