How Florida and West Virginia Met in the 1994 Sugar Bowl
Surprising, and luckily for a new hierarchy, the Sugar Bowl found itself in a no-lose situation as pairings began to take shape for the postseason.
There was a change in leadership as Mickey Holmes stepped down as executive director of the Sugar Bowl, and his recommendation for the job was his protégé, 29-year-old Troy Mathieu. Perhaps as an indication of how much times had changed, not much was made of the fact that Mathieu was African-American. Still, it was noteworthy that after all the trials and tribulations of the segregation years of the late ‘50s and ‘60s, the Sugar Bowl was now operated by a black man.
Though on the surface things did not look promising for Mathieu’s first game at the helm, given that the Sugar Bowl was slated to pick after both the Orange Bowl and Cotton Bowl. Yet the Sugar wound up with the attractive options.
All the sporting world knew the Orange would choose to pair Nebraska against Florida State, the No. 1 and No. 2-ranked teams in the final Bowl Coalition poll. After that, though, things got interesting. Available to face the Cotton Bowl’s host team, SWC champion Texas A&M, were No. 3 West Virginia, the undefeated champion of the Big East, and No. 4 Notre Dame, owner of a 10-1 record that included a regular-season victory over Florida State. Whichever team the Cotton bypassed would then end up in the Sugar Bowl.
And that’s exactly what happened…almost. The Cotton Bowl tapped West Virginia, but the Mountaineers elected to exercise an option in the Bowl Coalition contract allowing a school to pass on a bowl invitation for “financial reasons.” Subsequently, Notre Dame found itself with an invite to Dallas.
There were several reasons for West Virginia’s “Thanks, but no thanks,” response to the Cotton. At least a million of those were the Sugar’s higher payout, more than $4 million, but the Mountaineers insisted there were other important issues to consider.
WVU coach Don Nehlen explained he considered the Sugar Bowl one of the premier football classics and that he and his 11-0-0 team would be honored to participate in it.
He didn’t say this, but even though Florida State and Nebraska would be playing for the national championship in the Orange Bowl, Nehlen also must have thought he could plant a seed of doubt with a West Virginia victory over Florida (10-2) rather than one over out-of-the-running Texas A&M in Dallas.
“We feel strongly (that) playing a team the caliber of Florida, if…if we won that game, we’d be a 12-0 football team and we’d deserve a part of that national championship,” Nehlen said.
“We all know that Florida State is a great, great football team. But, on the other hand, they stubbed their toe (31-24 at Notre Dame), and Nebraska didn’t stub their toe. And neither did we.”
West Virginia had, of course, an outstanding record, but its real strength was questionable – just, ironically, as the Mountaineers of 40 years before who also played in the Sugar Bowl. New Orleans Item sports editor Hap Glaudi dubbed the ’54 match with Georgia Tech the “Lemon Bowl” and ridiculed the selection. On that day, Georgia Tech drubbed West Virginia 42-19 in a game that was never close.
Gators coach Steve Spurrier’s New Year’s night goals were less ambitious than Nehlen’s. There was no possible national championship awaiting Florida. “We’ve got the opportunity to win 11 games for the first time in the history of our school, and we’ve never won in the Sugar Bowl (0-3), so we’ve got some firsts out there that we can try to accomplish without worrying about what’s happening in the Orange Bowl.”
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.