15th Annual Sugar Bowl Classic ~ January 1, 1949
#5 Oklahoma 14 (10-1-0)
#3 North Carolina (9-1-1)
How Oklahoma and North Carolina Met in the 1949 Sugar Bowl
The outcome of the North Carolina-Oklahoma game may have been determined three days before when Choo-Choo Charley Justice, the Tar Heels’ engine, came down with a virus. For that entire period, a small pre-game steak was all he could eat.
Still, weakened though he was, Justice had North Carolina looking like the favorite it was early, driving to the Oklahoma 7. Then he took the snap from the Tar Heel single-wing formation, started to roll out, stumbled and tried to force a pass in the flat anyway. “I made the mistake of throwing off-balance,” Justice moaned. “He was in the right place at the right time.”
Oklahoma linebacker Myrle Greathouse picked it off and brought the crowd to its feet as he picked up three blockers and rumbled 69 yards to the UNC 14 where Eddie Knox tackled him from behind.
Eight plays later, quarterback Jack Mitchell scored from the 1.
The ‘Heels got right back in it, taking advantage of a lost Sooner fumble on the OU 30. A spectacular double reverse on which Bob Kennedy, who had taken the ball from Hosea Rodgers, brought the ball to the 3. Rodgers scored, but Bobby Cox missed the PAT.
North Carolina still had a chance to go into the half in front, going to the 8 in the fading minutes before intermission. But Justice overthrew a pass in the end zone and failed to gain the necessary two yard on fourth down. The Tar Heels didn’t get past their own side of the field again until the last stages of the Sugar Bowl.
“North Carolina never used it as an excuse,” said OU’s Darrell Royal, “but I always felt Charley Justice’s strength diminished as the game went along, that his health had a lot to do with it.”
On a trick play in the third period, Royal, moving from halfback to quarterback for one snap, threw a long pass to end Frankie Anderson. It was underthrown, but defender Dick Bunting deflected it to the receiver at the 10. Lindell Pearson scored, and then the Sooner concentrated on ball control and defense.
It wasn’t a spectacular game, but after Royal planted a kiss on the cheek of Bud Wilkerson in the locker room the young coach mused, “You know, maybe defense isn’t a glamorous way to win a Sugar Bowl, but it will win football games and that’s what we were down here for, wasn’t it?”
Justice, fighting back tears, felt he was the biggest factor in Oklahoma’s victory. “I threw that one away,” he said lip quivering.
“I gave them that first touchdown with that bad pass. They’ve got a great ball club. I lost it. You could say that.”
The deepest cut for North Carolina was yet to come. The Sooners, flushed with victory, showered and dressed quickly, and boarded their buses to return to their hotel. The Tar Heels took their time, letting the sting of the upset fade.
But when the team left the dressing room, the parking area was deserted. The buses assigned to Carolina took Oklahoma’s cheering contingent by mistake. After a futile search, Coach Carl Snavely and some team members waved down a passing truck. The team stood in the open back end and the driver brought them to the vicinity of their hotel. “Ya’ll have to get off a couple of blocks from the hotel,” the driver said. “I’m not allowed to drive to the entrance.”
As dark began to envelop New Orleans, the downtrodden Tar Heels slipped unnoticed into a side entrance of the hotel.
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.