How Georgia Tech and Mississippi Met in the 1953 Sugar Bowl
While the recommendations of the 10 university presidents on the American Council of Education committee were being studied, the NCAA ordered member institutions not to make bowl commitments beyond January 2, 1953. The Southern Conference made its antibowl position official, and punished Maryland and Clemson for their appearances by barring them from participating in Southern Conference regular season games for a year. The Big Seven Conference took an antibowl posture, apparently putting Oklahoma out of the holiday picture. One of the maddest bowl scrambles of all time was the result.
Most observers thought Georgia Tech was heading to the Orange Bowl for a return engagement. However, Fred Digby made a trip to Atlanta and on November 4, an unusually early signing date, Tech surprisingly committed to the Sugar Bowl. Bobby Dodd’s Engineers were ranked third in the United Press poll at the time, 6-0-0 with four games remaining.
Dodd, it seems, grabbed the Sugar because of an offer of 14,000 tickets (1,500 more than SEC requirement) for Tech supporters. That story was printed and denied by both parties. Before the denial, however, Dodd was quoted as saying, “I wanted as many tickets as I could get because I don’t want Tech fans saying we let them down. We want as many fans as can go with us.”
For an opponent, the Sugar waited for either Maryland or Oklahoma to indicate an interest, despite their respective conference stands. Another possibility was Mississippi, tied twice in early season games but undefeated since then.
Ole Miss took matters into its hands and forced the bowl to make a decision. Coach Johnny Vaught’s Rebels pulled off what was acknowledged to be 1952’s college upset of the year by beating Maryland, 21-14. The victory, probably the most important in Ole Miss history, jumped the Rebs to No. 7 in the national polls. It was the school’s first Top 10 ranking, and it earned them a Sugar Bowl berth. This was Ole Miss’ first major bowl invitation since a 1936 Orange Bowl appearance.
“Bowl fever killed us,” said Coach Jim Tatum of Maryland. “We wanted to go to the Sugar badly.”
So did Ole Miss, who after its ticket allotment was gone was left with 65,000 supporters still trying to get in. It wouldn’t be quite as trying for these fans as it was for those who didn’t get tickets in past years, though. For the first time, the Sugar, Cotton, and Orange Bowls would be telecast nationally. The Rose Bowl, in populous southern California, a media center, had already gone national the year before.
Television depended then on coaxial cable, but it didn’t yet reach New Orleans. Sugar Bowl President Irwin Poche had a friend, Basil O’Connor, who was president of the national March of Dimes. Poche suggested to O’Connor early in 1952 that a large portion of the proceeds be donated to the March of Dimes when the Sugar Bowl was carried on national TV. O’Connor hit on the idea of asking AT&T to extend the coaxial cable to New Orleans as its donation to the March of Dimes. It may have been a coincidence, but the cable was in place for the 1953 Sugar Bowl.
The Sugar Bowl had received $50,000 for its 1952 telecast, which was carried locally on WDSU-TV and then sent to other cities. On December 10, 1952, the Sugar Bowl and ABC completed arrangements for its national coverage. “That made us nationwide,” said Charles Zatarain. “That was the difference between national television and the radio.” The network paid $100,000 ($25,000 of which was earmarked for the March of Dimes for the length of the contract) for a combined TV-radio package.
It was a huge step forward, but it was not without additional headaches. ABC was the new network and, because of limited outlets in comparison to NBC and CBS, its largest sponsor withdrew. ABC had to depend on local sponsorship in the cities where the Sugar Bowl was piped. But it was a start.
Coach Bobby Dodd seemed to have a lot more to worry about than mundane things like television, despite his Yellow Jackets being a 7-point favorite. Tech finished the season as undefeated SEC champion, ranked No. 2 nationally. In the last few games, however, his team had incurred numerous injuries, including those of running backs Leon Hardeman (ankle) and Bill Teas (collarbone). This threatened to curtail their playing time, if indeed, they could play it all.
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.