What’s Old is New Again
The Big 12 and SEC Have Been Matching Up, On and Off, for 80 Years
[This story originally appeared in the Official Game Program for the 2016 Allstate Sugar Bowl. It has been updated to reflect the result of the 2016 Classic.]
It’s really nothing new. That cold, overcast, wet day in 1936 when Sammy Baugh put his foot into Sugar Bowl lore was the start, and that was eight decades ago.
Texas Christian’s Slingin’ Sammy, renowned for his throwing skills, punted 14 times and kicked a 36-yard field goal to nip LSU 3-2 in the bog that served as the Tulane Stadium field on New Year’s Day 1936 in the second Sugar Bowl game ever.
“Every time someone writes about that game, they usually say the field was a ‘quagmire.’ That wasn’t the half of it,” recalled TCU coach Dutch Meyer years later. “There was standing water over your shoe tops. After every play, when they put the ball down, an official had to stand there with his foot on it to keep the ball from floating away.”
That still-remembered game under adverse conditions over 80 years ago was the seed of the new Allstate Sugar Bowl arrangement between the Big 12 Conference and the Southeastern Conference. The 2016 Sugar Bowl Classic marked the first Sugar Bowl of an official annual Big 12-Southeastern Conference relationship. But the long history of the game – including some of the most epic and remembered Sugar Bowls – is rooted in the pairing of teams, like TCU and LSU, which evolved from, and with, those conferences.
Slingin’ Sammy kick-started a series of trends in that game, played before a filled-beyond-capacity jam-packed crowd of 35,000, which earned $25,000 for his school. Beating the SEC champion Tigers the way he did, with his foot instead of his arm, brought him even further recognition as a player who could do it all; and it set the table for future Big 12 teams to reach the pinnacles of college football.
TCU and LSU were the first of Sugar Bowl participants from schools that are now in those leagues – the Horned Frogs then in the now disbanded Southwest Conference; LSU, then and now, in the SEC.
Such meetings would become a regular occurrence. The 2016 Sugar Bowl marked the 12th time schools currently in the Big 12 (composed of expatriates from the old SWC, Big Eight and Big East) have been pitted against SEC opponents in an intriguing series of memorable games – and the previously visiting league has the slight edge. The current members of the Big 12 have won seven of the 12 meetings in the Sugar Bowl, though the SEC has snagged a 4-3 advantage in the last seven meetings. While six current Big 12 teams have appeared in the Sugar Bowl, perennial power Oklahoma has played in New Orleans seven times, more than any non-SEC program, winning five (though not all against SEC opponents).
The Sugar Bowl has been a haven for coaching giants from those leagues, with New Orleans football battles being directed by generals like Bear Bryant, Bud Wilkinson, Bob Neyland, Johnny Vaught, Darrell Royal, Steve Spurrier and Don Nehlen. There has even been a recent rematch between a couple of coaching behemoths.
In the 2004 Sugar Bowl, Nick Saban’s LSU Tigers had to get past Bob Stoops’ Oklahoma Sooners for the BCS national title. OU was the highest scoring team in college football that year, averaging 45.2 points per game. But Saban, who had said privately that Oklahoma could be beaten, directed his Bayou Bengals to a 21-14 victory.
Ten years later, Stoops’ Sooners pulled one of the biggest upsets in Sugar Bowl history by beating 16 heavy favorite Alabama, then Saban’s team, 45-31, behind four touchdowns passes from Trevor Knight. “I’m not surprised,” Stoops said with a satisfied smile after his QB’s success against the two-time defending national champion Crimson Tide.
Oklahoma also figured in perhaps the most intriguing game of the Sugar Bowl’s early years, a duel between Bud Wilkinson and his already named National Champion and Bear Bryant’s Kentucky Wildcats, a team that had made waves throughout the season but lost in its last outing, 7-0, to Tennessee.
Suddenly Kentucky wasn’t in high demand.
“If you invite me, I’ll beat Oklahoma,” the Bear said in a phone conversation, literally begging the Sugar Bowl Committee for another chance right after the Tennessee disaster. “If I had gotten shut out of a major bowl after I passed up several invitations I would have had a tough time getting back to Lexington,” a rueful Bryant said later.
But that was a mighty large promise he made. Wilkinson’s Sooners hadn’t lost in 31 straight games.
In the time before the game, Bryant tinkered with his defense knowing he had to counteract Wilkinson’s split-T offense. He put in a multi-look scheme that included four tackles at times and a nine-man line at others in a risky gamble to upset the precision of the Sooner offense centered around quarterback Claude Arnold.
“Coach Bryant wanted his biggest kids on defense to shoot the gaps in the Oklahoma offense,” said Walt Yowarsky, an end who was moved from offense to defense for that game to go head-to-head with OU’s highly touted Jim Weatherall. Yowarsky’s job was to shut down the wide option.
Wildcats quarterback Babe Parilli completed 9-of-12 passes, including one for a touchdown as Kentucky took a 13-0 halftime lead. On the first Sooner possession of the second half, OU moved to the ‘Cats’ four with a first-and-goal. On third down from the two, Yowarsky shot through the line and threw Billy Vessels for a five-yard loss. “I just knifed through,” he said later. “I don’t really remember what happened, but I do remember feeling this was a fairly large play.” An incomplete pass then ended the series.
From that point, Bryant turned things over to his defense and earned a 13-7 victory in which Yowarsky was the MVP.
Heartbreak and disaster set the tone for 2006 Sugar Bowl between Rich Rodriguez’ West Virginia Mountaineers and Mark Richt’s SEC champion Georgia Bulldogs – playing in their home-state capital’s Georgia Dome.
In the Sugar Bowl’s greatest moment of peril, after Hurricane Katrina, with 80 percent of the city of New Orleans under water and thousands of people dead or displaced, the game had to be moved. The hospitality and helping hand of Atlanta may have saved the Sugar Bowl as we know it. Suspending it for a year likely would have dire consequences for the Classic and potentially risked the Bowl’s long-standing relationship with the SEC.
The state of West Virginia was also dealing with a catastrophe. The morning of the Sugar Bowl a coal mine explosion trapped 11 men in a shaft two miles deep in West Virginia. At game time no one knew how many men, if any, survived. Eventually one man was rescued.
“It’s only football,” said Rodriguez, a native West Virginian. “But we wanted to do something to lift our people’s spirits.”
What he received from his heavy underdog Mountaineers was so startling that it caused TV viewers across the country to blink in disbelief. West Virginia’s spread offense had the Bulldogs’ defense as befuddled as the viewers.
It took WVU fewer than three minutes to gash the vaunted Georgia defense. Steve Slaton, who would run for 204 yards and three touchdowns, took a handoff on a draw play and shot through three attempted tackles for a 52-yard score.
WVU scored the first four touchdowns, but by halftime, the shocked ‘Dogs had righted themselves to a degree, and trailed just 31-21. But UGA, despite closing to 31-28, was never able to quite catch up.
It was a memorable victory played under memorable circumstances, giving a lift to dispirited people both in West Virginia and New Orleans.
Sugar Bowl president Mark Romig put it in perspective afterward, saying, “Katrina knocked us down but did not knock us out, and we have done what we had to do to put on this game in its grand tradition.”
Story by Sugar Bowl historian Marty Mulé, an award-winning sportswriter who covered college football and the Sugar Bowl for the New Orleans Times-Picayune for 33 years.