How Duke and Alabama Met in the 1945 Sugar Bowl
The 1945 Sugar Bowl was an almost complete reversal of form from the previous 10 pairings. This one, at first glance, looked to be a pumpkin; but at the stroke of midnight, it was transformed into the princess.
Again, the war made for odd pairings, but Georgia Tech again had a representative team in the South, one in which the Mid-Winter Sports Association was definitely interested. The Orange Bowl made a bold bid and invited the Engineers to Miami for a rematch of the 1944 Sugar Bowl with Tulsa. Tech still had two games to play, including one with Notre Dame.
Tennessee was on its way to an 8-0-1 season but quickly committed to the Rose Bowl, the big winner in the holiday sweepstakes with the only two ranked teams (seventh-ranked Southern Cal and the 12th-ranked Volunteers). The Sugar Bowl was sent scrambling. Alabama, an SEC also-ran with one loss and two ties, was eventually selected. Coach Frank Thomas was surprised when the invitation arrived. The Southern Conference champion Duke, beaten four times, would be the opponent. Duke was also a Navy training team.
Alabama, a civilian school that didn’t even field a team the year before and started the 1944 season with only one backfield regular as old as 18, came under some pressure not to accept because it didn’t appear to be an equitable match. Thomas resisted initially but finally accepted.
Thomas, the second coach in two years to complete the major bowl circuit in New Orleans, knew full well what he was getting into. Asked how his team felt, Thomas replied, “They’re too young to know any different than they’re going to win. I’m not going to tell them any different.”
For the first time since Pearl Harbor the Sugar Bowl would be an absolute sellout of 73,000. It may not have been a stellar attraction compared to the other bowls, but a lot of fans wanted to see Alabama-Duke.
Other than the buoyant atmosphere prevalent toward the end of a war, it is hard to see how Alabama-Duke would create much excitement. Purely and simply, it appeared to be a case of men against boys, as the Blue Devils’ two-touchdown pick reflected. Alabama’s line had only one man who weighed as much as 200 pounds – center Vaughn Mancha. Eighteen year-old Harry Gilmer guided the Crimson Tide offense. In contrast, the older, heavier Duke trainees looked to 23-year-old Tom Davis for leadership. Davis was a Marine lieutenant who had been discharged in September and had returned to school.
Coach Eddie Cameron, who had taken over at Duke while Wallace Wade, also a former Alabama coach, was in the service, realized he could be stepping into a trap. Coach Cameron said the odds were “silly” and read a letter to his team from Colonel Wade, a field artillery officer in France, who wrote that he would be listening and was “setting up a special cheering section over here to help the boys along.” In reference to two previous Duke bowl losses, Wad added, “Tell the boys they’ve got to win this one. We don’t want to be three-time losers at anything – especially football.”
Thomas, on the other hand would have made the odds higher. The Alabama coach, speaking to the New Orleans Quarterback Club, couldn’t contain a gush of praise for his team. Chairman Lester Lautenschlager reminded Thomas that it was a bit out of his character to do that before a big game. “I believe in giving the kids the credit they deserve,” Thomas reflected. “The boys are young, and are just about the hustlingest team I’ve had. I wouldn’t say it is the greatest team I’ve coached, but they have more enthusiasm and love to play.”
When asked for a prediction, Thomas thought for a few seconds, then answered, “Duke 21, Alabama 6.” Lautenschlaeger said, “I understand you told somebody before it would be 21-0.” “I did,” Thomas admitted with a smile, “but I’ve become enthused myself since coming to the Quarterback Club and now I think we’ll score!”
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.