How Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh Met in the 1956 Sugar Bowl
Something was amiss. As fine as the Ole Miss-Navy pairing was, something of the old Sugar Bowl matchmaking magic was gone. Not since the 1951 Kentucky-Oklahoma game had a Sugar Bowl been close, and this from an organization, which took extraordinary pride in its thrillers. To be sure, the task was more difficult because of all the tie-ups by the other major bowls: the Orange with the Big Seven and the Atlantic Coast Conferences, the Cotton with the Southwest, and the Rose with the Big Ten and Pacific Coast Conferences.
The Mid-Winter Sports Association still felt it could get the best game possible by remaining “open,” but it was also feeling a certain amount of self-imposed pressure to produce the kind of exciting, close games that had become a Sugar Bowl hallmark.
West Virginia, despite the debacle in New Orleans two years before, and Navy were high on the Sugar’s checklist for the 1956 game. Mississippi and Georgia Tech were the most desirable Southeastern Conference teams. Paul DeBlance and Claude Simons scouted the West Virginia-Pittsburgh game for the Sugar Bowl. The sixth-ranked Mountaineers had an 11-game winning streak broken, 26-7. Although it had lost three games, two to highly ranked Oklahoma and Navy, Pitt greatly impressed the scouts and newsmen Hap Glaudi and Steve Perkins.
An invitation was extended to Pittsburgh with the worst record (7-3) of a Sugar Bowl team since 1945 – and it was accepted. Georgia Tech would be the opponent.
Then began a period of stormy controversy. Fifteen years after Louis Montgomery watched from the press box as his Boston College teammates achieved one of their school’s most stirring moments, a Sugar Bowl team’s roster (Pittsburgh) again included the name of a black player, fullback Bobby Grier.
Georgia Governor Marvin Griffin focused a spotlight on Grier and the Sugar Bowl, and the national press made the game a cause célèbre. New Orleans was caught in a no-win situation, although mixed athletics were not new to the city, Loyola University competed against blacks in basketball and, indeed, days before Grier would set foot in Tulane Stadium, a 6-foot black sophomore named Al Avant would play for Marquette in the Sugar Bowl basketball tournament.
The flap roared across national front pages when Griffin said in a telegram to Regent Chairman Robert O. Arnold, “It is my request that athletic teams of units of the university system of Georgia not be permitted to engage in contests with other teams where the races are mixed on such teams or where segregation is not required at such games…The South Stands at Armageddon.”
Arnold indicated the board had no control over university athletics policies, and Pittsburgh announced that Grier would be on the Sugar Bowl squad and he would “travel, eat, live, practice, and play with the team.” A school spokesman added, “If Grier regains his midseason form he will be our starting fullback. Heck, he intercepted the pass (against Penn State) that put us in the Sugar Bowl.”
In Atlanta, Tech was mightily trying to ignore the governor. A Georgia Tech spokesman said, “Our boys voted to play in the Sugar Bowl, and we will not break our contract, especially since Georgia and Tech have played against Negroes before and there has been no criticism.”
Security around the governor’s mansion had to be increased at night, as it became a rallying area for torch-carrying throngs of protesting Tech students. The Southern press for the most part, joined Georgia Tech professors, students, alumni, and players in the disagreement with Griffin.
The individuals, whose opinions on the matter should have counted most, the Georgia Tech athletes, were finally asked what their thoughts were. Quarterback Wade Mitchell said he considered the entire situation “silly.” Mitchell went on, “I personally have no objection to playing a team with a Negro member on it, and, as far as I know, the rest of the boys fell the same way.”
The Georgia Board of Regents voted 10-1 to allow the team to participate, although there was a soothing rider attached for the segregationists. It barred future games in the state of Georgia between Georgia colleges and integrated teams.
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.