How Alabama and Ole Miss met in the 1964 Sugar BowlSeven Sugar Bowls had been played since the segregation issue had encased the Mid-Winter Sports Association in an insular, provincial cocoon. Almost miraculously, the damage was minimal because 1) Many Southern schools followed similar policy and law, and the Southeastern Conference was then the finest collegiate football league in America, and 2) Sheer good fortune. The situation was bound to change.
The segregation obstacle began to dissolve, although few realized it, in June of 1963 when a suit seeking integration of seating arrangements and other facilities’ at New Orleans’ Municipal Auditorium was taken under advisement by a special three-judge federal court. Horace Bynum, vice-president of the New Orleans chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, filed the suit after the city denied it use of the building for a 1962 rally featuring such speakers as Thurgood Marshall.
According to Assistant City Attorney Ernest Salatich, closed meetings and religious assemblies could be held on a desegregated basis. Open meetings were segregated under Louisiana law. The court was asked to declare unconstitutional the state’s statute requiring segregation at entertainment and athletic events.
It would take time for the court to reach a decision, but on the football front things were unraveling. In 1964, the Sugar Bowl wanted Navy and Mississippi. Roger Staubach had transformed Navy from an Eastern also-ran into a glamorous, exciting and undefeated football team. Whether the segregation issue would have been an insurmountable barrier will never be known because No. 2-ranked Navy only had eyes for Dallas, where No. 1-ranked Texas was scheduled for a New Year’s bout.
Other than Texas, the Southwest Conference did not have a strong team; there was not one in the Atlantic Coast Conference; and because of the conference contract with the Orange Bowl, the Big Eight runner-up was not allowed to play in another bowl.
The third and only alternative was an all-SEC game between Mississippi and the winner of the Alabama-Auburn game. It looked feasible because this year – unlike the previous – Ole Miss was the higher ranked team. Bryant, with two strong teams left to play, wanted a no-strings attached invitation. He received one from the Bluebonnet Bowl in Houston and tried to use it as a lever with the Orange Bowl. Miami, who could use backups in Pitt, Syracuse and Penn State, wouldn’t bite.
When the Sugar Bowl tested the waters, Bryant laid it on the line: Either he would get a no-strings invitation, or he would accept the bid from the Bluebonnet Bowl. Auburn appeared willing to wait, but the Plainsmen seemed a longer shot than the Tide. Bryant got his invitation on his terms. Auburn accepted an Orange Bowl bid. So for the first time, when Auburn and Alabama met, two teams already committed to rival New Year’s Day bowls met in the regular season. Auburn won 10-8.
This would be Alabama’s 17th bowl game, pushing it ahead of Georgia Tech as the all-time bowl entrant.
Despite a season-ending 10-10 tie with Mississippi State, seventh-ranked and unbeaten (7-0-2) Mississippi appeared as formidable as ever to Bryant.
Eighth-ranked Alabama and the Rebels hadn’t played since 1944. The Crimson Tide hadn’t been an underdog since 1960, but Ole Miss opened a 7-1/2 point favorite.
Joe Namath, a young quarterback whose rubber-band right arm had the South buzzing, directed the Tide offense. Then in early December, Namath was suspended for the remainder of the season (including the Sugar Bowl), because of a team infraction. The Sugar was turning sour.
Bryant couldn’t have known it but his first recruiting trip in 1936, as an Alabama assistant would play a role in the 1964 Sugar Bowl. He signed Alvin Davis from Arkansas, who later became a prep coach in Tifton, Ga. His son Tim was a quarterback but suffered a leg injury. Tim remembered his dad said, “Son, there’s no reason you can’t be a college kicker. But be sure to go to a school that always has a strong line.” At first, Tim’s knee didn’t respond, but “…my dad kept Coach Bryant informed on my progress and he stuck with me.” When the time came to choose a college, Tim chose Alabama over Georgia Tech. “Coach Bryant’s colorful personality swung me,” he said. Thus, Alabama acquired a talented athlete who was to determine the 1964 Sugar Bowl.
Nothing matched the snowfall of New Year’s Eve, 1963. More than three inches fluttered down on New Orleans, the most snow in the city since 1895. A crew of 25 workers from the police department’s House of Detention worked with Tulane Stadium Superintendent Nolan Chaix until midnight clearing the tarpaulin and the seats. The crew was brought back at 5 a.m. “It looked pretty hopeless,” said Chaix. “We just weren’t prepared to cope with anything like we got Tuesday. The snow was still coming down when we started about 3 p.m. (Tuesday), but we had to go to work.”
It seemed much more hopeless to Bryant. Alabama had given up more points (88) and more yardage (216.5 yards per game) and had been victimized with more long-scoring plays than any team Bryant coached since 1958.
“This is not the best time for us to be catching Mississippi,” assessed the Bear. “They come at you in a big wave, all of them. And if we can’t block Miami, and we didn’t, how in the world can we block Ole Miss?” Reflecting, he added, “I remember a time like this – in 1958. We’d scratch and quick kick…and we won games we had no right winning.”
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.