A Rich History in Basketball Continues for the Allstate Sugar Bowl

The Allstate Sugar Bowl has long been recognized as one of the premier events in college football, however, dating back to its inception, the Sugar Bowl Committee has built a rich history with the sport of basketball as well. From a 1936 game witnessed by 964 fans to the 2012 NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four, expected to have an attendance of over 74,000, the Sugar Bowl has been a key part of the support and promotion of basketball in New Orleans. It has also proven to be a natural fit for the organizations’ mission of sponsoring and promoting amateur sports to foster revenue and spark economic growth.

Sugar Bowl Collegiate Basketball Breakdown

The first Sugar Bowl basketball game was played between LSU and Pittsburgh on Jan. 2, 1936 – the day after the second annual Sugar Bowl Football Classic. The game saw ticket prices which ranged from 55 cents to $1.65 included this in its advance billing (pictured): “Loud speaker announcement will make this event attractive even for those not versed in this thrilling sport – said to be the game requiring the greatest endurance of any contest.” Municipal Auditorium did not actually have basketball goals and a contract was drawn up to include the use of Tulane’s goals – underlined in red ink on the original contract is the caveat that “the goals MUST be returned to Tulane University by 8 a.m. on Monday!”

That first Sugar Bowl basketball game set the stage for the future of the eventual tournament as it was a rematch of the 1935 American Legion National Championship game played in Atlantic City and won by the Tigers. In the rematch in New Orleans, the Panthers rallied from a 13-point deficit to win. Throughout the history of the Sugar Bowl basketball classic, 17 champions of national tournaments played in event.

Sam Corenswet, Sr., a charter member of the Mid-Winter Sports Association (which became the Sugar Bowl Committee), is recognized by many as the “Father of the Sugar Bowl Basketball Tournament.” By attending elite games around the country, he built relationships around the country with basketball coaches and other early power-brokers in the sport. At tournaments such as the NCAA and NIT, he would study which teams had the best players returning, and then offer invitations to New Orleans for December.

“The Sugar Bowl was really the best holiday tournament in college basketball; and a lot of that was due to Sam Corenswet,” said longtime New Orleans sportswriter Peter Finney. “Kentucky was a regular in the event; [Hall of Fame coach Adolph Rupp from Kentucky] and [Hall of Fame coach Henry Iba from Oklahoma A&M] faced off here in New Orleans thanks to the Sugar Bowl – the only time they played each other in the regular season. Every year brought some of the best in college basketball to the city.”

“Adolph was a good friend of my father and he loved to play in New Orleans,” said Sam Corenswet, Jr., himself a member of the Sugar Bowl Committee. “One year [1948], my father called Rupp to play in the Sugar Bowl. In those days, you could get a team a few months before the event, but Rupp said he had already committed to play in the Madison Square Garden Holiday Tournament. He told my father if he could get Ned Irish, the director of Madison Square Garden, to release the Wildcats, he’d rather come to New Orleans. My father called and Ned said if he could get Hall of Fame coach Clair Bee to bring his Long Island University to the Garden, he’d do it. So within a half-hour, the deal was set over the telephone.”

That deal was made possible because Corenswet had built a relationship with Bee, prior to LIU playing in the 1941 Sugar Bowl Tournament, which was not a good trip for Bee as his squad saw its 23-game winning streak and an aura of invincibility snapped by a surprising Tennessee team.

Rupp must have had mixed feelings as well about coming to New Orleans instead of the scheduled New York City visit. His powerhouse squad, the defending national champion, led by star center Alex Groza, was upended by Saint Louis and its own star, future Hall of Famer Ed Macauley, 42-40 (pictured right). In a streak which must have seriously vexed the ultra-competitive Rupp, Kentucky lost to Saint Louis three straight times in New Orleans by a total of four points. Some of the pain of that loss was probably lessened by his 1948 team winning a second straight NCAA title that spring.

