The idea of a New Year’s Day football classic in New Orleans was first presented in 1927 by Colonel James M. Thompson, publisher of the New Orleans Item, and sports editor Fred Digby. Digby continued to push the concept on a yearly basis, convinced that football had a future and New Orleans should be a prominent part of it.
Finally, on January 1, 1935, the inaugural Sugar Bowl Classic kicked off with a proud Digby in attendance. While there was considerable doubt in the potential for the event, the teams in that first game, Tulane and Temple, were both paid nearly double their guarantees.
Since that first Classic, the Sugar Bowl has hosted 87 more games. Over its storied history, 51 Hall of Fame coaches have stalked the sidelines of the Sugar Bowl, while 99 Hall of Fame players and 19 Heisman Trophy winners have shown their skills in the New Orleans event. Throughout history, Sugar Bowl fans have had the opportunity to experience the brilliance of 28 national championship teams as well as seven match-ups between the top two teams in the nation – true national championship games.
The Sugar Bowl has always treasured its rich history, taking great pride in the quality of play the game has presented over the years. In the spring of 2017, a group of Sugar Bowl Committee members formulated a plan to establish an official Sugar Bowl Hall of Fame.
“The Sugar Bowl has had the opportunity to host many of the greatest coaches and players in college football history,” said Stanley Cohn, the President of the Sugar Bowl Committee. “We wanted to have a way to recognize the best-of-the-best in our history – what better way to do that than to create a Hall of Fame?”
Sugar Bowl Hall of Fame: The 1930s and 1940s
The 1930s and 40s were a tumultuous time for the Sugar Bowl, as well as for the United States. However, the success of the inaugural Sugar Bowl in 1935, followed by more memorable games afforded the Sugar Bowl the opportunity to focus on growing its annual Classic.
The Sugar Bowl’s success led directly to significant funding to expand and improve Tulane Stadium, which was a 24,000-seat venue for the 1935 game. It expanded to 40,000 for the 1938 game, then made a jump to over 70,000 seats by 1940. It eventually became the largest stadium in the South with a capacity of over 85,000.
Many legendary players from that era were critical to the Bowl’s success. The six players from the 1930s and 1940s selected for the first two Hall of Fame classes provided star power on the field, but perhaps more importantly, their skills and reputations drew the attention of the nation’s football fans to New Orleans.
Claude “Little Monk” Simons was the star of the inaugural Sugar Bowl Classic in 1935. The Green Wave speedster had what is still considered one of the greatest plays in Sugar Bowl history when he took a lateral and dashed 85 yards to paydirt to jump start a stalled Tulane offense. After his playing career, Simons would go on to a prominent role with the Sugar Bowl Committee from 1949 to 1975, including serving as President for the 1959 and 1960 games.
TCU’s Sammy Baugh came into the 1936 Sugar Bowl known as “Slingin’ Sammy” due to his prowess as a quarterback. On the other side of the field was LSU star Abe Mickal, known as “Miracle Mickal.” Three days of heavy rains leading into New Year’s Day made the 1936 showdown between the Horned Frogs and LSU a mud bowl. The teams combined to complete just four passes as the Horned Frogs held on for a 3-2 victory. Baugh averaged 47 yards on 14 punts and made a pair of touchdown-saving tackles as a defensive back to cement his status as one of the greats of college football. Because of the conditions, both teams were recognized as national champions by the Williamson Poll. Following his collegiate career, Mickal became a well-known doctor until his retirement from practice in 1980. He also served as the vice president of medical affairs for Kenner Regional medical Center from 1985 until his death in 2001. He is a 1967 inductee into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Another TCU passing legend was Heisman Trophy winner Davey O’Brien, who led the Horned Frogs into the 1939 Sugar Bowl against Carnegie Tech. Despite being just 5-7, “Little Davey” was the biggest name in college football, and he proved himself in New Orleans. O’Brien completed 17-of-27 passes for 224 yards in TCU’s victory. For good measure, the star booted a fourth-quarter field goal before effectively ending the contest with a late-game interception to clinch a perfect season and a national title for TCU.
As the country moved into the 1940s and the war years, the Sugar Bowl managed to continue. On January 1, 1944, Georgia Tech defeated Tulsa, 20-18, in the 10th annual Sugar Bowl Classic. One of the Yellow Jacket stars was a young three-sport standout named Frank Broyles who rushed for 70 yards and the Jackets’ first touchdown in their hard-fought victory. However, his impact on the Sugar Bowl would go well beyond that as he is recognized as the man who had the most roles with the Bowl – player, assistant coach, head coach, athletic director, broadcaster and fan (see page 148 for full feature).
