How Maryland and Tennessee Met in the 1952 Sugar Bowl
What the Sugar Bowl had come to mean was put in eloquent perspective with the 1951 Sugar Bowl. After the game, Babe Parilli gave his Sugar Bowl watch to his father. “It was Dad’s greatest treasure,” said Parilli. “He wore it every day.” When Babe’s father died at 82, his son fulfilled a final request. “He was buried with the Purple Heart he won in the war and with his Sugar Bowl watch.”
Fans, players, and coaches loved the bowls. The major bowls certainly were a symbol of achievement. However, some influential critics did not love the bowls. They thought the bowls fostered crass commercialism and a win-at-all-costs attitude. These critics sought their abolishment and maintained that collegiate sports belonged strictly on campus.
Ironically, in late 1951 it was the Sugar Bowl that gave the critics ammunition and provided the major bowl’s defense.
At a September meeting of the presidents of the Southern Conference, the administrators voted to direct their representatives at a scheduled December meeting to vote against allowing any conference school to play in a bowl game that year.
The Southern Conference vote colored the entire bowl scene. Maryland, under Coach Jim Tatum, was clearly one of the premier teams of 1951 and high on all bowl lists. Tatum wanted his third-ranked Terrapins to play on New Year’s Day. He told Sugar Bowl President Charles Zatarain he would resign if permission wasn’t granted, and he wanted to play the No. 1-ranked Tennessee Volunteers.
Washington D.C. newspapers predicted Maryland was going to the Cotton Bowl, but in mid-November – with several games remaining – Maryland and Tennessee contracted to play in New Orleans. The early signing seemed to point to increasing competition between the Sugar, Orange and Cotton Bowls, although the Cotton Bowl vigorously insisted it would not have taken the Terps until Southern Conference permission had been obtained. Maryland had not even taken a telephone poll of its sister schools.
Maryland’s defense rested on the fact that any action at the December meeting under the conference constitution would not be binding until September 1953. The Southern Conference bylaws required, however, that the “consent of the conference” be obtained before any member agrees to play in a postseason game. Another bylaw read that all new rules adopted by the conference “shall go into effect the 1st of September, following the annual meeting, or on such a date as the conference may direct.” Southern Conference presidents, it seemed plain, intended the bowl ban to go into effect before January 1, 1952.
Clemson, which had accepted a Gator Bowl bid, and Maryland were placed a on a year’s probation by the conference. Neither could participate in a football game with another Southern Conference school in the 1952 season. The Sugar Bowl felt this was a family fracas, and it wasn’t the concern of the Mid-Winter Sports Association. Of course, if the Sugar or any of the other bowls hadn’t extended early invitations, the difficulty would never have arisen.
Aside from its Southeastern Conference and national championships, General Bob Neyland’s Tennessee Vols had an additional New Orleans lure. Tennessee’s All-American tailback Hank Lauricella had prepped in New Orleans and been overlooked by local colleges. Unbeaten and untied Maryland had a unique brother combination, fullback Ed Modzelewski, who personally had outgained Maryland’s regular season opponents (834 yards to 680 yards on a 7.8 average), and Dick Modzelewski, a tackle.
A crowd of several thousand spent the eve of the Terrapin-Vol announcement standing in an icy wind waiting to get tickets. The match, as Zatarain had said, was the one everybody wanted. Not until it was over did anyone realize Tatum had convinced his team to take a shot at the No. 1 team – over a stack of cowboy hats.
Although the Cotton Bowl said it wouldn’t invite Maryland until the Southern Conference granted permission, it apparently did. An anonymous Term confided to Hap Glaudi, “We came damn close to not playing in the Sugar Bowl. We had invitations from the Cotton and Sugar Bowls because Dave Cianelli, the Maryland co-captain, asked us to vote where we wanted to go. We had been talking about it among ourselves and decided we would like to go to the Cotton Bowl. We knew fellows who played in the Cotton Bowl came home wearing those big cowboy hats and boots. We weren’t worried about the team we would play. So they voted for the Cotton Bowl, and Dave went to tell the coach the vote.”
Dave returned and told them Coach Tatum said to vote again. If they voted for the Sugar Bowl, the coach said he would buy them all the cowboy hats they wanted. They knew the coach really wanted to play Tennessee, so they voted this time for the Sugar Bowl.
The dispute over the value of bowl games had silenced many university employees, including coaches, not wishing to publicly argue with the academicians. The silence generated a sentiment that perhaps the critics were right, that bowls helped foster a win-at-all-costs attitude and contributed to moving college football from a campus activity to a big business. Timed to coincide with a special NCAA meeting, and virtually the only voice heard in defense of the four major bowls, the Mid-Winter Sports Association issued a statement with a list of 15 contributions the New Year’s Day games had made to college football. It ended by laying, “We would cease our program at once if we thought we were doing something harmful to collegiate sports.”
No one seriously doubted the integrity of the major bowl sponsors. The Sugar, like the three other major bowls, had always conducted its activities on the highest collegiate plane. When the NCAA tentatively set up a code of conduct for post-season football, the Sugar Bowl immediately and voluntarily adopted it. The 1950 and 1951 games were conducted under that code.
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.