Many of the great college basketball performances witnessed in New Orleans have been thanks to the Sugar Bowl. The first overtime game came in 1947 when defending national champion Holy Cross held off North Carolina State, 56-51, behind a 21-point performance by Crusader point guard Bob Cousy – another of the many future Basketball Hall of Famers to compete in the event.

“I remember going to the Sugar Bowl tournament in New Orleans, but as an 83-year old, I don’t remember the games so much as I remember being a teenager and having the opportunity to play in New Orleans and visit the city,” Cousy said. “It was pretty exciting stuff for a young guy who had not traveled much out of New York City.”

Cousy (left) and the Crusaders were back in 1948 for the first actual Sugar Bowl tournament, but even his tourney-record 28 points weren’t enough to hold off Tulane and Hall of Fame coach Cliff Wells – alas, the Green Wave fell in the championship to Kentucky under the direction of Rupp.

In 1952, LSU captured the title as future Hall-of-Famer Bob Pettit earned MVP honors. Holy Cross returned again for both the 1953 and 1954 tournaments, winning both behind the efforts of Tommy Heinsohn, another future Hall-of-Famer. Bailey Howell, another Hall-of-Famer, earned MVP honors in the 1958 event after leading Mississippi State to the Sugar Bowl title with victories over Maryland and Memphis State.

UCLA, and its own Hall-of-Fame coach John Wooden, won the Sugar Bowl tourney in 1972 behind the efforts of the legendary Bill Walton, while in 1973 future Hall of Famer David Thompson (right) and North Carolina State won the Sugar Bowl title in December before capturing the NCAA Championship the following March. In 1975, Tennessee took the title behind its tremendous tandem of Bernard King (yet another Hall of Famer) and Ernie Grunfeld, who collected MVP honors in New Orleans.

In 1981, the University of Houston came to the Sugar Bowl with a pair of players destined for the Hall of Fame – Hakeem (then known as Akeem) Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler – and knocked off Purdue and LSU in a pair of close games. That dynamic squad would return to the Crescent City a few months later to play in the 1982 NCAA Final Four in the Superdome.

Another Final Four squad to get a jump-start in the Sugar Bowl Tourney was surprising Seton Hall in 1988.

“I was with Seton Hall when we went to the Sugar Bowl Tournament in 1988,” said current Big East associate commissioner John Paquette. “It was a great event, a lot of fun. Dick Vitale spoke at the tournament banquet and we played two strong teams in Virginia and DePaul. Winning that tournament gave us a boost of confidence that helped with us make the run to the Final Four.”

The evolution of college basketball has seen a shift away from a multitude of in-season neutral-site tournaments featuring highly-ranked teams toward a scheduling philosophy that has schools seeking to play more home games. The Allstate Sugar Bowl is proud of the role it has played in the history of college basketball, but it has recently shifted its attention to supporting local high school basketball through multiple annual tournaments.

In recent years, the bowl has been the title sponsor of the New Orleans CYO High School Tournament, an event which will see its 64th year of action in 2017; the National Prep Classic, which features boys’ and girls’ teams from around the country each January, and the Primetime Super 60 AAU Basketball Tournament, which welcomee nearly 500 teams to the city each Memorial Day weekend.

However, the Allstate Sugar Bowl’s affiliation with college basketball has not ended by any means – the Bowl added a crown-jewel to its long history of involvement with the sport by helping with the administration of the 2012 NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four, the fifth Final Four to be played in New Orleans.  In 2008, the Sugar Bowl Committee partnered with other local organizations to put together the successful bid for this year’s championship, officially hosted by Tulane University. In addition, the bowl was part of the hosting group for the 2013 NCAA Women’s Basketball Final Four.

While the Allstate Sugar Bowl has become synonymous with the best in college football, it should not be overlooked that the organization also brings some of the best in many other sports to the great city of New Orleans, exposing the unique charm and culture of the city to young student-athletes and their families and fans from around the country.

[Story written by John Sudsbury, the director of media relations and communications for the Allstate Sugar Bowl.]