How Santa Clara and LSU Met in the 1937 Sugar Bowl
“The Sugar Bowl had made the most amazing progress of any sports event developed anywhere in recent years,” Grantland Rice exclaimed editorially that after two years of existence, Rice also noted that the fledging game needed more room.
It was plain that football interest had exceeded expectations. After the Tulane-Temple game, Bill Keefe saw the need to add 5,000 seats. Fred Digby envisioned a 60,000-seat stadium after LSU-TCU.
Bob Geasey, the Temple sports information director, had returned to New Orleans for the second Sugar Bowl. He told Digby, “…Remember, you’re not building for next year or the year after, but for 10 and 15 years to come. Build big for the future!”
Digby, characteristically, wasted little time in presenting the case for a larger stadium. Two days after the Texas Christian victory he wrote, “Undoubtedly, the most feasible plan is to enlarge the Tulane Stadium. Its capacity can be boosted to 60,000 before next New Year’s Day by making a ‘sugar bowl’ of the structure.”
It was readily apparent a larger football facility was necessary, but that matter would have to wait a little while. The major move made by the Mid-Winter Sports Association after the second Sugar Bowl was to a more centrally located office at 722 Common Street. Also, they hired their first full-time employee.
Edna Engert, a brown-eyed, personable young woman whose interest in athletics was minimal until she met her husband, was hired to run the office. It was a significant decision. Edna would leave a mark on the organization.
For its third game, the Sugar Bowl was initiated into bowl politics. The Cotton Bowl went into operation on January 1, 1937, the first year all of the major bowl games were in business. There were also two lesser bowls and a pro exhibition, but the Sugar, Orange, Cotton, and Rose Bowls were clearly special.
LSU, again the Southeastern Conference champion, ranked No. 1 by Williamson and No. 2 in the first Associated Press poll, was the darling of every post-season game committee. The Mid-Winter Sports Association had several options for the 1937 game. An LSU and third-ranked Pittsburgh game would be in keeping with the North-South formula that some favored. Sixth-ranked Santa Clara, ineligible for the Rose Bowl because it wasn’t a Pacific Coast Conference member, was considered the best West Coast team. This school would broaden the Sugar’s horizon. Then there as the possibility of an LSU-Alabama match. Only a tie in the conference had kept the Tide from sharing the title with the Tigers in a year when those teams did not meet. LSU-Alabama would have been attractive but sectional.
LSU was the key and high on the Rose Bowl list. Meanwhile, the Rose Bowl pondered an opponent for the University of Washington. But the Rose Bowl bypassed LSU for Pittsburgh, giving the Sugar Bowl the season’s plum in a game with Santa Clara. The Item ran a series of nationwide sports editorials ridiculing and laughing at Pasadena. A typical piece was written by John Lardner of the North American Newspaper Alliance, who took some light jabs at the two once-defeated, once-tied schools matched in the Rose Bowl. “For instance,” wrote Lardner, “there is the one about the two football teams named Pat and Mike. ‘Have you been asked to the Rose Bowl?’ says Mike. ‘Hell, no,’ says Pat. ‘I’m undefeated.”
The Southeastern Conference felt snubbed because two of its teams, LSU and Alabama, were overlooked in California. The teams, LSU and Alabama, were overlooked in California. The SEC hinted that perhaps it and the Sugar Bowl ought to join hands. However, the Sugar Bowl saw the risk of a conference tie-up as the Rose Bowl demonstrated choosing Washington.
Santa Clara was invited and accepted the Sugar Bowl invitation on December 6; at the time, it was the nation’s only undefeated, untied (7-0-0) major college team. Sammy Baugh, the hero of the 1936 Sugar Bowl, tarnished the Broncos’ unbeaten aspirations with a 9-0 Texas Christian victory on December 12, showing New Orleans the two-edged sword of bowl politics.
Still, Santa Clara, an old mission school founded in the 1700s, brought some glitter. The Broncos were coached by Buck Shaw, who was renowned for developing outstanding lines and was a tackle under Knute Rockne. The team included an All-American quarterback, Nello Falaschi, and an end, Jim “Mississippi” Smith, who gave Santa Clara a down-home flavor.
Five thousand additional seats had been installed in Tulane Stadium, which brought the capacity to 41,000. It still wasn’t enough.
Possibly the only fans unaware of what was building in New Orleans were Californians. “We were extremely happy when we got the invitation,” said Al Wolff, a sophomore tackle for Santa Clara. “We had heard of the Sugar Bowl, but not a great deal. The papers on the West Coast concentrated only on the Rose Bowl. But we felt we were good enough to play in a bowl game, against a really good team.”
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.