Charley Trippi came into the 1947 Sugar Bowl recognized as one of the best players in the country – he had earned the Maxwell Award as the nation’s top player and he was the SEC Player of the Year. While North Carolina’s defense held the superstar in check to an extent, Trippi led the Bulldogs in rushing and passing – including a 67-yard touchdown pass (it would stand as the longest in Sugar Bowl history until 1963) in the third quarter that put the Bulldogs ahead to stay in their 20-10 win. The victory capped Georgia’s first perfect season since 1896 and handed a national championship to the ‘Dawgs. Trippi, who had his collegiate career interrupted by a stint in the U.S. military during World War II, would go on to be inducted into both the College Football and Pro Football Halls of Fame. Still living today in Athens, the 97-year old Trippi is recognized as one of the oldest living American football players.
Bobby Layne was presented the first Miller Trophy (before Fred Digby’s name was added to the trophy) as the Most Outstanding Player in the Sugar Bowl following his performance in the 1948 game for the Texas Longhorns. He passed for 183 yards and a touchdown while running for 51 yards and another score in a 27-7 win over Alabama. He would go on to a 15-year NFL career and is a member of both the College Football Hall of Fame (1968) and the Pro Football Hall of Fame (1967).
Sugar Bowl Hall of Fame: The 1950s and 1960s
The Sugar Bowl saw continued success in the 1950s and 1960s, including a handful of dynasties becoming part of the Classic’s history. Bud Wilkinson’s powerhouse Oklahoma teams visited New Orleans multiple times in the early 1950s; there were three appearances by Bobby Dodd’s Georgia Tech squads; Alabama began its rise under Bear Bryant; and Johnny Vaught’s talented Ole Miss squads made seven Sugar Bowl appearances. Eighteen of the 20 Sugar Bowls during these decades welcomed over 70,000 fans, including 13 Classics with over 80,000 fans.
During these years, the bowl also established itself as a groundbreaker in the television industry as the 1953 game was the first live television program in New Orleans history and the 1960 game was the first bowl televised coast-to-coast in color.
Great performances continued on the field as well with 29 future College Football Hall-of-Famers showing their prowess in New Orleans. Seven legends from this era are among the first two classes of inductees into the Sugar Bowl Hall of Fame.
Darrell Royal is recognized as one of the greatest college football coaches in history. The head coach of the University of Texas from 1957-76, he directed the Longhorns to 167 wins, including three national championships and 11 Southwest Conference titles. Royal, who was a star player at Oklahoma and played in the 1949 and 1950 Sugar Bowls (throwing for a touchdown in one game and running for one in the another), wasted little time turning around a Longhorns program which had just one victory in 1956. In his first year at the helm of the program, he directed Texas to the Sugar Bowl.
Franklin “Pepper” Rodgers debuted in the Sugar Bowl in 1953 as he threw a touchdown pass, kicked a field goal and knocked home three point-after kicks in Georgia Tech’s 24-7 victory over Ole Miss. He outdid himself the following year, however, passing for 195 yards and three touchdowns while kicking another field goal and two more extra-points to lead the Yellow Jackets to a bowl record 42 points in a lopsided victory over West Virginia.
Bobby Grier made history as the first African-American to play in the Sugar Bowl Classic in 1956, the 22nd edition of the game. The star running back ran for a game-high 51 yards in a 7-0 loss to Georgia Tech. His participation in the Sugar Bowl, as well as the support he received from a range of groups, including the Sugar Bowl Committee, is considered a landmark in American race relations. Following his football career, he served in the Air Force for 11 years and then worked in education until his retirement.
In the 1957 Sugar Bowl, Heisman Trophy runner-up Johnny Majors led the Tennessee Volunteers against Baylor. Majors was bottled up by the tenacious Bears, but he still managed 51 rushing yards and a key touchdown in a 13-7 loss. Those less-than-fond memories of New Orleans were likely tempered by Majors’ return trips as a head coach. In 1977, his Pitt squad capped a national championship season with a 27-3 win over Georgia and he added two more victories as the Tennessee coach in 1986 over Miami and in 1991 over Virginia.
On the opposite side of the field from Majors in the 1957 Sugar Bowl was Baylor legend Del Shofner who ran 14 times for 88 yards as the Bears shocked the second-ranked Volunteers. His 54-yard run in the second quarter set up the Bears’ first touchdown and he added four tackles and intercepted a pass in his own end zone to thwart a Vol scoring opportunity; he also punted seven times for 228 yards. A native of Center, Texas, he also played basketball and baseball and was a sprinter for the Bears. Following his Baylor career, he was selected in the first round of the 1957 NFL Draft and went on to an 11-year NFL career with the Rams and Giants. He was a five-time consensus All-Pro and led the league in receiving yards in 1958 (second in 1959 and 1961). He was selected to the NFL’s All-Decade Team for the 1960s and was inducted into the Baylor Athletics Hall of Fame in 1970.
