How Notre Dame and Alabma Met in the 1973 Sugar Bowl
A series of events, some reaching back to the opening days of the decade, had a deep effect upon the Sugar Bowl in 1973. The Mid-Winter Sports Association had opened its membership and taken in a select group of capable, civic- and sports-minded individuals in 1966, but immediately thereafter slipped back into comfortable insulation. Though the intention in 1966 was to consider and sponsor new members periodically, new people were not admitted for six years.
A coalition of primarily younger members, realizing the organization had to expand itself in order to regain its former stature, began pressing for new admittances at the start of the 1970s. Moon Landrieu, newly elected mayor and the most progressive New Orleans government head in a decade, urged that the Sugar Bowl admit blacks to its membership.
“Because it had come to mean so much to the city and region,” reflected Landrieu, “because its membership included names of individuals that meant something in business, government…meant something to New Orleans, the Sugar Bowl had become almost a ‘quasi-public’ organization. It was an organization that served exceedingly well, but also one that did business each year with schools that had more and more black representation while the Sugar Bowl had none.”
For three years of Landrieu’s first term nothing was done by the Sugar Bowl. In August of 1973 several black groups represented by an Ad Hoc Committee put together by Carl Galmon, (a New Orleans member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference) charged the Mid-Winter Sports Association with racial discrimination. The Ad Hoc Committee, identifying itself as composed of members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Urban League, the Southern Media Coalition, the Modern Organization for Dynamic and Effective Leadership, and the Community Organization for Urban Politics, requested that NCAA President Alien J. Chapman conduct an investigation into Sugar Bowl operations. They asked that the NCAA approval of the Sugar Bowl be lifted if discrimination was found in its operations, but this question was out of NCAA’s jurisdiction.
Unquestionably, there was a lingering hold from the past on some Sugar Bowl members, as there seemed to be on a large segment of American society. The feeling remained that the Sugar Bowl was, after all, a private organization and as such was entitled to choose its makeup. A significant portion of the Sugar Bowl membership, particularly the younger people, disagreed. Finally, a group of 11 men were invited to join the Sugar Bowl. Six of them were among the most influential people in the black community. They were: Xavier University President Dr. Norman C. Francis; Dr. Leonard Bums; educator Elliot Willard; banker Sidney Cates; newspaperman Jim Hall; and Juvenile Court Judge Ernest N. Morial.
The 11 new members were asked to serve on a 23-man advisory committee called “Ambassadors” for one year before being considered for full membership. The usual probation period was two years. All the blacks declined, feeling the offer was made to placate them rather than to provide meaningful participation. After the Sugar Bowl talked with all parties concerned again, the six blacks were elected to associate membership on December 10. Five others, Louisiana Lt. Gov. James E. Fitzmorris, Jr., Richard Gaiennie, Lloyd F. Gaubert, Ronnie J. Kole, and 24th Judicial District Court Judge Thomas C. Wicker, were also elected to membership.
On November 8, Alabama’s Coach Bryant announced in what was described as a sugarcoated challenge that his team wanted to play Notre Dame in New Orleans. The key words were “in New Orleans” because Alabama-Notre Dame was a match anyone would have loved.
The 5th-ranked Irish, with a week to think about the prospects, had to consider the $100,000 or so more the Orange Bowl would pay, no small sum to an independent that doesn’t have to share with conference members. Coach Ara Parseghian, speculating on what would happen, said, “We will select the competition first and the site second…it doesn’t take too much intelligence on the part of anybody to figure what will happen.”
Bryant had hinted this could be his best team. Parseghian had done the same. The thought of Alabama and Notre Dame, titans of the college football world, meeting was exhilarating. “Look at the possibilities,” wrote Dave Lagarde in the Times-Picayune, “Alabama undefeated and untied; Notre Dame undefeated and untied; North against South; Catholic against Protestant; Parseghian against Bryant; the Bear against the Pope.”
There was another dimension to add to the excitement. Alabama had risen to No. 1 and Notre Dame to No. 3 Oklahoma was the No. 2-ranked team, but it was on NCAA probation and ineligible for bowls. This meant the Alabama-Notre Dame game would probably be played for the national championship. “This will be one of the biggest moments in Alabama’s history,” said Bryant in anticipation. “We’ve talked about this game for years,” Ed “Moose” Krauss, the Irish athletic director said. “There’s no question that this could be the most important game ever, certainly since Ara Parseghian had been here. We have a chance to go undefeated and win the national championship and become one of the greatest teams in the history of this school…and there have been some great ones.”
While the football world awaited the game, political currents continued to swirl around the Sugar Bowl. After the appointments of the six blacks to the Mid-Winter Sports Association membership, the Ad Hoc Committee asked that four more blacks be appointed. They wanted at least 33 percent blacks involved in meaningful participation by 1975 and an agreement in writing for an affirmative action program before the Alabama-Notre Dame game on December 31.
Asked if he had discussed the situation with his black players, Bryant shot back, “I don’t have any black players and I don’t have any white players. I just have players.”
The winner, both coaches agreed, would be the defense that could control the other’s offense. It would be ‘Bama’s odd-man front defense against the Irish wing-T with motion and misdirection. And the Irish even-odd defense would face the Tide wishbone. Notre Dame gave up only 201.2 yards a game during the season-the second best in the nation. Alabama, on the other hand, averaged 366 yards offensively – the country’s second best. The Irish averaged 350 yards offensively while the Tide defense gave up 244.8 yards.
ABC, in a gesture of sportsmanship to the New Orleans fans, lifted the local blackout. Alabama entered the game a 6-point favorite, but in the words of Southern California Coach John McKay should’ve kept Crimson Tide feet on the ground. “Now listen, Paul,” McKay advised Bryant, “you’re going to look at films and you’re going to write them (Notre Dame) off. Don’t because they’re faster than they look and are even bigger than the program says they are.”
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.