How Oklahoma and Penn State Met in the 1972 Sugar Bowl
The noon kickoff, a time change that for all practical purposes excluded West Coast television viewing, was a disaster. The ratings for the Sugar Bowl were only slightly higher than those for regular season NCAA telecasts (14.6 to 14.0), and it had the smallest audience of the major bowls. ABC, whose sports operation was headed by Roone Arledge, decided drastic measures had to be taken and began pressing for a New Year’s Eve game over the objections of most of the Mid-Winter Sports Association Membership.
“They (ABC) got that idea from ‘Monday Night Football,’ said Sugar Bowl member Charles Zatarain. “On a night when people are planning to go out to celebrate, it didn’t seem logical that a football game would keep them home that extra couple of hours. And in New Orleans it sure wouldn’t work. This is a party town, so we were going to lose people in the stadium because of New Year’s celebrations. The thing was a network decision. They wanted it, and, of course, they were buying it and we went along with it.”
For going along with it, ABC increased its yearly payment to the Sugar Bowl from $510,000 to $575,000 and spent an additional $100,000 improving the Tulane Stadium lighting. For a New Year’s Day game, ABC would have paid $300,000.
The NCAA granted the Sugar Bowl permission to move the date of the game. A Sugar Bowl was scheduled for New Year’s Eve, 1972, for 8 p.m. instead of a more logical 7 p.m. because the network didn’t want to preempt its popular series, “The FBI.” They pointed out that the Orange Bowl had been hurt during the opening 30 minutes the year before while “All in the Family” was being telecast in opposition to the Nebraska-Alabama national championship match.
New Year’s Eve, 1972, would also break another tradition. The game would be played on a Sunday. All the major bowl historically sidestepped Sunday games and played on January 2 in those years when New Year’s fell on the Sabbath. “We kind of expected protests from the churches and religious groups,” said Joe Katz, of the Sugar Bowl committee, “but nobody made anything over it at all.”
Of the events important to the Sugar Bowl in 1972, none may have been bigger than the retirement of the last bonds indebted by the Mid-Winter Sports Association. Now it was free and clear of debt.
Bear Bryant held the keys to the makeup of the bowl games that season. Practically everyone agreed that for pure talent Nebraska had the best team in the country. But the Cornhuskers, playing their last season under Bob Devaney, had a loss and a tie on their record. Undefeated Southern Cal was ranked No. 1, making also unbeaten and 2nd-ranked Alabama the team every bowl wanted and the team any national championship contender would have to play in order to have a chance at the title.
Devaney had a no-strings-attached invitation to New Orleans that he seemed to relish, but he wanted to play Alabama. Bryant hinted early that he would play in either the Sugar or the Cotton Bowl, but let it be known if he played in New Orleans he wanted to play Penn State. Notre Dame was interested in the Sugar if it did not have to play Nebraska. The team preferred to play Alabama, Penn State or Louisiana State. LSU was the second SEC choice (Alabama, the first) for the Sugar’s host spot, and the Tigers wanted Penn State.
Bryant accepted a bid to the Cotton Bowl. With its only chance for a national championship gone, Nebraska went to the Big Eight’s port of call. LSU, thinking Penn State was out of the Sugar Bowl picture, accepted a Bluebonnet Bowl berth. But the Sugar took 6th-ranked Penn State and, with its two SEC favorites no longer on the scene, went for 4th-ranked Oklahoma. Notre Dame ended up as Nebraska’s Orange Bowl partner.
Oklahoma still had a game to play – with Bob Devaney’s dreadnought – but the Sooners had an outside chance at No. 1, with a potential 11-1-0 season.
Upset coaches began sniping at Bryant. Devaney complained, “He got three shots at me when I was unbeaten, and he won two of them. Now he won’t play me.” Notre Dame’s Ara Parseghian criticized Alabama for taking on Southwest Conference champion Texas instead of Nebraska, or presumably Notre Dame. “From everything I’ve read, and by their own admission, Alabama took the easy way out,” said Parseghian. “They were in the driver’s seat, being undefeated, and their decision dictated the structure of the other bowls.”
Bryant responded, “I just can’t see playing a team in a bowl that has lost two games. We would be honored and privileged to play Notre Dame at any time except at this time.”
Oklahoma made Nebraska’s chance at No. 1 academic when, on Thanksgiving Day, the Sooners, a 2-touchdown underdog, scored 17 points in the final 17 minutes to beat the Cornhuskers 17-14.
Charles “Tinker” Owens, a Sooner freshman receiver, added excitement to the first Sugar Bowl in 23 years without an SEC team. He was the brother of former Oklahoma Heisman Trophy winner Steve Owens.
The coach of the 10-1 Nittany Lions Joe Paterno – a man whose .838 winning percentage (64-12-1) was the best in the country and who had never lost (3-0-1) in a bowl – was in a reflective mood when he met the press in New Orleans.
Paterno spoke about his team, a talented offensive unit featuring quarterback John Hufnagel, the school’s total offensive leader, and John Cappelletti who gained 1,117 yards at running back. The potent Lions averaged 32 points a game. Paternao also spoke of Oklahoma, which averaged 478 yards and 37 points a game – the nation’s best. Befitting a 6-point underdog, Paterno said, “There are only two great teams in college football today – Oklahoma and Southern California. Sure, there are several good teams…Texas, Ohio State, Tennessee, Alabama, but only two great ones.”
“When you talk about what makes a great team, you must consider its size, speed, balance on offense and defense. That’s Oklahoma!”
Taking his mind off the awesome Sooner wishbone, though, Paterno spoke of his first Sugar Bowl on January 1, 1952. He was then a 26-year-old assistant who wanted to see the Tennessee-Maryland game and bought a scalper’s ticket to do so.
“I can still see Ed Modzelewski ripping into Tennessee’s wide-tackle-six,” he reminisced. “I drove from Penn State with two friends, drove all night to see that game, my first trip to New Orleans. I paid twenty bucks for my ticket. My friends sneaked in with the Boy Scouts. “It was one of those trips I’ll never forget. We left New Orleans early the next morning – after doing the town – and we turned the car over on the way home.”
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.