How Alabama and Penn State Met in the 1975 Sugar Bowl
It had been demonstrated that ABC’s New Year’s Eve experiment was failing. The Nebraska-Florida game, at least as attractive as the Penn State-Baylor Cotton Bowl, was overwhelmed (25.3 to 16.0) by 3rd-place Dallas in the ratings. The Notre Dame-Alabama Orange Bowl, a rematch without nearly as much sizzle as the previous year’s Sugar Bowl, pulled a much higher audience. There was simply no question that New Year’s Day was a stronger date than New Year’s Eve for bowls.
Other factors that could change the entire bowl structure were coming into play. The Big Ten and Pacific Eight were about to break their traditional Rose Bowl-only affiliation. Champions from those conferences, of course, would continue to play in Pasadena, but runners-up and others would be free to participate in other postseason games. Also, the Orange Bowl, which had expressed interest in the Southeastern Conference but was turned down, was close to resuming its tie-up with the Big Eight after a hiatus of several years.
Those changes would have an effect on the SEC. The SEC, which on occasion had sent as many as seven of its teams to bowls in one year, would have stiff competition for minor bowl berths as the number of available quality teams increased. And with the Miami tie-up, a New Year’s Day berth would be gone. Theoretically, the SEC champion, under the right set of circumstances, could be shut out of a New Year’s Day game.
For years, as the Sugar Bowl’s fortunes nosed downward, the Mid-Winter Sports Association concluded that a tie-up could rejuvenate an ailing bowl. The arguments of past decades against such an arrangement were no longer valid.
It seemed to become an annual ritual: The Sugar Bowl would inquire about the feasibility of a tie-up with the SEC, and the SEC would politely decline. New Orleans began pressing harder in 1973.
Things were now different. Realizing that shortly the Sugar Bowl again would be the only New Year’s Day game without a tie-up, and that the SEC champion could be shut out of a New Year’s Day game, some members began to perceive the situation differently. For New Orleans to host a No. 1 game without the SEC champion would require a highly ranked independent or a rare national contender that was not a champion of the Southwest, Big Eight, Big Ten, or Pacific Coast Conferences. For the first time, there seemed to be a mutual need by both parties.
Sugar Bowl President Cliff Kern, Sam Corenswet, Jr., and Charles V. Cusimano drove to Baton Rouge in the spring to talk with Louisiana State University Athletic Director Carl Maddox. Maddox would chair the athletics directors’ meeting at the SEC convention in December, and the delegation wanted the chance to make a definite proposal. Maddox promised to get them on the docket.
Conference Commissioner Boyd McWhorter was contacted for advice. “I gave them the proper procedure,” said McWhorter. “They would have to get the athletic directors to approve of it, and to make that recommendation to the conference presidents. Personally, I did not think at the time it would pass because the conference simply had not shown any tendency toward tying up with any bowl.”
McWhorter advised the Sugar Bowl that the possibility of a tie-up would be greatly enhanced if there was a financial guarantee.
The Mid-Winter Sports Association went to work. “We put together a group that had very close relationships with the athletic directors around the conference,” said Kern. “A.B. Nicholas was very close with Johnny Vaught at Ole Miss and Bob Woodruff at Tennessee. So he contacted those gentlemen. I was about the only one in the group that knew Clay Stapleton at Vanderbilt very well, so I got in touch with him. John Boebinger was good friends with Joel Eaves at Georgia. Charles Cusimano was on the Board of Supervisors at LSU. And Aruns Gallery contacted Bear Bryant.”
Bryant was the fly in the ointment. He had only one vote, but his stature was such that no one would seriously try to tell him where his team was to play over the holidays. Bryant had more Alabama into the most glamorous bowl team in the region, if not the country, and in the process had become something of a kingmaker. Alabama was so coveted as a bowl commodity that frequently it was only when Bryant decided where and who he was to play that the year’s bowl pairings fell into place.
Bear told Callery he would not consider a tie-up, that he could go where he wanted and felt it was in the best interesting of the University of Alabama. This put a practical end to the matter.
Months later, Bryant called Callery and thoughtfully said, “I have to think about the rest of the conference, too.” Callery knew the Sugar Bowl was about to change.
Sports in New Orleans was approaching a new age with the completion of one of the world’s unique buildings, the Louisiana Superdome. It was the most multifaceted building ever designed. That Battle of Gettysburg conceivably could have been fought within its walls. A 25-story structure could fit under its roof, which spans 9 ½ acres. It took two years and nine months to complete, with 800 construction workers swarming over the 13-acre site on any given day. The scope of the Superdome was so vast that its architect, Buster Curtis, concedes that no single man could have put it together on paper – computers did it. It is a ludicrous statistic, but the Superdome has 125 million cubic feet of space and was built at a cost of $163 million.
Bryant wanted to coach in the first Superdome Sugar Bowl and asked to be considered. Who could have turned him down? After a season-opening loss to Missouri, the Crimson Tide tore through its schedule and was on the verge of another Southeastern Conference championship. Bryant also winked at the Cotton Bowl where he might have the opportunity to play a higher-ranked team.
