How Alabama and Arkansas Met in the 1962 Sugar BowlSince 1956, when the segregation edict went into effect and as civil rights became the overriding domestic political issue, the Sugar Bowl was fighting a war with one arm tied. It was winning the war, but only because two backyard schools, LSU and Ole Miss, were enjoying some of their finest seasons. One or the other had participated in four consecutive Sugar Bowls. It was fortunate that those teams were available at the time, but the feeling began to grow that LSU and Ole Miss were becoming crutches for the Sugar Bowl.
It was an ideal situation for New Orleans: Pencil in one of those popular teams and automatically fill one berth with a high national contender. Then all the Mid-Winter Sports Association had to do was look for another team that wouldn’t be offended by segregated seating.
Both schools were in their accustomed elite positions in the 1961 national rankings, along with a newcomer, Alabama, ranked second behind Texas. The crutch was rudely knocked from under the Sugar when in mid-November, Tiger coach Paul Dietzel informed the Mid-Winter Sports Association that under no circumstances would the Tigers accept a Sugar Bowl invitation. Although LSU came under some heat from home state fans, the Tiger position had some merit. An 80-mile bus trip from Baton Rouge to New Orleans the day of the game wasn’t a big reward for a job well done – particularly since, unlike the Cotton, Orange, and Rose Bowls, participation didn’t automatically establish championship status of the “home” team. Also, Dietzel was irritated by the corner he was painted into for the 1960 rematch with Ole Miss, when the Sugar Bowl insisted he make a decision before the LSU hierarchy really wanted to.
For the 1962 game, the Sugar Bowl wanted a match between No. 2 Alabama and the No. 4 Tigers, two SEC schools who had not played in the regular season. A committee from the Mid-Winter Sports Association visited Baton Rouge to meet with Athletic Director Jim Corbett and Dietzel and to offer an invitation. Corbett met with the committee. Dietzel refused, telling Corbnett in effect, “If you want this team to play in the Sugar, YOU’LL have to take ’em.”
Ole Miss was already unofficially committed to the Cotton Bowl, and Alabama was no guarantee either. The Big Ten contract with the Rose Bowl had still not been renewed, and Pasadena was flirting with Alabama and LSU. Alabama had far more tradition in Pasadena than in New Orleans, winning five of six California appearances before the Rose Bowl closed on both ends. Tide coach Paul “Bear” Bryant saw a Rose Bowl invitation as a dramatic way of reasserting Alabama football, which had fallen on desperate times before he returned in 1958.
A poll of Southern California sportswriters favored Alabama and LSU in that order for the 1962 game. Fred Neil of the Los Angeles Herald-Express wrote, “The sportswriters; No. 1 choice is Alabama because everyone things they have a better team. I think they (the Rose Bowl) will look favorably on LSU. The Big Ten teams under consideration are dull, and there’s little reaction to our going to the Big Ten with hat in hand and begging them to play us.”
LSU took itself out of the California picture by accepting an Orange Bowl invitation to play Colorado, but ‘Bama continued to wait. There was some sentiment on the West Coast against a southern team because of the segregation issue, although Alabama obviously had no qualms about playing an integrated team.
Ohio State, the Big Ten champion, was tentatively offered the Rose Bowl bid November 28. Shockingly, the school’s faculty council rejected it. Reporters quickly got in touch with Dr. Frank Rose, president of the University of Alabama, who said his school should not be considered a Rose Bowl candidate. “If we win Saturday (the season finale against cross-state rival Auburn), our team is to go to the Sugar Bowl,” said Dr. Rose. “The boys voted to go to the Sugar Bowl if invited, and I think they will be invited.”
During the bowl chess match, Texas Christian had upset Texas and Alabama had moved up to No. 1. A 34-0 victory over Auburn solidified Bryant’s first national championship.
The Sugar Bowl then grabbed the next most attractive team available, No. 9 Arkansas, the Southwest Conference co-champion. New Orleans had somehow come up with a stellar attraction … again.
Story 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.