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Paul Hoolahan: At the Top of the Game

By Trey Iles for the Allstate Sugar Bowl

[This story originally appeared in the Official Game Program for the 2019 Allstate Sugar Bowl.]

Paul Hoolahan saw the storm coming and knew it was different. As Hurricane Katrina churned toward the north central Gulf Coast in late August of 2005, New Orleans cast a wary eye.

Katrina was a powerful category 5 hurricane and it was taking direct aim at the Crescent City. Residents were certainly concerned and many heeded the call to clear out. Still, there was the feeling that Katrina would blow by, cleanup would take a couple of days and New Orleans would be back in business by the end of the week.

But Hoolahan didn’t see it that way. He instructed his family to pack up and be prepared to spend extended time in Texas where they would evacuate.

“By late afternoon Friday (Aug. 26, 2005), I realized we were in trouble,’’ said Hoolahan, the Allstate Sugar Bowl Chief Executive Officer who will oversee the game for the final time tonight and retire next summer. “Got my family ready to leave by mid-afternoon on Saturday, much to their dismay, mostly (his daughters). They said, ‘Why are you doing this, you’re overreacting. No one else is doing it.’ ‘’

On Monday, Aug. 29, 2005, Katrina struck and decimated New Orleans.

“I remember my kids looking at each other and saying, ‘Wow, maybe my dad knew something we didn’t,’ ‘’ Hoolahan said.

Like most of New Orleans and the surrounding area, the destruction wrought by Katrina put in jeopardy the future of the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Hoolahan wasn’t sure the game would be able to be played that year and the Mercedes-Benz Superdome lay in ruins.

“Unquestionably, Katrina and the aftermath was a matter of survival,’’ Hoolahan said. “We had a meeting with the (BCS commissioners) later that fall in Chicago. We looked to convince them that no matter what happened, we’d be able to pull off a game. Which at the time I wasn’t sure. But we sold it with vim and vigor.’’

And though the game was moved to Atlanta that year, the Sugar Bowl pulled it off.

Hoolahan, the rest of the Sugar Bowl staff and organization members never wavered nor wallowed in pity after Katrina. Instead, they developed a plan for the future and a way to not only stage the 2006 contest but pave a road to make sure the Sugar Bowl would continue to thrive. All the while putting back together their personal lives that were altered by Katrina.

Though Katrina was the biggest challenge faced by Hoolahan during his 23-year tenure, he said, it certainly wasn’t the only one. Under Hoolahan’s guidance the organization had to navigate several iterations of college football’s championship platform, from the Bowl Alliance to the Bowl Championship Series to today’s College Football Playoff. They did that successfully, keeping the Sugar Bowl at the top of collegiate football’s postseason.

At the same time, Hoolahan and the organization developed a business model to make sure the financial side of the Sugar Bowl remained robust despite declining revenues through the years.

The success of the Sugar Bowl has meant a financial boon for New Orleans and the metro area. In more than two decades with the Sugar Bowl, Hoolahan has directed organizational efforts which have generated more than $3 billion for the local economy.


SEEING THE FUTURE

Like with the approaching hurricane, Hoolahan said one of the key reasons for keeping Sugar Bowl at the top of the college football universe was to be keenly aware of how the sands were shifting.

“You have to know what’s coming before it gets there,’’ Hoolahan said. “And we’ve been pretty good at that. We’ve been a little prescient when you look at it.’’

But those who have worked alongside and with Hoolahan during his 23-year career with the Sugar Bowl say it’s been more than being able to see the future that has keyed his successful tenure as the CEO of the Sugar Bowl organization.

“There are very few people in New Orleans history who have had a greater impact on our sports landscape than Paul,” said Doug Thornton, the executive vice president of SMG, the management company for the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. “Throughout his career, he has always been a person who can get things done, which is one of the character traits that I admire most about him. His thoughtful insights and ability to anticipate change have preserved the Sugar Bowl’s standing as a top-tier bowl game. We are all so very grateful for his efforts and hard work through the years.’’

“Paul has been a remarkable leader in college football, a regular Yoda in the boardroom,” said Bill Hancock, the executive director of the College Football Playoff.  “His intuition and judgment have served our industry well.’’

Hoolahan, who became the Sugar Bowl’s sixth executive director in 1996, has directed Sugar Bowl operations for five national championship games. Though he will have stepped down when it occurs, Hoolahan’s handprints will be on the 2020 College Football Playoff National Championship, which will be contested in New Orleans and the Superdome on Jan. 13, 2020. He along with his successor, Sugar Bowl Chief Operating Officer Jeff Hundley, spearheaded the effort to land the game.

