How Tennessee and Tulsa Met in the 1943 Sugar Bowl
Obviously, the war put a crimp in the sports scene; the equality of competition fell. But the luck of the Sugar Bowl continued. Before the final big week of the 1942 regular season, the Mid-Winter Sports Association was angling for Boston College and either Georgia Tech or Georgia, the best two teams in the Southeast Conference.
Pasadena flexed its considerable muscle and stepped in with an agreement to take the winner of the Tech-Bulldog fight, snatching a plum right out of the hands of the Sugar. New Orleans then quickly glanced to the Midwest where Henry Frnka’s Tulsa Hurricane was blowing over everything in its path. Fourth-ranked Tulsa, the only undefeated team eligible for a bowl and averaging an incredible 42 points a game, would have made an ideal opponent for No. 1-ranked Boston College. Tulsa was invited, and accepted.
Eerie things were taking place at Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. The program cover of the November 28, 1942, Boston College-Holly Cross game showed a photograph of the schools’ captains shaking hands. The Holy Cross captain wore No. 55, the Boston College captain wore No. 12. On that day twenty-six-point underdog Holy Cross drummed the Eagles 55-12. Until Northwestern, a 32-point underdog, defeated Minnesota 31-21 in 1982, this was college football’s biggest reversal of form. Boston College instantaneously lost its glitter and national championship aspirations.
The Sugar Bowl appeared to be wiggling on a hook, especially after Boston columnist Bill Cunningham indicated that Boston College might have made an agreement with New Orleans before the game. “So far as I’m concerned,” Cunningham said, “the Sugar Bowl is stuck with Boston College. Apparently they can’t get out of it, even with that awful drubbing this afternoon.”
Cunningham was as close as a reporter could be to the Boston College athletic situation, so his words were taken as imprimatur. But he was wrong. Seventh-ranked Tennessee received and accepted the Sugar Bowl invitation. It may have been the best thing that ever happened to the Boston College athletic family.
A party celebrating its victory and the Sugar Bowl invitation and the Sugar Bowl invitation had been scheduled to follow the Holy Cross game. The crushed Eagles, without victory and without a Sugar Bowl bid, cancelled the affair. That night the Coconut Grove, site of the called-off-celebration, burned down and almost 500 people were killed.
Tulsa, the Missouri Valley champion, didn’t appear to need anything extra in its high-velocity offense, featuring a do-it-all tailback named Glenn Dobbs. The Hurricane had 2,339 yards passing that season, 4,261 yards in total offense, and ranked eighth nationally on defense, surrendering an average of 148.7 yards.
The Hurricane did pick up a lot of what normally would have been neutral fan support in New Orleans. Bill Cunningham apparently irritated that Boston College had not gotten the Sugar Bowl invitation, wrote that one of the participants was a “fine semi-pro club, peopled with several gents whose eligibility wouldn’t pass muster in some of the politer circles.” The howl that arose in Oklahoma caused Cunningham to back up and say he was actually speaking of Tennessee, thought he seemed to be simply covering his tracks. Tulsa received a great deal of sympathy nationwide for being in the line of fire through no fault of its own. New Orleans went out of its way to show hospitality to the Hurricane.
The game itself had a slightly odd look. Coach John Barnhill had taken over the Volunteer reins for General Bob Neyland. Frnka had been a longtime assistant at Vanderbilt and had crossed swords with Tennessee for years. “I used to scout them so often I sometimes stood up when their band played their alma mater,” he laughed.
Tennessee, in the Neyland tradition, emphasized its kicking game and defense. The Vols had a fine running attack and were deep in reserves, accounting for their pick as a three-point favorite. Tulsa, however, was not deep and wasn’t a consistent ground threat. “We were a bunch of greyhounds with a lot of heart,” said Dobbs. Some felt Tulsa was a little more than that. One sportswriter led off a story with, “Lock the door and stack the furniture because Gleen Dobbs & Co., otherwise known as the University of Tulsa football team, are in town.” Not only was Tulsa exciting, but it had a coach who didn’t overlook anything. Frnka brought 300 gallons of drinking water from Oklahoma with the team.
“We aren’t taking any chances,” he explained.
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.