How West Virginia and Georgia Met in the 2006 Sugar Bowl
Kickoff of the 72nd Sugar Bowl was like watching the flag raising on Mount Suribachi: powerful and inspiring.
In almost three-quarters of a century history, through the most frightful events of the last eight decades: global economic depression, the world’s bloodiest war, terrorist attack on America, the Sugar Bowl not only endured but flowered.
Hard times – and an ability to deal with them – helped the Sugar Bowl flourish.
But nothing could have prepared the Sugar, or any other sports, civic or government entity, for anything like Katrina.
Hurricane Katrina, one of the strongest storms in recorded history, made landfall on Aug. 29, 2005, damaging large tracks of three states, flattening huge portions of the Gulf Coasts, and lower areas of New Orleans, which for a while recast the Big Easy into a brackish bog. Breaches in the levee system surrounding the city, much of which sits below sea level, caused extensive flooding, ruining many neighborhoods.
Tens of thousands of homes were destroyed, and hundreds of people killed.
Life in New Orleans would never be the same.
Even that mighty structure that had become the modern symbol of the old town, the Superdome, the home of the Sugar Bowl, was a casualty. Its roof was partly stripped by the winds, and later, after it was used as a shelter of last resort for thousands who could not, or would not, evacuate, it became a huge but hellish hovel. Utilities went out, as they did all over New Orleans, meaning air-conditioning and plumbing were also gone. The Dome floor was inundated, and some the defenseless crowded into the Dome were bullied by thugs, who also looted some of the offices in the building, including the Sugar Bowl’s.
All of a sudden, in this football-mad region, sports were the last thing on the minds of the people. The stadium was unusable, hotels were too damaged for a multitude of visitors, and the city was essentially on its knees.
The status of the Sugar Bowl was really in the balance. The game could be played in Baton Rouge, or in Atlanta, or perhaps elsewhere. But did such a New Orleans sporting institution – one worth an estimated $200 million annually to the regional economy – be played anywhere outside the area?
Executive Director Paul Hoolahan noted it was imperative that the Superdome be reopened by the 2008 game because that is the year in which New Orleans is scheduled to host both the national championship game and the "regular" Sugar Bowl under the BCS’ new double-hosting format.
That aspect of New Orleans’ recovery was taken care of in time for the 2007 game.
For the 2006 Sugar Bowl, though, the game would be played 500 miles away. In the end, lack of the approximate 32,000 necessary hotel rooms in Baton Rouge needed was an obstacle that could not be overcome if the game was played at LSU.
"We couldn’t have fans scattered from Mobile to Lafayette to Jackson, Miss. driving in to Baton Rouge on the day of the game," one bowl official said. "That’s not what the Sugar Bowl experience is supposed to be." Hotel rooms were not a problem in Atlanta.
"I think Paul was surprised to learn he had a choice of four different headquarters hotels," said Bob Schuler, vice president of the Atlanta Convention and Tourist Bureau. "The period around the Sugar Bowl is one of low occupancy for our hotels, so we can easily accommodate the fans."
"We’re going to do everything to create a quality bowl experience. It won’t be New Orleans, but the teams and fans will have plenty to do."
The Sugar Bowl would be played Jan. 2, following Atlanta’s Peach Bowl on Dec. 30 and a Falcons-Carolina NFL game on Jan. 1.
With the help of the Atlanta Convention and Tourist Bureau, Hoolahan, who lost two homes in the storm, gathered his bedraggled staff, and set up hearth and home at the Omni Hotel adjacent to CNN, a short walk from the Inforum building where their offices were located as well as the Georgia Dome, site of the first Sugar Bowl to be played outside New Orleans.
"If we had to do this, we’re in the perfect city," Hoolahan reflected. "The infrastructure of hotel rooms, entertainment venues and the like was already here. People pointed us in the right direction, and from then on it was a matter of plugging to the resources instead of having to spend a lot of time trying to find our own way."
Along with more than 50 members of the Sugar Bowl committee, on hand to lend their assistance, the staff did yeomen-like work. And they all needed to after losing about six weeks of work after Katrina and having to adjust to their new city.
The staff consisted of associate executive director Jeff Hundley, business manager Kathy Gaspard, ticket manager Sandy King, receptionist Kelli Bourgeois, interns Deidra Church and Megan Mathis – who just started work a week before Katrina – and director of communications Greg Blackwell, one of the Sugar’s major heroes.
When personnel was first allowed into the Superdome about a month after the storm to briefly check the condition of their offices, Hoolahan and Blackwell found the Sugar Bowl office broken into, trashed and looted. The thieves got into petty cash boxes and took the insignificant sum, but overlooked an irreplaceable historical treasure.
An elegant and classic silver cup was still standing in its place. It was handmade in England in 1830 during the reign of King George IV by the silversmiths Rebecca Emes and Edward Barnard. Samuel Waldhorn, a renowned New Orleans antique dealer obtained the rare piece on one of his yearly European business trips. When the Sugar Bowl was getting off the ground in 1935 it was donated to the effort – and became its symbol.
Blackwell secured the trophy and took it with him and his wife – across the country to California, where his family lives, until it could be returned to a safe place. Then he – and the Sugar Bowl – buckled down for its 72nd game.
"This had been our ultimate challenge," Hoolahan said. "We’ve taken a major event, transferred it to another city, kept it to the high standards we’ve always set for ourselves, and when it’s over, we’ll pack up, go back home and start anew."
"There is a great amount of satisfaction of knowing that we’ve still got all the moving parts in place. There is no doubt I’m awfully proud of this group."
Ironically, the University of Georgia earned the SEC berth by beating LSU 34-14 – at the same Georgia Dome where the Sugar would be played and in the same city where the Bulldogs beat arch-rival Georgia Tech weeks before. The No. 7 Bulldogs, with a 10-2 record and the nation’s fourth-best defense, yielding just 14 points a game, was essentially playing a home game. With all its perceived advantages, Georgia was a touchdown favorite over West Virginia, 10-1 but champions of the lowly regarded Big East Conference, a league which was already 0-3 in the season’s bowl games. The No. 11 Mountaineers, coached by former Tulane offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez, were ranked behind six teams that lost more games, including Georgia.
"Nobody gives us much respect," Craig Wilson, a Mountaineer defensive end from New Orleans, said. "Everybody claims the Big East is a weak league, and that make us a weak team. We know that’s not true, but the only way to prove it is by beating Georgia."
That would be a tall order. At the controls of the Bulldogs offense was D.J. Shockley, a superb quarterback who completed 153 of 277 passes for 2,311 yards with 21 touchdowns and just five interceptions. He also ran for 251 yards and four TDs.
It was thought the ‘Dogs going against the Mountaineers would be like men going against boys. And with reason. Eleven redshirt and eight true freshman, including Steve Slaton, dotted the West Virginia starting units. Slaton came in with 924 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns. WVU QB Pat White, a redshirt freshman, entered the game with 708 passing yards and seven touchdowns, and ran for 875 yards and seven more touchdowns, a prime reason why the Mountaineers and their spread offense averaged 262.5 yards rushing, ranking fifth nationally.
"Practice makes perfect," Georgia roverback Tra Battle said. "They’ve almost perfected their running game. They have the talent and the athletes to do it."
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.