Ole Miss return to Sugar Bowl has rich backstoryby Will Peneguy for SportsNola.com, December 19, 2015. Reprinted by permission.

It is likely Willie Nelson did not have football in mind when he acquainted us with the lyric “Old friends Lord when all my work is done bless my life and grant me one.”

One returns to New Orleans this New Year’s Day night when Ole Miss plays Oklahoma State in the 82nd annual Allstate Sugar Bowl.

And, Ole Miss not only returns with a rich Sugar Bowl tradition, but also a list of sub plots that included:

At least one Cadillac being swapped for one of the hottest tickets in college football history;

Prisoners enabling one game after a rare New Orleans’ snowfall;

A key figure emerging in the evolution of modern college football.

Ole Miss football is an uncommonly good friend with the Sugar Bowl. It has been 46 years since the University of Mississippi played in the Sugar Bowl, but, at one time, a visit from our Oxford neighbors was a special holiday reunion, a visit from a good-natured, fun-loving, not-so-distant friend.

Although Mississippi’s last appearance was a 27-23 Archie Manning-led victory over No.3 ranked Arkansas on New Year’s Day, 1970, Rebel fans would have been wise to invest in time shares in the French Quarter had they been available in the 50s and 60s.

Seven of Ole Miss’ first 12 bowl appearances were spent in New Orleans. From 1958 through 1964, the Rebels played in five Sugar Bowls spanning seven seasons. This frequency has to be measured in the context that only nine bowl games were played nationwide after the 1959 season. Today, there is an embarrassing over abundance: 41 games.

“Back then there were only four major bowls,” said Henry Bodenheimer, a Sugar Bowl member since 1961 and president in 1982-83. “We were always right down the road from them.”

Bodenheimer added this visit, “Is good for them and good for us.”

The quick sellout will mark Ole Miss’ first Sugar Bowl in the Mercedes Benz Superdome. Each of the prior games was played in Tulane Sugar Bowl Stadium.

“For us, that was the No.1 bowl game,” said Mike Dennis, a Rebel running back who caught the opening kickoff in the 1964 game against No. 8-ranked Alabama. “Going to the Sugar Bowl . . . was always a special thing.”

Jake Gibbs (right) was a quarterback for the Rebels in the 1960 game, a monumental rematch between the No.2-ranked Rebels and No. 3-ranked LSU, a game of such significance that it became the first bowl to be telecast in color from coast-to-coast.

Gibbs not only played for Ole Miss in two Sugar Bowls, but he was an Ole Miss assistant football coach in 1969 working with, among others, Heisman Trophy finalist Archie Manning.

Gibbs, who was a catcher for the New York Yankees, used the baseball off season to return to Oxford and tutor quarterbacks for legendary Rebel Head Coach John Vaught.

“We won both games I played in,” Gibbs said. “That’s still a fond memory of mine. It was always special (to play in the Sugar Bowl).”

Special, the 77-year-old Gibbs said because of Vaught, who was the head coach at Mississippi from 1947 to 1970 and 1973.

“You know, Coach Vaught really loved to go down there,” Gibbs explained. “Coach Vaught put us on the map and he really loved going down to play in that game. He knew if we played in New Orleans a lot of our fans didn’t have to travel a whole lot of distance to get there . . . Of course, Ole Miss people love to go to New Orleans anytime.

“It’s kind of hard for me to believe we haven’t been back there for 46 years.”

The 1960 game was a reprise from the Halloween night match between the Rebels and LSU won by Billy Cannon’s stirring 89-yard punt return. The teams were ranked first and second nationally in the AP Poll at the time of the first meeting.

Sugar Bowl tickets became a valuable commodity.

In his book “Sugar Bowl Classic: A History”, former Times-Picayune college football writer and Sugar Bowl historian Marty Mulé wrote: “Four tickets went for a 14-foot fiberglass boat; 60 tickets went for a 1952 Cadillac and 4 new tires. The sizzle of the rematch had fans steaming. It was estimated the Sugar Bowl had over a quarter of a million requests for tickets.”

Ole Miss won, 21-0, the shutout not surprising. Ole Miss’ defense allowed only 21 points the entire season and the two teams were ranked first and second nationally in total defense.

