How Baylor and Tennessee Met in the 1957 Sugar Bowl
In the mid 1950s, the federal government began moving in earnest to guarantee equality in all phases of American life, but southern state governments began passing segregation laws as restrictive as any before. Louisiana passed more than a dozen segregation laws in 1956, some designed to limit interracial social and athletic activity. The crux of Act No. 579, vigorously fought by the Mid-Winter Sports Association but signed into law by Governor Earl K. Long, was a prohibition of racially mixed athletic events.
The Sugar Bowl, well aware that such a law could make its event backyard trifling, voiced the only opposition to the legislation. Noticeably silent were Tulane, LSU, and Loyola, all of which had games scheduled with integrated teams.
Long signed the law and three of the teams – Notre Dame, Dayton, and St. Louis – scheduled for the basketball tournament withdrew. The Sugar then fought for a plan to exempt cities over 100,000 from legislation. If passed, the bowl planned to work around the segregated stands problem by having no restrictions on the tickets sent to visiting schools, but every other section would be segregated. It was a well-thought-out-plan, designed to please every faction. But the bill did not pass.
Most felt like Shirley Povich of the Washington Post, who wrote, “For the Sugar Bowl, the upshot is that it will be known henceforth merely as a sectional contest to settle some kind of a Dixie championship only.” DeBlanc said wearily, “That’s the law and we will try to live under it.”
It was a law that obviously couldn’t stay on the books for long, but the Sugar was apprehensive about becoming a small regional contest before the prohibition was rescinded. Already there were problems with television. The contract with ABC was up and the network had reservations about renewing because the newly enacted law (Act 579) bothered prospective national sponsors.
With its boundaries greatly diminished, the Sugar Bowl went looking in 1957 for the best game possible. As it happened, the most desirable non-SEC teams were also ineligible. Oklahoma, the nation’s No. 1 squad, couldn’t participate in the Orange Bowl because of the Big Seven’s no-return rule; Texas A&M, the champion of the Southwest Conference, wouldn’t be able to play in the Cotton Bowl because it was on NCAA probation, as was sixth-ranked Miami-the Sugar’s favorite.
The spot usually reserved for a Southeastern Conference team figured to be no problem because second-ranked Tennessee and Georgia Tech were both exceptional teams.
Digby was still working miracles. His deep friendship with Athletic Director Bob Neyland helped land Tennessee. Then Baylor became Digby’s focal point. The Bears were a good, solid football team (although unranked) that wasn’t going to a major bowl because of midseason losses to Texas A&M and Texas Christian by a total of seven points. The Sugar must have looked pretty good to Baylor, too. The match was made.
A coast-to-coast television and radio coverage agreement finally was made between the Sugar Bowl and ABC when General Motor’s Oldsmobile Division consented to sponsorship.
With the third- (Iowa) and tenth- (Oregon State) ranked teams, the Rose Bowl drew the quality New Year’s pairing of 1957. Considering the circumstances, the Sugar didn’t do badly with second-ranked Tennessee.
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.