How Santa Clara and LSU Met in the 1938 Sugar Bowl
Nearly a quarter of a million fans attended football games on the first day of 1937. The Rose Bowl drew 87,000; the Sugar Bowl 41,000; the East-West Shrine game 40,000; the first Cotton Bowl 17,000; the Orange Bowl 12,000; and the Bacardi Bowl in Havana, Cuba, had an attendance of 6,000.
Thoughts of an SEC-Sugar Bowl tie-up rose again with a degree of sheer nastiness when Alabama’s Coach Frank Thomas brought up the issue less than a week after the LSU-Santa Clara game. Thomas predicted the South “will choke the Rose Bowl to death if the (Sugar Bowl) situation is handled properly.” “Properly” to Thomas meant a tie-up with the SEC and the Southwest Conference, with an agreement to reject any and all invitations to Pasadena. Thomas pointed out that seven of the last 10 visiting teams to the Rose Bowl were from the South.
Thomas was irked because Pasadena had passed up his Crimson Tide; the comments were embarrassing to the Mid-Winter Sports Association, which was not anxious to see the demise of the Rose Bowl. Pasadena was respected for the example of what it had built. Pie Dufour wrote plainly and simply, “Let each play and prosper.” Then, too, there was the feeling by the Sugar Bowl that a tie-up would not necessarily help in assuring the best game possible each year.
Fred Digby said he felt the Rose Bowl preferred Eastern teams. “The purpose of the Tournament of Roses,” he reminded, “is to interest the rich men of the East and induce them to move out of the snow and ice and into the sunshine of southern California. That was the reason Pittsburgh got the bid over LSU and Alabama.” Digby added, “But the Sugar Bowlers shouldn’t enter into any agreement like the one of the Pacific Coast Conference has with the Rose Bowl. The Sugar Bowlers shouldn’t let anyone take control of their classic now that they’ve put it on a firm foundation after three years of toil.”
It was plain almost from the opening kickoff of the first game that the Sugar Bowl would eventually need a larger football stadium. Interest in the game was astounding. The fledgling Sugar had to expand its facility (mainly with temporary arrangements) for each of its first three games. The stadium size would affect the growth of the Sugar Bowl.
There was talk early in 1937 of expanding City Park Stadium, which seated 25,000 to 70,000, and of moving the bowl site there. It was also reported that state authorities were negotiating with the Works Progress Administration for money to erect a 100,000-seat stadium near Lake Pontchartrain. The Mid-Winter Sports Association wanted little to do with either project. Proud that what it had accomplished was free of any political entanglements, the Sugar Bowl wanted to keep it that way.
Tulane had tried to obtain WPA funds to make its football facility horseshoe-shaped; efforts failed because of its private status. Sugar Bowl officials, realizing that Tulane was the best site for their attraction, approached university authorities with a deal. Tulane’s north end zone wooden seats would be taken out and a steel stand would be erected, pushing the stadium’s permanent capacity to 37,000. With the temporary seating, a crowd of several thousand more could be accommodated.
Tulane loved the idea, but there was one slight hitch: The Sugar Bowl didn’t have the estimated $180,000 for the project. The Association wanted the university to loan it the money. Tulane administrators were a bit put out by the suggestion. Albert Wachenheim, Jr., a member of the executive board, recalled, “We had to persuade Tulane that it was to their benefit, too.”
Tulane was persuaded to loan a total of $167,768.84, for notes that would consist of a $20,000 payment for each of the following eight years, plus five percent interest. Tulane would bear the responsibility of stadium upkeep, and the Sugar Bowl would continue its rent-free status.
Southeastern Conference officials, in a March session in Atlanta, listened to a warning by league President R.L. Menuct of Tulane that bowl games were growing to a “most menacing extent.” The SEC then went on record as sanctioning only the Sugar Bowl and the Rose Bowl and “no other so-called ‘bowl’ games.” The move, in effect, said SEC members would be granted permission to play in no postseason games other than in New Orleans and Pasadena. As the Orange Bowl screamed ‘foul’ and ‘politics,’ the Sugar Bowl membership had to feel pretty smug. But Miami and the other bowls would have the last laugh on this matter.
Alabama and LSU were again the premier SEC football teams. The Crimson Tide was the conference champion; the Tigers were a notch behind with one loss. There was some argument over which was the best team, but the Sugar wanted ‘Bama for two reasons: 1) It was the champion. 2) LSU had been in the game two consecutive years. Pittsburgh, which brought snickers when it was picked for the 1937 Rose Bowl, was the hottest prospect in the country.
The Sugar wanted a match between the Tide and the No. 1 Panthers. But the Rose Bowl flexed some muscle in these pairings. California was the Rose Bowl host of 1938 and stated it wanted to play a school with “comparable academic standards.”
Alabama and Fordham were apparently each given the impression they were the Pasadena choice, but the Tournament of Roses made no announcement.
Fred Digby believed the Rose Bowl was trying to embarrass the Sugar Bowl by delaying their own selection and at the same time attempting to keep Alabama and Fordham out of New Orleans. The Sugar Bowl gave those schools 24 hours to make up their minds: Take the Sugar or gamble on the Rose. When time was up, the Sugar extended invitations to LSU and Santa Clara. The Rose had still not made its selection.
Frank Thomas, who 11 months before was talking about the demise of the Rose Bowl, gambled and won. Fordham gambled and stayed at home.
The biggest jolt of December came when Auburn asked for permission to participate in the Orange Bowl. In granting the request, the Southeastern Conference also voted 8 – 5 to rescind the February resolution which looked favorably only on Sugar and Rose Bowl participation.
Digby, whose views certainly reflected that of the Mid-Winter Sports Association membership, was angry. He revealed that a week before, at the suggestion of Alabama and LSU, the Association seriously discussed the advisability of presenting a plan for a definite agreement with the SEC for a tie-up. At the last minute, the Sugar Bowl was asked to hold the plan in abeyance. Obviously, one of the Sugar’s guidelines would have been that the SEC would compete only in New Orleans, and the Conference must have known of Auburn’s forthcoming request.
Digby wrote that the Sugar Bowl was now free of any obligation – real or imagined – to the Southeastern Conference. It could now look to all corners of the country to fill its berths.
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.