Father-Son Days at the Sugar Bowl
Wickers are the Latest Legacy to Lead the Sugar Bowl
by Trey Iles for the Allstate Sugar Bowl
[This story originally appeared in the Official Game Program for the 2017 Allstate Sugar Bowl.]
Thomas Wicker Jr. (pictured right with son Carey) had no idea on New Year’s Day 1935 the impact he and his family would have on the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
Wicker was a 12-year-old Cub Scout recruited to help usher fans in the inaugural game at Tulane Stadium. In return, he got to watch Tulane defeat Temple, 20-14, for free.
It’s the day he fell in love with New Orleans’ annual college football bowl game. It’s a love that continues to this day and one that he passed down to his son, Carey Wicker III.
Wicker Jr. has seen the greatest teams and the greatest players in the sport’s history as a fan and 42-year member of the Sugar Bowl Committee. His first year on the committee was in 1973, the year Notre Dame and Alabama tangled for the national championship in arguably one of the greatest college football games of all time.
He saw Sammy Baugh, Steve Spurrier, Bear Bryant, Woody Hayes, numerous Heisman Trophy winners and many other giants of the game pass through and compete.
But he also helped navigate the Sugar Bowl through a change that, at the time, many in the college football community criticized. Now he’s watching his son preside over the Sugar Bowl as it turns a new page in its history.
Wicker Jr. was the president of the Sugar Bowl in 1986-87 when Nebraska knocked off LSU, 30-15, in the 53rd edition of the game. Perhaps of more significance was the new ground broken that year: the Sugar Bowl became the first bowl to sign up a title sponsor, the insurance company USF&G. Wicker III, who joined the Sugar Bowl committee that year, said it was considered heresy by the rank and file of the college football world to have a title sponsor.
“We had a number of discussions in our Sugar Bowl meetings about the necessity of a sponsor,” said Wicker Jr., 92. “No bowls had sponsors at that time. We thought that if we were going to continue and be successful we would have to have a sponsor. I went before the executive committee and proposed we get a sponsor and they went along with it unanimously.
“At first, we were criticized. Said we were commercializing amateur athletics. Before you know it, all the rest got sponsors.”
It wasn’t long after that every bowl game signed on a sponsor and changed the way they did business as well.
Now the Sugar Bowl is entering another new era and, wouldn’t you know it, a Wicker is at the helm. Wicker III, 62, is this year’s president as the bowl game adds the Big 12 as an official tie-in to the game, opposite the SEC, which has been an official partner of the Sugar Bowl since 1975.
It’s all part of the new College Football Playoff. During the 12-year run of the CFP, the Sugar Bowl will pit teams from the two conferences in seasons when it doesn’t host a CFP semifinal game. The Sugar Bowl, along with the Rose Bowl, hosted the first semifinal games last season.
“I’m very proud of that,” Wicker III said. “We’re very proud to be hosting these two conferences. We competed hard with Dallas for [the right to host] that game. That was a fierce competition. We have two great conferences in the Big 12 and SEC. We’re very excited about the prospect that it brings to the organization but more importantly to the city and the community.”
With the Sugar Bowl leading the way, New Orleans is also back in the national championship picture. The city was selected in November to host the 2020 CFP championship contest.
Wicker III grew up watching his father’s participation with the Sugar Bowl and he knew fairly early he wanted to be a part of the organization.
Even though the football game is the front porch event of the organization, there is so much more to what the Sugar Bowl and its committee does, Wicker III said.
“After my dad’s presidency and after I became a member, I saw the Sugar Bowl evolve tremendously,” Wicker III said. “We now have 50 events that we sponsor. We’re a year-round organization. We do a heck of a lot more than put on our marquee football game, which we’re very proud of. We have a lot more going on than that.”
Both father and son say what they’re most proud of is the civic involvement of the committee. Wicker III said he learned from his father that was priority one.
“I watched him go up the ranks as an officer, I watched him chair the entertainment committee which is a big deal, very labor intensive,” Wicker III said. “Through him, I had an opportunity to learn the Sugar Bowl ropes and learned a lot about the Sugar Bowl’s involvement in the community. I think that’s what piqued my interest in becoming a member at the time.”
Wicker Jr. remains an emeritus member of the committee. He still goes to meetings, has voting privileges and attends the game. He’s seen most of the Sugar Bowl games but missed a couple during World War II when he served in the Navy and fought in the Pacific theater.
He said it has been a joy to watch his son come up through the Sugar Bowl ranks as he did and now to be the organization’s president.
“It’s been fantastic,” Wicker Jr. said. “I’ve always been interested in intercollegiate athletics and Carey has, too. To be able to work with your son is very rewarding and very enjoyable. I’ve done it for quite a few years now. It’s really been one of the highlights of my life.”