New Orleans Successfully Hosts College Football Playoff National Championship

Photo Courtesy of CFP Images

by Trey Iles for the Allstate Sugar Bowl

NEW ORLEANS (January 20, 2020) – It’s probably not the first time someone in New Orleans had a late dinner (or early breakfast?) of Popeye’s Fried Chicken in his or her hotel room after a night out on the town. LSU Coach Ed Orgeron and wife, Kelly, did just that in the early morning hours of Jan. 14, 2020, after the Tigers won the College Football Playoff National Championship in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

After LSU defeated Clemson, 42-25, to win the title and complete a perfect 15-0 season, Coach O fulfilled his many media obligations, celebrated with his team and enjoyed numerous congratulations. Then around 2 a.m., he and Kelly realized they hadn’t eaten yet.

“We didn’t know what we were going to eat,’’ Orgeron recalled. “Somebody gave us some Popeye’s Fried Chicken, so we took it up in the room and she ate half of hers and I ate the rest and then we went to bed around 2:30-3 a.m.’’

What better place to celebrate winning a national championship – heck, what better place to celebrate anything – than New Orleans?

The city has hosted so many championships through the years, from Super Bowls to NCAA Men’s and Women’s Final Four basketball championships to the Olympic Trials of 1992 to hundreds of high school sports championships. No city in America has the outstanding track record of New Orleans when it comes to staging big-time sporting events.

And, with the Allstate Sugar Bowl leading the way, no city has hosted the number of college football national championship events or national champion teams that New Orleans has.

The Sugar Bowl, birthed on January 1, 1935, hosted four Bowl Championship Series National Championship games (2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012) as well as three other games which featured the No. 1 vs. No. 2 teams in the Associated Press poll (1979, 1983, 1993).

In addition to that, the Bowl has welcomed 21 other national champion teams – teams that either captured the title with a victory in the Sugar Bowl; had already been declared the national champion before the bowl, which happened regularly in the early years of college football; or earned the national title after winning a College Football Playoff Semifinal in the Allstate Sugar Bowl (Ohio State and Alabama, following the 2014 and 2017 seasons, respectively).

Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney has been involved in some capacity in three of those games. As a senior wide receiver/special teams player with Alabama in 1992, the Crimson Tide knocked off Miami in the 1993 Sugar Bowl and was voted in the Associated Press poll as the No. 1 team, signifying it as the national champion. He, of course, coached in this year’s game and in the 2018 semifinal where the Tigers lost to eventual national champion Alabama.

The Sugar Bowl and New Orleans have long had an impact on Swinney. He attended his first Sugar Bowl game in 1980 when he was 10 as Bear Bryant’s Alabama defeated Arkansas. He said he remembers tap dancing on Bourbon Street with a performer.

Then in 1993, he recalled the joy he experienced as a player as Alabama defeated Miami. He grabbed a game ball as a souvenir as the clock ticked off toward its conclusion.

“I wanted to soak it all in,’’ Swinney said. “I held on to that ball. In the paper the next day was a big picture. It was me and (former Alabama running back) Sherman Williams. And I ran all the way around this stadium (Superdome) high-fiving the Alabama folks. And it’s so funny because the picture, I have that ball locked down. It was the best ball security you’ve ever seen. I have (the ball) to this day, just sitting in my house. It was the greatest moment you could experience as a player.’’

The national championship games played in New Orleans have had special moments, coaches and players. There was the 1973 Sugar Bowl when Notre Dame defeated Alabama, 24-23, in an epic contest that gave the Irish the national title. Alabama upsetting Miami in 1993. Former Florida Coach Steve Spurrier winning a national championship in the 1997 Sugar Bowl against rival Florida State. Former Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden claiming the BCS national crown against Virginia Tech in 2000.

Nick Saban winning his first national championship with LSU in the 2004 Sugar Bowl, also the first of three of the Tigers’ titles all won in New Orleans with the latest in January 2020.

This year was unlike the others though. It was the first time that New Orleans hosted the College Football Playoff National Championship game. Unlike during the BCS era, New Orleans had to bid to host the 2020 game.

The Sugar Bowl spearheaded the bid effort for the contest with support from the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation; ASM Global, the management company of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome; the New Orleans Saints; the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center; the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau; and the New Orleans Tourism and Marketing Corporation; as well as multiple government agencies on the state and local level.

Unlike the previous versions of the game which decided a national champion, this time was different. Much different. Though the CFP Championship contest is the main event and the cornerstone of the festivities, there is more to it than just a game. Numerous satellite events surround the game and take careful planning as well.

AT&T Playoff Playlist Live in New Orleans. Photo by CFP Images.

Sugar Bowl Chief Executive Officer Jeff Hundley said there was some trepidation about playing host to the game even though New Orleans had done this many times before and always to acclaim for those taking part. He said they weren’t exactly sure how this would play out.

But, once again, New Orleans showed there is no better place to host an event of this magnitude. Those in charge of the event and others said as much.

“New Orleans is a wonderful site for an event like the CFP championship,’’ said Bill Hancock, the executive director of the CFP. “The hospitality, the proximity of the stadium to the hotels, the history…New Orleans has everything.  And the folks from the Sugar Bowl, the City of New Orleans, the Superdome, the Saints and the Sports Foundation were all terrific. Bravo, New Orleans!’’

“Since 1935, New Orleans has hosted some of the most legendary teams, games and fan bases in the country,’’ Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said. “New Orleans is unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. There is no place in the world like Louisiana.’’

The Sugar Bowl’s experience in staging championship events was certainly a plus for hosting the event. But Hundley noted the CFP Championship is staged differently from those of the BCS era. Think more of the Final Four but with even more nooks and crannies to fill.