There was no question he could play a higher-ranked team in the Orange Bowl. Either 2nd-ranked Nebraska or 6th-ranked Oklahoma would be waiting there. But not only was Alabama refusing to play either of those schools in Miami, but the Tide wouldn’t play them in New Orleans either. The Sugar Bowl was informed that should Bryant play in the Sugar Bowl, he would like to play Penn State. Eleventh-ranked Penn State was a fine ball club, but was not of the same caliber as Oklahoma or Nebraska. “This is a helluva note,” stormed Oklahoma’s Barry Switzer. “It would have made no difference if we were 10-0 like Nebraska. The Sugar Bowl still wouldn’t have taken the loser of our game, even though that would have guaranteed them at least one 10-1 team.” “Tell that son of a buck not to duck us,” an angry Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne told Sugar Bowl official John Barr.
“I want to make it clear that we want to play in the best bowl against the best team,” Osborne went on. “Any team that doesn’t feel that way doesn’t belong in competitive athletics. I know that’s a pretty strong statement, but it’s time this thing is brought out in the open.”
“We have no apologies to make to anyone,” retorted Bryant in Birmingham. “If the Big Eight wanted to play Alabama, why did they sign with the Orange Bowl?” It was a weak response, and the whole situation was ironic since a strong argument against a tie-up in the early days was the possibility a team might want to call the shots on its opposition.
There were two reasons why Bryant would have been interested in Penn State. The first was obvious. Alabama, for all its success, had not won a bowl game since the 1967 Sugar against Nebraska. There were some who were saying Bear had quit eating soup because he couldn’t handle the bowl. While this Penn State team was capable and deserving, it did not have the weapons of the Big Eight contenders. Second, Penn State seldom used its entire allotment of tickets. Alabama fans could never get enough. A Penn State – ‘Bama bowl gave Bryant an excellent chance at victory and more tickets for his legion of supporters.
An indication of the tickets pressure at Alabama was illustrated one Sunday morning at Birmingham’s St. Paul Cathedral. Arnus Callery, who had been following the Tide, attended early Mass attired in his Sugar Bowl blazer. As he went for a seat, an usher with whom he’d become friendly handed Callery a folded church pledge card. Callery put it in his pocket. After church Callery found a $20 bill attached to the card with a note requesting two Sugar Bowl tickets.
After Bryant’s turnabout concerning the tie-up, he joined with Ole Miss’ Johnny Vaught in buttonholing their fellow athletic directors in the cause. The proposal probably would have failed without them. Bryant felt he could deliver three votes, which left seven for Vaught. “I guess part of the reason we were able to do it,” said Vaught, “is because Bear and I went to so many bowls. We were kind of the dominant teams as far as the bowls were concerned, and I think the other athletic directors recognized that if we stood behind it, it had some merit.”
Vaught, who lobbied vigorously and successfully, said he had never been for tie-ups per se, and that if he could he would abolish them all. “I have a lot of friends with the Sugar Bowl,” he said, “but I pushed for it because it seemed like the thing to do. If we hadn’t tied with the Sugar Bowl we eventually would have had to tie up with another bowl. If we were going to go that way, I think we were better off with the Sugar Bowl.”
In the meantime, Sam Corenswet, Jr., and other members of the Sugar Bowl were negotiating with ABC. This would be the final game of the television pact and since the Sugar Bowl wanted to guarantee the SEC a payment, those talks were as important as the conference vote in Birmingham.
Cliff Kern, Executive Committee Chairman Marshal David, A.B. Nicholas, Aruns Callery, and Charles Cusimano went to Birmingham for the November 30 SEC meeting and were prepared to offer a $750,000 guarantee. The reception was warm. “I think we ought to consider it,” Tennessee’s Bob Woodruff. “It would be a fine thing for our conference.” Apparently the groundwork laid by the Sugar Bowlers, Bryant, and Vaught was solid. The SEC athletic directors voted unanimously to recommend to the university presidents a tie-up with New Orleans.
“I stood aghast when the vote came in,” recalled SEC Commissioner Boyd McWhorter. “I wasn’t disappointed, just surprised at the unanimous vote.”
There was no way of knowing it at the time, but the Orange Bowl’s matchup of Oklahoma and Michigan influenced the Sugar Bowl’s proposal. McWhorter and others throughout the SEC were concerned that a tie-up would have the effect of limiting it to one team in a major bowl. “But right after that,” recalled the commissioner, “the Orange Bowl invited the runner-up from another conference (Michigan). So I thought if a runner-up from that conference can get it, all of us can get it.”
The SEC presidents would have to make the final decision, but after 42 years and many attempts, the SEC and the Sugar Bowl were engaged.
On the football front, things were not moving smoothly for Bryant. Quarterback Richard Todd, a two-time All-SEC athlete from Mobile, sliced the middle finger of his right (throwing) hand Christmas Day and required two stitches.
“If it had to happen I’m glad it happened yesterday and not the day before the game,” Todd said. “If we had to play tomorrow night, I don’t think I could take a snap. But I’m gonna play in the game unless I break my leg.”
Some thought was given as to whether Todd would play. Twenty-three Alabama players, including Todd, were anywhere from 15 to 90 minutes late returning to their hotel after a Saturday night on the town. This happened to the coach that once suspended Joe Namath before a Sugar Bowl game. But Bryant tried to be understanding, calling the incident “no big thing.” Then more players were late coming in Monday night, and Bryant stripped two of their starting assignments.
Todd, meanwhile, was gaining a healthy respect for the Nittany Lions. He and Penn State linebacker Greg Buttle sized each other up in a press conference. Todd listened attentively as the 6-foot-2, 228-pound linebacker joined a New Orleans barbershop quartet for a song. When asked what he thought of Buttle, Todd laughed, “Well, the way he sings you can smell his breath from here. I hope he doesn’t get that close during the 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.