How Georgia Tech and West Virginia Met in the 1954 Sugar Bowl
The NCAA Extra Events Committee voted unanimously, January 9, 1953, to continue postseason bowl games that it sanctioned (the recommendation of the 10 presidents of the American Council on Education committee having fallen on deaf ears).
Maryland’s acceptance to play in the 1952 Sugar Bowl and Clemson’s participation in the Gator Bowl had dramatic results in the spring of 1953. Maryland and Clemson, along with North Carolina, North Carolina State, Wake Forest, Virginia, and South Carolina, broke from the Southern Conference and formed a new league, the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The ACC first approached the Sugar Bowl on the feasibility of a tie-up. The Sugar Bowl would not commit to a tie-up, but assured the ACC if it produced a good team they would receive an invitation. The fledging conference wanted more, and secured an Orange Bowl tie-up several months later. Miami also tied up the Big Seven, which rescinded its bowl ban. This meant that five of the eight berths in the major bowls were filled automatically. It also meant that the choice of quality football teams for New Orleans had diminished greatly, considering that most of the conference-bowl agreements allowed only the designated representative (not necessarily the champion) to participate.
General Manager Fred Digby wrote that the Sugar Bowl and the Southeastern Conference unsuccessfully discussed a tie-up on several occasions. The Sugar Bowlers were reluctant to tie up because they had been successful without such an agreement.
In 1954, the Sugar Bowl openly wooed unbeaten West Virginia and the Southern Conference. The conference’s executive committee was empowered to lift its bowl ban for one year, but only if a member received a bid.
Several attractive Southwest teams were available, including Texas, Baylor, and high-scoring, colorful Texas Tech. With the SEC championship up for grabs, Alabama, Georgia Tech, Auburn, and Ole Miss all looked promising. At breakfast in Birmingham the morning of the Tech-Alabama game, Irvin Poche, the president of the Sugar Bowl committee, extended an invitation to Engineer Coach Bobby Dodd. With three games remaining and not wishing to put a bowl in a difficult position, Dodd declined, saying he was uncertain about the outcomes of the ‘Bama and Duke games. He did promise to contact the Sugar Bowl before accepting another bid.
Alabama defeated Tech, but the colorful Yellow Jackets were still a prime contender. The Cotton Bowl put out a feeler and the ‘Jackets voted to go to Dallas; however, this was with the stipulation that if they were invited to the Sugar Bowl, the team could vote again. Poche told the press November 24 that the Sugar Bowl would wait until that weekend’s games were completed before making its selection. Then Dodd called saying he had a Cotton Bowl invitation. An emergency meeting was hurriedly called. Tech players revoted for the Sugar, and Georgia Tech was extended an invitation.
West Virginia’s stock had slipped considerably with a 12-7 squeaker against VPI and a 14-20 loss to South Carolina, but the Sugar Bowl chose them to play Georgia Tech. Many thought this was a mismatch, one made because Dodd was allowed to handpick his opponent and the Sugar Bowl didn’t want to disappoint the Southern Conference it had been playing to most of the season.
Clark Nealon, sports editor of the Houston Post, blistered the Sugar saying it buttered Texas and Baylor “on a contingency basis, then forgot it all and made its mind (up) in one session. The question is: Did Bobby Dodd operate with the “ax” of having the Cotton Bowl bid in his pocket when he started negotiations with the Sugar Bowl? And did he close with the Sugar Bowl with the understanding he would play West Virginia?…From what we have cause to believe Dodd dealt within a finger snap of final closing with the Cotton Bowl, then, when news leaked out in the Southeastern area and the Sugar Bowl beckoned, closed with the Sugar Bowl with the understanding he name his own opponent.”
Everyone connected agreed the story was too ridiculous to comment on and most of the New Orleans press sugarcoated the situation.
Fred Digby’s protégé, Hap Claudi, refused to drop the matter and unrelentingly mocked the selection, referring to the game as the “Lemon Bowl.” The situation caused a breach between Digby and Glaudi, who tried to explain to his old mentor, “I only did what you would have done. You taught me too well.”
Georgia Tech, fifth ranked and weighing an average of 12 pounds less than the ponderous 10th-ranked Mountaineers, was made a 12 ½ point favorite.
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.