“Paul’s term as CEO has been marked by success at every turn,” said Sugar Bowl President Rod West. “His vision and expertise are respected not only here but in elite college football circles around the country. Certainly, the membership of the Sugar Bowl Committee has valued his strong leadership over the years and will miss Paul as he moves on to the next chapter in his life.”

Hoolahan said knowing how scenarios would shake out and having a plan for them was certainly important to keeping the Sugar Bowl at the top of its game. But equally important, he said, was the unity the Sugar Bowl organization enjoyed during his time as CEO. That can be difficult, he said. And that, he hopes, will be the biggest legacy he leaves behind.

“We had to overcome adversity,’’ Hoolahan said. “We had to prepare for the future. We had a lot of things challenging us at various points over my tenure. The biggest thing I had to do was make sure that we could get all the people (in the Sugar Bowl organization) on board working together to make things happen. Unify the group going forward and get a sense of common purpose and common goal. That probably more than anything stands out in my mind.

“It’s a diverse group. Our board, for instance, is 25 people deep. They come from different walks of life. Getting 25 people to agree upon a particular direction and approach isn’t always easy. Therein lies the big challenge.’’


AN EYE-OPENING BEGINNING

Hoolahan, a native New Yorker who was an All-ACC pick as a lineman at the University of North Carolina, accepted the Sugar Bowl job in July of 1996 after serving as athletic director at Vanderbilt.

While at Vanderbilt, Hoolahan was invited to Sugar Bowl events each year. He and his wife, Katherine, enjoyed the trips, got to know the organization’s members and were enamored by New Orleans.

“So when the job opened and the organization asked if I’d be interested, I said, ‘Yes, I would,’ ‘’ Hoolahan said.

When Hoolahan arrived as the Sugar Bowl’s executive director, it looked like he was getting a pretty good gig. The Sugar Bowl was in the Bowl Alliance and, as luck would have it, would host what stood as the national championship game for the 1996 season between Florida and Florida State.

The Gators won, 52-20, and the payout for the universities was a record $8.7 million.

But when the books were finally put to bed for the 1997 contest, Hoolahan noticed something disturbing. The game didn’t bring in the amount of revenue hoped for.

“It was a surprise for me when I arrived and realized we weren’t in a better financial situation,’’ Hoolahan said. “I guess I didn’t ask those questions in the interview. The national championship game was an opportunity to cash in. But we were in the hole. We had to rethink the whole business model and create new revenue streams, which involved focusing on sponsorships and the like. Managing the costs and expenses. We worked a whole new business model.’’

It was imperative that the Sugar Bowl come up with a new financial plan because college football was moving toward a mandated championship, what would be known as the Bowl Championship Series. With Hoolahan guiding the way, the Sugar Bowl successfully bid to be a part of the rotation and came up with a roadmap to make sure the financial picture would be secure.

“We made it a priority to start putting money away so we had something to bid with as we moved forward,’’ Hoolahan said. “We realized the landscape of college football was going to continue to change and we needed to be at the front end of anything that would come at us.’’

The Sugar Bowl was part of the four bowl BCS during its 15-year run from 1998-2013. The Rose, Orange and Fiesta were the other three.

“It was important that we secure a spot in that rotation, which we were fortunate that we were able to do,” Hoolahan said. “Some of the other bowls didn’t get in the rotation. Basically the concept was to do what we needed to get into the rotation and then figure out what we could do to go forward to pay for it and continue to be in a leadership position as the whole system evolved.

“We really needed to have a long-term plan on how we were going to get to good financial solvency so we could continue to compete at the highest level.”

The Sugar Bowl was able to do that through the run of the BCS and through Katrina’s devastating strike in August of 2005.

Katrina presented the biggest obstacle for Hoolahan during his run as CEO. The 2006 game was moved to Atlanta after Hoolahan and the organization vetted options to keep the game in Louisiana. Baton Rouge and LSU’s Tiger Stadium were considered. But because of the lack of housing for the fans, teams and other support personnel, it was decided to move the game out of state.

“We had our template in place on how to conduct the game,’’ Hoolahan said. “We just had to ply our trade in a different town, different setting. The (Georgia Dome) worked well for us. Then we started looking at all the venues, determining the hotels, the transportation. All the host issues we would have done in New Orleans, we just used the same template and applied it in (Atlanta).

“And the people in Atlanta were very helpful, right up to the mayor. They said, ‘Whatever you need we will assist in whatever way.’ The SEC was crucial for us as well; everybody in the conference office offered us whatever we needed to get the job done. We accomplished a lot in a short period of time. For the most part, the event went over smoothly. The game in Atlanta, it was absolutely paramount that we have success there.’’

Paul Hoolahan and his wife, Katharine.

West Virginia edged Georgia, 38-35, in the 2006 game.

