How Texas A&M and Tulane Met in the 1940 Sugar Bowl
The original purpose of the Sugar Bowl from the businessman’s standpoint was to fill hotel rooms and restaurants and to stimulate commerce during a traditionally slack period. It was clear after five years that the concept was sound. Texas Christian-Carnegie Tech drew a crowd that spent more money during the four-day period leading up to the game than any group had at any other event or convention in New Orleans for the year, including Mardi Gras.
Mike O’Leary, manager of the St. Charles Hotel, said, “It came in the slump between Christmas and New Year’s when ever hotel in the country has a slump…It was just as though Santa Claus filled our stocking with the biggest crowd we’ve ever seen.” Ray Alciatore, proprietor of the world-famous Antoine’s restaurant, said his business had prepared 6,012 orders of Oysters Rockefeller in three days. “That’s as many as we serve in an ordinary month,” Alciatore exclaimed.
As usual, it was Fred Digby who saw beyond the contentment of the present to a cornucopia of the future. After the game, in a column on the front page of the Item, Digby sought to enlarge Tulane Stadium to 60,000. He suggested the issuance of debenture bonds to cover the $200,000 project.
Favorable reaction came from far and near, including an endorsement from former World War I flying ace Colonel Eddie Rickenbacker, then president of Eastern Airlines. Louisiana Governor Richard Leche wrote Digby an eight-page letter and promised that the state would take $5,000 of the issuance. Mike O’Leary spoke for many when he declared, “Let us strike while the iron is hot.”
After weeks of studying sketches, the Sugar Bowl membership, with Tulane’s approval, decided to build the capacity to 70,000 seats backed by $550,000 in debentures, which were to be paid off at the rate of $25,000 a year.
Each purchaser of a $100 bond would be given the option of buying two choice Sugar Bowl tickets prior to public distribution, and two percent interest would be paid after five years. It doesn’t sound like much now, but 40 days after the drive began on March 7, the goal was reached.
The contract was awarded to Doullut & Ewing, Inc., and the firm itself purchased $40,000 in debentures to guard against any contingency that could possibly arise. “We’ll have that stadium ready for January 1, 1940,” said Jim Ewing to the Sugar Bowl when the company got the contract. “It will be a close fit, but we won’t let you down.”
The fit was even closer than Ewing thought. Originally, it was thought the enlargement would be of concrete, but the cost would have exceeded the $550,000. So the addition to the bowl and the double-decking of the side stands would be made of steel. The war in Europe threatened to skyrocket expenses in steel, and it became mandatory that the steel needed for the stadium be obtained without delay. This could be done only with a cash outlay above the partial payment already made. It was June when the first piling was driven. Working constantly, except on Saturdays when Tulane played home games, using steel from the Virginia Bridge Company of Birmingham, the contractors Doullut and Ewing met the deadline between the end of Tulane’s season and prior to January 1, 1940. Tulane Stadium was now a complete bowl and the largest stadium in the South.
The only problem with expanding a stadium is the filling of it after it is completed. In 1940, the Sugar Bowl was lucky. A three-way tie between Tennessee (undefeated, untied, and unscored upon), Georgia Tech, and Tulane put the Sugar Bowl in fine position.
Texas A&M, the Southwest Conference’s second consecutive national champion, was the prime choice for the visitor’s berth. Heavyweight competition from the Cotton Bowl was a hurdle which stood in the way of the immediate signing of the Aggies after the regular season.
A&M Coach Homer Norton had an invitation to New Orleans tucked in his pocket right after his final regular season game. Dallas businessman had put together a package of $170,000, to be split by both teams, as an inducement to A&M for a game with second-ranked Tennessee.
A&M’s acceptance was contingent upon Tennessee’s appearance. The Volunteers had the inside track on the Rose Bowl but did not want to say anything formally until their last game with Auburn a week later. So Norton let his players vote, and they chose New Orleans. On December 5 it was announced that A&M would meet fifth-ranked Tulane in the Sugar Bowl. It was the first Sugar Bowl pairing of two undefeated teams. Tennessee spent its holidays in Pasadena.
Getting Texas A&M, as it turned out, was easier than getting Tulane. Just as in 1935, the Greenies were hesitant about playing what amounted to one more home game. Halfback Fred Cassibry told New Orleans States sportswriter George Sweeney years after, “(Coach) Red (Dawson) worked us to death during the season. He was a hard taskmaster, but a fair one. He was the type of guy who felt you were at Tulane on scholarship, so you should play your best at all times or he would take that scholarship away. And that meant 100 percent at practice. Some guys just didn’t feel like going through three more weeks of practice.
“We wanted some assurance that if we played, we would get something out of it ($150 a man was what the team wanted, Cassibry said later). No one could give us an answer, so we sent word that we didn’t want to play in the game. Dr (Rufus) Harris (Tulane’s president) and the coaching staff said that we would always regret it if we turned the invitation down. They would have been right.”
The Sugar Bowl was billed as a David (Tulane) and Goliath (A&M) match. Although Tulane was a bigger team physically, the Wave had six tackles ranging from 215 to 240 pounds and standing between 6-foot-3 and 6-foot-5. What brought on the David and Goliath comparison were the measurement of the featured runners-Tulane’s 160-pound scatback Bobby Kellogg and A&M’s 210-pound fullback John Kimbrough, who had played 60 minutes in every Texas A&M game.
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.