How Kentucky and Oklahoma Met in the 1951 Sugar Bowl
While the conquering Sooners enjoyed a holiday in Cuba after the dismantling of LSU, a question arose concerning LSU’s propriety in the Sugar Bowl – but not over the spy incident. The school’s Board of Supervisors had approved $250 to each player as an expense allotment, “subject to all rules and regulations of the Southeastern Conference.” “That may be questioned,” said NCAA President Karl E. Leib at the governing body’s annual convention in Chicago, “but only to standardize procedure. We certainly wouldn’t quarrel about making up money the boys lost by leaving their jobs to play in the Sugar Bowl and to take care of valid expenses.”
Innocent and aboveboard though it was, this sort of action couldn’t help but be noticed by critics of bowls (there were 12 games on January 2, 1950) who felt college games were becoming too commercialized. Precisely because of such money-making ventures as bowls, the NCAA at a later meeting in Dallas adopted a recommendation from the previous year. A bylaw was enacted requiring sponsors to give not less than 75 percent of the gross, including such ancillary revenue producers as broadcast, concession, and movie money, to its participating teams. The Sugar Bowl had tried to pay the 80 percent suggested in 1949, but was still paying off the bonds issued for the expansions of Tulane Stadium. The NCAA ruled that bowls with a bond issue before August of 1949 were permitted 20 percent payment toward that debt.
The Southeastern Conference produced two superb teams for the 1950 season – Kentucky, in the fifth year of Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s five-year plan, and Tennessee. Bryant had already “secured the Wildcats’ first SEC championship when the Vols and Kentucky played late in the season. An early-season loss to Mississippi State was the only blot on Tennessee’s record, and Coach Bob Neyland accepted a Cotton Bowl invitation before the Kentucky game.
Charles C. Zatarain was president of the Sugar Bowl and went to Knoxville to view the second-ranked Wildcats play Tennessee in eight-degree weather with four inches of snow. “It was so bad,” said Zatarain, “that at the half I could see the special train just getting fans in. They marched downhill like a troop. It was a miserable day. I went to Knoxville for the purpose of inviting Kentucky, but they lost.”
It was a day of reckoning for Bryant, who had held the other bowls off in hope of spending New Year’s in New Orleans. “I didn’t know where we stood,” Bryant said, his hopes of a national championship and undefeated season buried under Knoxville’s snowdrifts and his personal jinx against Neyland intact. Bryant was never able to beat the General. “The Orange and Cotton had filled, and I couldn’t blame the Sugar Bowl folks if they didn’t want us after Tennessee whipped us,” said Bear.
Bryant and Zatarain wound up in a hotel room with Kentucky Athletic Director Bernie Shively and Southeastern Conference Commissioner Bernie Moore. “We had a line open to the Sugar Bowl office,” recalled Zatarain. “I told them Kentucky was a great team, and that as far as my vote was concerned I still wanted them. The committee talked it over, then came back to tell me to ask Bryant if he’d play if he got an invite. Bear reached out, took the phone, and said, “If you invite me, I’ll beat Oklahoma!”
“If I had gotten shut out of a major bowl after I had passed up several invitations, I would have had a tough time getting back into Lexington,” growled Bryant.
The prediction about beating Oklahoma was premature. The Sooners, ranked No. 1 nationally, hadn’t been invited yet. It was felt that Coach Bud Wilkinson didn’t want to participate in a bowl that year, that he would rather him team retire undefeated after the regular season. His team voted to play in New Orleans a third consecutive year, however, and Wilkinson accepted the invitation. Kentucky dropped to seventh after the Tennessee defeat, but one statistic provides an insight on just how good these teams were: Kentucky and Oklahoma finished their regular season schedules tied for second nationally in fumbles lost with 27. Despite that horrifying stat, there was one loss between them.
Bryant, aware of his promise and the opportunity to atone for the galling Tennessee defeat, tinkered a bit with his defense. Before the game Bryant cleared the locker room of his underclassmen. He turned, stared, and then commanded the seniors in his grumpy, resonant voice, “I want you to give it your absolute all. Play ‘til you drop on the field!”
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.