As soon as that contest was in the books, Hoolahan and the organization had to immediately prepare for the 2007 game. Good fortune smiled on the Sugar Bowl in 2006 as the Superdome repairs were made in time to host the game and LSU would meet Notre Dame in the contest.

“The Superdome for the most part looked good but behind the stage there were a lot of glitches,’’ Hoolahan said. “We were fortunate for all apparent purposes we ran a successful event. But it was touch and go all the way.’’

The Sugar Bowl had survived and remained a vital part of the BCS.

But in 2012, hearing the cries from college football enthusiasts, the sport’s leaders decided to jettison the BCS for a four-team playoff, which is now the College Football Playoff.

Once again, Hoolahan and the Sugar Bowl committee navigated the game into a preferred spot. The Sugar Bowl was selected as one of six bowls in the semifinal rotation. Along with the Rose Bowl, the Sugar Bowl hosted the first semifinals Jan. 1, 2015. It also hosted a 2018 semifinal and will do so again in 2021 and ’24.

In seasons in which the game won’t play host to the semifinal, it matches teams from the SEC and Big 12. The Sugar Bowl won a difficult battle against the Cotton Bowl and others for the right to host the game.

“It (the College Football Playoff) was a radical change,” Hoolahan said. “A radical change. It’s an expensive change. It has caused us to be very careful about how we lay out our financial plan. We’re now contracted with the Big 12 and SEC. It’s important that we evaluate our prospects in light of those commitments. To do everything in our power to be financially solvent at the end of the cycle.”

Many on the outside looking in thought New Orleans and the Sugar Bowl would be a natural fit to be in the New Year’s Six rotation. After all, who doesn’t like to come to New Orleans, which is known for hosting major events.

But reputation alone wasn’t enough to secure its place in college football’s new world. Finances were carefully scrutinized. And even though New Orleans doesn’t have the corporate sponsorship wherewithal as cities like Dallas, Atlanta or Miami, Hoolahan and the Sugar Bowl organization were able to sell the city thanks to its secure financial position.

It was also important to have the trust of those who would make the decision to include the Sugar Bowl, Hoolahan said. He said he’s proud to have built that trust during his tenure.

“It was critical to have the conference commissioners’ trust, to get them to believe in you and have confidence in your word, which I think is sacrosanct,’’ Hoolahan said. “We had a personal relationship with these people. Whatever we said they believed in it. As long as we continued to produce, it only reaffirmed their faith in us. That helped us achieve a lot of things maybe at one point that might not have been possible.’’

“Paul has played a crucial role in strengthening the Southeastern Conference’s relationship with the Sugar Bowl during the transitional times of the Bowl Championship Series and College Football Playoff era.,’’ SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said. “We have been fortunate to have his leadership serving at the helm of the Sugar.’’

The annual game is the front porch of the Sugar Bowl. But Hoolahan said he and the organization take great pride in the other events – and philanthropic endeavors – the Sugar Bowl sponsors.

There were about a dozen satellite events put on by the Sugar Bowl when Hoolahan came in 1996. That number has grown to almost 60 now. Included in that number are two major title sponsorships for the organization – the Allstate Sugar Bowl Crescent City Classic, a national-level 10-kilometer road race that welcomes over 20,000 participants each Easter weekend, and the Louisiana High School Athletic Association, for which the Bowl serves as the title sponsor for the state championships in 16 different sports. The LHSAA sponsorship extends the Sugar Bowl’s reach to every corner of the state.

Paul Hoolahan and his family recognized on the field during the 2019 Allstate Sugar Bowl. Photo by Wally Porter.

In addition to the wide array of sporting events, the Allstate Sugar Bowl sponsors the Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame; The Manning Award, given to the nation’s best college quarterback; the local chapter of the National Football Foundation and College Football Hall of Fame, which awards over $60,000 in scholarships annually; and the Eddie Robinson National Collegiate Coach of the Year Award, presented by the Football Writers Association of America.

“We’re making a difference in a positive way, whether it be through scholarship programs or helping the local universities,” Hoolahan said. “Wherever we can provide help, generally speaking, we’re in there doing it. Periodically we’ll take on a more philanthropic job like coming back from Katrina, we spent a significant amount of money helping repair Tad Gormley. And then, which I’m very proud of, is the effort where we were able to work with (former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu), Nike and the Drew Brees Foundation to totally rebuild Joe Brown Park. That was a huge, huge project.

“It’s things like that make you proud that the organization continues to thrive and is the center of a lot of good, positive activity. As I exit, it’s probably the thing in which I’m most proud.’’

[Paul Hoolahan announced his retirement on November 1, 2018, after 23 years at the helm of the Sugar Bowl organization.]

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