Legendary Ole Miss coach Johnny Vaught was at the helm of the Rebels for 25 years, posting a 190-61-12 record. He directed Ole Miss to six SEC titles and was named the SEC Coach of the Year six times. He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1979. Vaught directed the Rebels to eight Sugar Bowls from 1953-70, recording five victories. His 14-6 victory over Rice in 1961 capped a 10-0-1 season after which they were crowned as national champions and the Rebels’ 17-13 defeat of Arkansas in the 1963 Sugar Bowl capped a perfect 9-0 campaign. He also added a 38-7 blowout of Texas in the 1958 Sugar Bowl, a 21-0 shutout of LSU in the 1960 Sugar Bowl and a 27-22 win over No. 3 Arkansas in the 1970 Sugar Bowl.
Arguably the greatest all-around performance in Sugar Bowl history was turned in by Raymond Brown in the 1958 Sugar Bowl. Ole Miss had lost in its first two Sugar Bowl appearances, but Brown ensured that wouldn’t happen again. The senior rushed for an early touchdown, passed for a second-quarter score and recorded a Sugar Bowl-record three interceptions on defense. However, his most memorable moment came as the clock wound down. Dropping back to punt from deep in his own end zone, Brown found himself under heavy pressure; he bolted to the right and then steamed down the sideline 103 yards for a touchdown – the play was officially 92 yards, still the longest in Sugar Bowl history.
Steve Spurrier is arguably the most successful player/coach in Sugar Bowl history. He was the only player from a losing team to earn Most Outstanding Player recognition after leading Florida’s miraculous fourth-quarter comeback that came up just short in a 20-18 loss to Missouri. As a coach, he led five Gator teams to the Sugar Bowl, earning wins in 1994 and 1997. The 1997 victory over No. 1 Florida State catapulted the Gators to the national championship. Spurrier was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame as a player in 1986 and as a coach in 2017.
The final two Hall of Famers from this era bridged the gap into the 1970s. Arkansas receiver Chuck Dicus had one of the greatest receiving days in Sugar Bowl history when he caught 12 passes for 169 yards and a touchdown in a 16-2 win over Georgia in the 1969 game. One year later, on January 1, 1970, Dicus proved 1969 was no fluke as he caught six passes for 171 yards, including a 47-yard touchdown. While his Razorbacks lost that day to Ole Miss, his two-game totals of 19 receptions and 340 receiving yards are both tops among individuals in Sugar Bowl history.
The man delivering the pinpoint passes to Dicus was Bill Montgomery, who held virtually every Razorback record upon graduation, including career touchdown passes, career passing yards, single-season passing yards, single-game passing yards, career completion percentage and career total offense. The Razorbacks posted a 28-5 record with Montgomery under center, the best three-year stretch in school history. In the 1969 Sugar Bowl, he passed for 185 yards and a touchdown in the win over Georgia. Then in the 1970 game, he posted a memorable individual performance with 338 passing yards (second most in Sugar Bowl history at the time) and two touchdowns, but couldn’t overcome a legendary performance from Ole Miss quarterback Archie Manning.
Sugar Bowl Hall of Fame: The 1970s
The 1970s for the Sugar Bowl featured a variety of memorable highlights. The Bowl played four New Year’s Eve games during the decade, including one of the greatest college football games ever played – on December 31, 1973, as No. 3 Notre Dame defeated No. 1 Alabama, 24-23, when Tom Clements completed an unexpected pass from his own end zone to a receiver who hadn’t caught a pass all season. That game was watched in person by a Bowl-record 85,161 fans, and it earned the Sugar’s best-ever TV rating of 25.3. The Sugar Bowl also had its first night game in 1972 and, in 1977, it locked down an official partnership with the SEC to participate in the game on an annual basis. In addition, the fabulous Louisiana Superdome became the home of the Bowl starting with the 1975 game.
The Sugar Bowl greats of the 1970s are represented by four legends of football – a quarterback, a coach and two running backs – in the its Hall of Fame.
The decade kicked off with a memorable performance by Ole Miss and its swash-buckling quarterback Archie Manning, who passed for 273 yards and a touchdown while also running for another score in a 27-22 victory over Arkansas. Manning would return to the Crescent City in 1971 after being drafted by the New Orleans Saints and would become one of the most beloved athletes in the city’s history. He was elected to the Sugar Bowl Committee in 1986 and remains a vital part of the organization today.