It was a 43-yard Gibbs’ touchdown pass seconds before the first half ended that enabled Ole Miss to gain the advantage.

Gibbs rolled to his left pulled up behind his tackle, looking for future NFL first round draft pick Bobby Crespino down the left sideline. He was covered.

“If I remember there were only about 30 seconds before halftime,” Gibbs explained. “It was a sprint out pass . . . When I pulled up, I saw the middle open up and (wingback) Cowboy (Woodruff) was wide open.

“When I threw it, I thought I had over shot him. I thought it was too damn high.”

Woodruff caught up to the throw and scored, giving Ole Miss a significant swing in momentum.

Gibbs didn’t collect a Cadillac or any new tires for his tickets, but he did pick up some extra spending cash. Gibbs remembers tickets for an Ole Miss football game cost “about $7” in 1959.

He recalls getting six Sugar Bowl tickets free and having an option “to buy ten, I think.

“I had a guy in Grenada, my home town, that bought ten of ‘em,” Gibbs said. He laughed and added, “He gave me a little more than face value for them. That Sugar Bowl was a good deal.” Transactions of this nature were not against rules then.

Gibbs returned in 1970 with the team as a coach of the Rebel quarterbacks. Manning, the future New Orleans Saint, New Orleans resident, and member of the Sugar Bowl committee, was the starter.

“Not only were we living here and were raising our family here, but (his wife) Olivia and I always hoped Ole Miss would come back to the Sugar Bowl,” Manning said the other day.

Manning (left) remembers the 1969 season and Sugar Bowl win over Arkansas vividly.

“I always told my kids (including NFL All-Pro quarterbacks Peyton and Eli) that you live to play in big games,” Archie said. “We certainly played in more big games than any other time in my college days.”

After a disappointing start, the 7-3 Rebels regrouped and defeated No. 3 ranked Tennessee (38-0) and No. 6 ranked Georgia (26-23) to earn a bid.

One of the earlier games the Rebels lost was one that many consider among the biggest in college football. It was the first scheduled nationally televised game. Alabama won, 33-32, but Manning’s 540 yards passing and running and five touchdowns left an indelible mark on the game.

“If you want to know when the modern history of the sport began, go back (to 1969) … A genius named Roone Arledge had the idea to show Alabama play Mississippi, and the game turned out to be one of the greatest in the history of the Southeastern Conference,” ESPN’s Ivan Maisel wrote.

“That game put me on the map, so to speak,” Manning said. “That could very well be my best year ever in football.

Manning was equally memorable in the 27-23 Sugar Bowl victory over No 3 ranked Arkansas. Manning personally accounted for 312 yards in a game that produced a Sugar Bowl record 954 yards.

The 1964 Sugar Bowl between Ole Miss and Alabama is not remembered for yards and points, but snow, 4.5 inches of it (right) only one of 17 lasting cover snow events in New Orleans in the 156 years The National Weather Service has kept records (1849).

Dennis, the last two-time All-SEC running back at Ole Miss until Deuce McAllister, had never played against Alabama before that 12-7 loss.

Seeing snow on New Year’s Eve was ” a shocker… I didn’t think New Orleans ever got snow,” said Dennis. “They got the field clean, but I remember getting hit near the sideline and driven into a pile of snow and snow got all up in my helmet and in my ear.”

Alabama’s Tim Davis kicked four field goals, including career long 46 and 48 yarders to win the game in an era when field goals were still rare. He credited the “off day” from practice on New Year’s eve with giving him “more zip in my kicks for the game”.

Mule’ recounts how “A crew of 25 workers from the police department’s House of Detention worked with Tulane Stadium Superintendent Nolan Chaix until midnight clearing the tarpaulin and the seats. The crew was brought back at 5 a.m. ‘It looked pretty hopeless,” said Chaix. ‘We just weren’t prepared to cope with anything like we got. The snow was still coming down when we started about 3 p.m. (New Year’s Eve), but we had to go to work.”

Dennis, now 71, will be in town for the game against Oklahoma State, hopefully without snow in his face

“Oh yeah, the entire Rebel nation is excited about this,” he said. “For us, the Sugar Bowl is the No.1 bowl game.”

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