Building Tradition on Tradition
The Big 12, the SEC and the Sugar Bowl
by Trey Iles for the Allstate Sugar Bowl
[This story originally appeared in the Official Game Program for the 2020 Allstate Sugar Bowl.]
They’re not from around here. Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby and SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey grew up north of New Orleans. Well north as a matter of fact.
Bowlsby is from Waterloo, Iowa, and Sankey hails from Upstate New York, Auburn, N.Y., to be exact.
But make no mistake. Despite not growing up in the footprint of the Allstate Sugar Bowl, both men knew about the tradition and history of the event long before they headed south to their current jobs.
For Bowlsby, 67, the Sugar Bowl was a big part of New Year’s Day for him, his family and friends in Waterloo.
“In those days, it was the Sugar Bowl, the Rose Bowl, the Orange and the Cotton,” Bowlsby said. “With only three networks at the time, we used to go to a big party at some friends of my parents. The guy that hosted the party owned a store that sold record players and televisions. He had the first color televisions in town and he’d throw a big party on New Year’s Day and have all the games on. We always watched the early games, and the Sugar and the Orange were the nightcap.”
With Sankey, 55, it was a little more personal. Sankey, who received his master’s degree from Syracuse University, recalled the 54th Sugar Bowl in 1988 when Syracuse and Auburn posted the only tie in the game’s history, 16-16. Auburn Coach Pat Dye, whose team trailed 16-13 with four seconds left, elected to kick a 30-yard field goal instead of going for what would have been the winning touchdown, a decision and result that draws the ire of Orange fans to this day.
“I certainly remember other Sugar Bowl games; the Georgia-Notre Dame game for the national championship in 1981 with Herschel Walker comes to mind,” Sankey said. “But if there’s anything that sticks out in my mind, having grown up near Syracuse, it was the Syracuse-Auburn Sugar Bowl in 1987. Tie game.”
Now, as the leaders of the two conferences that battle in the Sugar Bowl each year when the College Football Playoff semifinal isn’t contested here, they’ve seen up close and personal how big an impact the game has on the college football postseason landscape.
“The Sugar Bowl takes place in a special city and a special place,” Sankey said. “[The Superdome] is a special stadium. A lengthy history with the Southeastern Conference where people can recount the last time their team played or a memory when their team played there. That culture shows a significance of not just the game but also the entire event.
“Now to be a part of it as the commissioner of the conference is one of the personal rewards for me. It’s one of our special homes.”
The SEC has a longstanding tradition with the Sugar Bowl. Many of the Big 12 universities have participated in the bowl through the years but the younger conference doesn’t have the same history with the game as its counterpart. Bowlsby said that’s changing however. He said that’s because of the leadership of Sugar Bowl President Monique Morial, current Sugar Bowl CEO Jeff Hundley and former CEO Paul Hoolahan, who retired in June of 2019.
“Our roots are getting pretty deep with the Sugar Bowl,” Bowlsby said. “Jeff is going to do a great job. And Paul was a wonderful leader for a lot of years. I’ve become very good friends with Monique as President this year and many other of the Sugar Bowl Committee members.
“I really give Paul and Jeff a lot of credit for our experience in the Sugar Bowl. They’ve made sure that we didn’t come to town as the guest. We came as members of a three-way partnership that is favorable to everybody.”
Hundley, who took over as CEO in July after many years as the Sugar Bowl’s Chief Operating Officer, is well acquainted with both commissioners. Like Bowlsby, he’s an Iowa native, even graduated from the University of Iowa where Bowlsby was once the Director of Athletics.
And he bears a striking resemblance to Sankey.
“Greg and I have for years now been mistaken for one another,” Hundley said. “It’s happened to him at Sugar Bowl events where people come up to him and think he’s me, committee members or what have you. And it’s happened to me at SEC events where SEC folks come up to me and think they’re talking to Greg. We’ve laughed about it through the years.”
Forming solid and trusting relationships with both has been a reason the partnership is successful, Hundley said. When the Sugar Bowl was selected to host the Big 12-SEC game in 2012 it was important to make sure teams from both conferences were welcomed.
“We didn’t enter this partnership half-heartedly or without a lot of thought and foresight,” Hundley said. “We have two outstanding leagues and arguably the two most decorated conferences in the country in recent history in terms of championship (playoff) appearances and quality of teams.
“I said at one of our recent Sugar Bowl Committee meetings that we’re at the top of the bowl landscape with these two partners and being part of the College Football Playoff. Our objective is to stay there.”
The future of college football is uncertain. The sport is about midway through the current College Football Playoff setup with the final year set for 2026. What will happen after that is anyone’s guess as the digital age continues to change how the sporting public consumes all aspects of college football.
Without guaranteeing anything, both Bowlsby and Sankey said they believe the partnership with the Sugar Bowl has been good and could easily be taken into the next version of how the playoff and postseason is administered.
“The reality of it is life, culture, media and college sports is changing so much so rapidly,” Sankey said. “I don’t know that we can look seven years down the road and answer. But the great news, the reality is, the Sugar Bowl has a special place in the hearts and minds of the Southeastern Conference.
“How will we evolve will be an important conversation over the years. But our interests and our commitment to these special relationships is really part of what makes the Southeastern Conference great. We are famous for honoring traditions while we continue to modernize. I think that will be a focus of the future whether it’s two years from now or six years from now. We’ll continue to honor our traditions and our relationships in a positive way.”
The Sugar Bowl was able to wrest the Big 12-SEC deal from several other bowls, including the Cotton Bowl, which is in the heart of Big 12 country. Hundley said it was important to make sure the Big 12 teams and their fans were as welcomed as those from the SEC. Bowlsby said the Sugar Bowl has accomplished that mission and he sees that as a positive for the future of the partnership.
“Who knows what the next round of the CFP will look like?” Bowlsby said. “Who knows what the next rounds of media relationships look like? I wouldn’t say we wouldn’t ever look around at something else. But there’d have to be a lot of changes before that made any sense for us because our experiences have been very good in New Orleans with the Sugar Bowl.
“It’s (New Orleans) a great city, a wonderful tradition. I think we’ve begun to develop a tradition even though it’s not an every-year tradition. It’s been a good thing for us.”