How Mississippi and Arkansas Met in the 1970 Sugar Bowl
In a roundabout way the seeds for the 1970 Sugar Bowl pairing were planned in a magazine article. Nineteen sixty-nine was a season that would bring one of the most dramatic changes in the bowl scene, and one in which the Mid-Winter Sports Association would deliberately select a lesser-ranked team over a stronger possibility.
Rumors began circulating in November, 1969, that Notre Dame, because of expected projects in the athletic department, would consider breaking the school’s 45-year-old bowl ban. Coach Ara Parseghian told the Chicago Football Writers, “In all previous five seasons I’ve coached at Notre Dame, we’ve received a bowl invitation every year. And every year our board meets to review and consider these invitations, and every year the board turns them down. I’m sure, if we can win the rest of our games this year, we’ll probably get another invitation, but I have no reason to believe the policy will change. Maybe somebody knows something that I don’t know.”
As the football season moved toward the middle of November the bowl scene seemed to be falling easily into line. No. 1-ranked Texas held the almost certain home spot in Dallas; Tennessee seemed headed for the Orange Bowl; the Sugar looked well-fixed with a possibility of either Auburn or LSU. Joe Paterno’s excellent Penn State Nittany Lions were the top priority as the opposition for all three bowls. Texas Coach Darrell Royal tried to talk Paterno into a Dallas New Year’s because this fine pairing would have given the Cotton Bowl the foremost game of the day.
Second in line for Dallas was LSU – truly an exceptional team that allowed only 38 yards a game rushing and 91 points for the season while scoring 349 points, a modern school record. It translated into a 9-1 record and an eighth place in the polls. Las Vegas odds-makers considered only Ohio State and the Longhorns better than the Tigers on a neutral field.
When Penn State declined its offer to play Texas, LSU was rarin’ to prove its mettle in Dallas. With only a three-point loss to Ole Miss on its record, the right set of circumstances and a victory over the No. 1-ranked team would catapult the Tigers very high in the final voting, which again would take place after the bowls.
But that three-point loss would prove an insurmountable obstacle. Mississippi started the season as the odds-on choice to win the Southeastern Conference championship. Early losses to Kentucky and Alabama and a later defeat to Houston made the Rebels a disappointment. With the most exciting quarterback in the country, Archie Manning, a scrambling, tackle-slipping shadow, Ole Miss was one of the nation’s most entertaining offensive shows – one that left a mark on SEC and national standings. Georgia was unbeaten and ranked sixth when it played the Rebels. Ole Miss won 26-23.
This week Mississippi was to play unbeaten and 3rd-ranked Tennessee, things started cracking. Rumors of Notre Dame breaking its bowl ban grew stronger. Then there was the matter of Tennessee linebacker Steve Kiner’s quotes in Sports Illustrated. “I don’t think they’re that tough,” Kiner said of the Rebels. The reporter said, “But they have a lot of horses down there.” Kiner snorted, “A lot of people go down on the farm and can’t tell the difference between a horse and a mule.”
Ole Miss beat Tennessee, 38-0. When the score reached 31-0, Confederate flag-waving Rebel fans in Jackson’s Memorial Stadium began braying at the Vols, Kiner in particular, “Hee-haw, hee-haw…” Tennessee’s eye-catching loss knocked it from the Orange Bowl.
Then Notre Dame agreed to meet Texas in the Cotton Bowl. The Orange Bowl quickly secured Missouri to play Penn State. The Sugar Bowl would seem to have found a diamond with LSU. A breakdown in communications, however, left the Tigers home for the holidays.
“We thought we had the Cotton Bowl locked up,” said one person in the LSU athletic department. “We handled the thing all wrong. We waited all day for the word from the Cotton Bowl, but they never called. LSU didn’t handle it right, and neither did the Cotton Bowl for that matter.”
The Sugar Bowl, miffed because its home-state team seemed far more interested in playing Texas than playing in New Orleans, bypassed what looked to be an obvious choice and selected Ole Miss. Tiger fans immediately began saying the Sugar should go for an LSU-Rebel rematch, like the 1960 game into which they felt they had been cornered. Dr. Fred Wolfe, president of the Sugar Bowl, reminded Tiger supporters, “We did invite LSU, but to my knowledge they wanted to go to the Cotton Bowl.”
Arkansas, 3rd-ranked with a fiery offense featuring junior quarterback Bill Montgomery and receiver Chuck Dicus, was to be Ole Miss’ opponent. The Hogs had an outside chance at winning the national championship, though the Rebels’ 7-3 record took some gilt off the game.
In the final analysis the Sugar Bowl’s choice of Ole Miss was a vote for the most exciting player in America – Manning. Coupled with Arkansas’ fire-power in a game that couldn’t touch the other bowls in ranking, the Rebels would give New Orleans a game the others couldn’t match in spectacle.
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.