“It’s a situation where we (Sugar Bowl) weren’t calling the shots,’’ Hundley said. “Basically, there were a lot of unknowns going in. But coming out, we feel it was a really good event. Bill Hancock said it was the best they had experienced in the first six years of the CFP Championship. Once again, New Orleans showed why it’s perfectly built for championships on all levels. It was special. I’m sure having the home team (LSU) in the game added to it as well and made it, from our perspective, a historical moment for Louisiana’s sports.’’

The LSU angle certainly played well in New Orleans. The Tigers were enjoying arguably one of the best seasons in college football history, had the perfect face for the team with Louisiana native Ed Orgeron and the Heisman winner, quarterback Joe Burrow, who had captivated the state.

“I think it’s magical, I really do,’’ Orgeron said of playing in New Orleans. “I think when we saw the national championship would be in the Superdome at the beginning of the year, we set our target on that although we did not talk about it. We felt once we come in the Superdome, we’d come out victorious because of the home-field advantage.’’

Playoff Fan Central in New Orleans. Photo by CFP Images.

Both Orgeron and Swinney said the venue was magical and LSU and Clemson fans had a great time. There was plenty for them to do and record attendance was recorded at many of the satellite events.

CFP Playoff Fan Central was held at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, drawing record crowds. Fan Central is a 200,000 square-foot interactive experience that allows fans to take part in games, clinics, pep rallies, autograph signings and exhibits that celebrate college football and its history.

The AT&T Playoff Playlist Live at Woldenberg Park had free concerts on Saturday and Sunday. There was the Allstate Championship Tailgate Plaza at the Jax Brewery parking lot that had several free outdoor experiences and served as ESPN’s home for live broadcasts leading up to the game as well as a popular game-day concert experience.

The Extra Yard 5K had record attendance in a race in which all proceeds benefit Extra Yard for Teachers, the CFP Foundation’s primary platform for assisting teachers.

The Eckrich Taste of the Championship was a premium dining experience and fundraising event hosted on the eve of the title game, offering local residents and game attendees the opportunity to sample gourmet food and drinks from New Orleans chefs in support of the CFP Foundation.

The Extra Yard 5K in New Orleans. Photo by CFP Images.

“While attention is always first and foremost on the football game, a close second is all the work and planning that goes into the myriad of events that take place over the championship weekend,’’ Hundley said. “In addition to those, you have several private events, smaller affairs and parties. ESPN did a really big and fun event on Saturday night at the Contemporary Arts Center for hundreds of people – that one was really talked about.

“There was a lot of thought, planning, effort and resources that went into pulling that all together. At the end of the day, all those events amounted to a uniquely New Orleans experience that has people still talking about not just the game but the entire championship weekend.’’

The host committee and CFP personnel were also able to handle the unexpected. Event organizers had to come up with a game plan to accommodate fans when President Donald Trump decided to attend the contest.

“Regardless of your politics, whenever you have the President of the United States attending the game, it’s a pretty big deal,’’ Hundley said. “The logistics worked out very well from all corners. A half hour before the game, 70,000 people were already in the stadium. There were some lessons learned from previous events as well as some excellent planning by Secret Service and people from the Superdome, CFP, New Orleans Police Department, the FBI, etc. They all came together, and things went seamlessly.’’

The championship experience wasn’t only limited to the four-day weekend in which it was played. And it had reach throughout the metro area. The CFP Foundation and the New Orleans College Football Championship Host Committee, with corporate sponsorship from Entergy, teamed up for a multimillion-dollar effort to enhance and improve Orleans Parish Public Schools.

About $3 million has been allocated to the project, which focuses on the approximately 2,700 teachers who make up the Orleans Parish Public School system. The primary aim is to aid in helping the system retain teachers. The project started more than a year ago and will continue well down the road with the Sugar Bowl leading the ongoing effort.

Each step along the way, the Sugar Bowl has been able to adapt to the evolution of college football’s championship. As it has before, New Orleans, behind the leadership of the Sugar Bowl, has not only been able to stage college football’s premiere event but also to put on the best event possible.

That New Orleans would likely host another college football national championship would certainly be within the realm of possibility. A refurbished Superdome, which is currently under way, will be a plus as will the other reasons that New Orleans is the perfect championship site.

But it probably won’t happen until late in the 2020s. The next four CFP National Championships have already been awarded. And the next two years, 2025 and 2026, will likely go to other venues.

The biggest hurdle facing bringing in the next championship contest will be, as was the case with the 2020 contest, financial. It costs between $12-18 million to stage the CFP Championship. The Sugar Bowl put up the majority of the money. Had it not the title game would not have been played in New Orleans.

It’s certainly not the first time the Sugar Bowl has provided financial backing for championship events. As a member of the BCS, the Sugar Bowl was responsible for making sure the title game was financially viable. And in 2012, the Sugar Bowl financially backed the Men’s Final Four in New Orleans and the Women’s Final Four in New Orleans in 2013.

But the Sugar Bowl’s ability to do this has been curtailed as many of the revenue streams have been diverted to the CFP.

“The lion’s share of the (financial) commitment came from the Sugar Bowl Committee,’’ Hundley said. “It’s one that we’re not likely to be able to make again in the future. We’re hopeful, going forward, the state and others will be able to step in and help so that we’ll have an opportunity to bring it back here again. I know the intent after talking to Bill (Hancock) is they’ll be back. What’s unsaid there is they’ll be back as long as we have the resources to fund the event.’’

Hundley said it is the Sugar Bowl’s desire to bring back CFP Championships in the future.

“We’re hopeful that in some form or fashion that New Orleans can stay competitive in the process,’’ Hundley said. “I think as we’ve shown time and again – and in 2020 – no one does it better than New Orleans.’’