How Oklahoma and Auburn Met in the 1972 Sugar Bowl
The switch in the Sugar Bowl kickoff time to noon had exactly the anticipated effect: The ratings were fine – for a half. As soon as Texas-Notre Dame got under way the viewers changed channels. Tennessee-Air Force went into four million homes with an 8.3 rating, the same as 1970. Texas-Notre Dame was beamed into 20 million homes. The wipeout caused ABC to start thinking of a radical change in time – a New Year’s Eve game.
It was strange, this merry-go-round the Sugar Bowl had boarded. Because of something out of its control – the segregation legislation of the 1950s – the Sugar Bowl entered an era of essentially regional games. Because of it, and some extraordinarily bad fortune when race was no longer an issue, its television ratings were weak. The Orange and Cotton Bowls had, conversely, gotten stronger with television. It added up to this: The Dallas and Miami games received more television money because of ratings. New Orleans didn’t do as well but could hardly do better since its network, ABC, was reluctant to provide more money, money that could be used to attract better teams for the higher ratings.
What ABC wanted, beginning with the 1972 game, was a Monday night, prime-time attraction. In this case, ABC was talking about January 3. The Mid-Winter Sports Association was opposed, though it realized its $500,000 contract was up for renewal and that outcome could depend upon the ratings of the next Sugar Bowl.
The parties compromised. The Sugar Bowl stayed on New Year’s Day, but agreed to move its kickoff back to 11 a.m. where most of the attraction would be unopposed.
The Big Eight Conference, where Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Colorado held sway, lorded over the 1971 polls. Alabama and cross-state rival Auburn were the standard-bearers in the South. Penn State was the best in the East, and Notre Dame held its usual magic in the rankings. It was the Big Eight and SEC teams that were most coveted. The only question was the match-up. Nebraska, ranked No. 1 all season and leaning to New Orleans, and No. 2 Oklahoma would play in the regular season finale for the Big Eight championship. Also undefeated. No. 4 Alabama was to play No. 5-ranked Auburn for the SEC title in their last game.
Of course, the selections would have to be made before those outcomes. The Orange Bowl wanted the schools to put off committing to the bowls until the championships were resolved; then the Nebraska-Oklahoma and Alabama-Auburn winners would be welcomed to Miami, and the losers to New Orleans. The Sugar wouldn’t agree to this and neither would the schools. Miami had to take its chances, too.
ABC wanted to pair Alabama and Penn State. For sheer glamour and business, Alabama-Oklahoma was the people’s choice.
New Orleans’ prospects were excellent. On a motion by the Executive Committee, Arnus Callery was sent to Tuscaloosa the weekend of the bowl selections. He was to invite Alabama and consult with Bear Bryant on an opponent. After Alabama’s Saturday afternoon game, Bryant asked Callery to meet him at his office at 6 a.m. Sunday.
Bryant told Callery that he had made a decision and wanted to go to the Sugar Bowl. Assured the bowl most certainly wanted him, Bryant said, “I think I’ll call Chuck (Fairbanks, the Oklahoma coach) and see if we can’t have a national championship game for New Orleans,” said Bear to a startled Callery. And Fairbanks agreed. The only thing Bryant asked of Callery was to wait until noon Monday to announce it.
On the phone with the Sugar Bowl at noon, Callery told the committee members things were looking good, but Bryant didn’t want to say anything until noon the following day. He couldn’t be more explicit than that. The rest of the afternoon Callery was out of phone reach, driving to Birmingham and then flying to New Orleans. And while Callery was traveling, Auburn Coach Ralph “Shug” Jordon was putting the squeeze on the Executive Committee. Jordan wanted his team invited to the Sugar Bowl and if he didn’t get an immediate invitation, he would not wait until Monday. He wouldn’t play in New Orleans – win, lose, or draw.
Auburn was undefeated, untied, 5th-ranked, and readying for an SEC championship game. It had a Heisman-Trophy-winning quarterback in Pat Sullivan and was an excellent, exciting offensive football team.
In an emergency meeting Sunday afternoon the Executive Committee of the Sugar Bowl agreed to accept Auburn.
“When I got home,” Callery remembered, “I had a message to call Bernie Grenrood immediately. Bernie asked me to meet him at his house. ‘I have terrible news,’ he told me when I arrived. “The committee called an emergency meeting at 4 o’clock this afternoon and picked Auburn.”
“I was just frozen when I heard,” said Callery. “We had, in essence, already invited two teams that morning – Alabama and Oklahoma. Now we had invited another one. I had to pour myself a couple of drinks before I called Coach Bryant. It must have looked like I was a fraud. You can’t print what Bryant said when I told him. He did tell me to tell the Sugar Bowl that he was going to beat the hell out of Auburn.”
And he did. Alabama walloped Auburn, 31-7, and Nebraska edged Oklahoma 35-31 in a game matching two of college football’s all-time teams. Those results set up a national championship game for Miami and a runner-up game in the Sugar. It was just what Miami was angling for, but this time New Orleans kayoed itself.
Auburn-Oklahoma wasn’t a bad match, pairing an awesome Sooner ground game against a devastating Auburn aerial display. The Sugar could have been in far worse shape. But it was still a runner-up game.
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.