Tinker Owens came into the Oklahoma program playing in the shadow of his Heisman Trophy-winning brother, Steve Owens. However, Owens established himself as a star in his own right in the 1972 Sugar Bowl. Making just his third career start, he caught five of the Sooners’ six total completions for 132 yards, including one reception going for a touchdown and another setting up a score as he became the first freshman to win the Miller-Digby Award as the Most Outstanding Player in the Sugar Bowl. Due to his 5-11, 168-lb. size, many opponents underestimated the two-time All-American’s ability and he made them pay, catching 62 passes during his career for 1,424 yards, placing him fourth on the all-time reception yardage list. He was selected in the fourth round of the 1976 NFL Draft and played four seasons with the New Orleans Saints.
Another superstar came to New Orleans following the 1976 season when Heisman Trophy winner Tony Dorsett led his Pitt Panthers into the Sugar Bowl. Dorsett was solid in the first-half, scoring his lone touchdown of the game on an 11-yard dash, but it was the second half where he made his mark as he carried the ball 15 times for 130 yards and finished with a Sugar Bowl-record 202 rushing yards in a 27-3 win over Georgia.
Alabama, the team with the most Sugar Bowl appearances, has had many stars in the Sugar Bowl, but only one has the distinction of scoring touchdowns in three different Sugar Bowls. Major Ogilvie keyed three straight wins for the Crimson Tide in 1978, 1979 and 1980. In addition to scoring in all three, he was named the Most Outstanding Player of the 1980 game when ’Bama wrapped up another national championship.
The legendary coach from the Sugar Bowl’s 1970s archives established himself as a Sugar Bowl legend long before the 1970s. Paul “Bear” Bryant directed nine different teams to the Sugar Bowl. His first appearance was in the 1951 game where his heavy underdog Kentucky Wildcats shocked top-ranked Oklahoma. After taking over at Alabama, he led the Crimson Tide to eight Sugar Bowl appearances. His 1962 team capped a national championship season in the Sugar Bowl and his string of Sugar Bowl games ended with three straight appearances in 1978, 1979 and 1980. All three of those games resulted in wins over fellow College Football Hall of Fame coaches. His last two appearances (1979, 1980) were both national championships for the Crimson Tide.
Sugar Bowl Hall of Fame: The 1980s and 1990s
Mary Frances Digby remembered her husband Fred coming home the night of January 1, 1935, in a quiet, contemplative mood. “He was very happy,” she recalled with a smile. “After a while, he just looked up and said it has been a dream come true.”
Digby’s dream was for a college football bowl game in New Orleans. With the successful staging of that first Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day in 1935, Digby knew that his venture might possibly have legs. Who knows, maybe it would even become a part of the very fabric of New Orleans.
Despite his grand aspirations, it’s unlikely even Digby could have imagined what his brainchild would become by the 1980s. All 10 Sugar Bowls in the 1980s had sellout crowds of over 75,000 fans. The games were all televised coast-to-coast on color television. National champions were being crowned right in New Orleans – three alone in the 1980s. While Tulane and Temple each pocketed $27,800 following the inaugural Sugar Bowl – twice as much as they had been guaranteed – Florida State and Auburn were each paid $6 million for their 1989 Sugar Bowl showdown. Oh, did we mention the Sugar Bowl, which had started in 24,000-seat Tulane Stadium is now played in a 70,000-seat dome – one of the architectural wonders of the world upon its completion.
Much had changed since the 1930s, but one thing remained the same for the Sugar Bowl – it continued to offer its fans an exceptional football classic each New Year’s Day.
The 1980s and 90s featured eight legends for the first two Sugar Bowl Hall of Fame classes.
Vince Dooley directed five Georgia teams to the Sugar Bowl, including as stretch of three straight games in 1981, 1982 and 1983. His 1981 team, featuring freshman Herschel Walker, defeated Notre Dame in a 17-10 thriller to cap an undefeated national championship season for the Bulldogs. Dooley, who was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1984, was the Georgia head coach from 1964 to 1988 and served as the school’s athletic director from 1979 to 2004.
Herschel Walker played in three straight Sugar Bowls (1980, 1981, 1982) for the Georgia Bulldogs, scoring touchdowns in all three. His team’s 17-10 victory over Notre Dame in the 1980 game capped an “unbeaten, untied and unbelievable” national championship season. Walker ran 36 times for 150 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the win – his huge running numbers came despite the ‘Dawgs completing just one pass all day and despite Walker dislocating his shoulder on the first play of the game. Georgia may have lost Walker’s other two Sugar Bowls (by a total of eight points), but the running back’s legend only grew as he added 187 more rushing yards and three more TDs.
While Herschel Walker earned Most Outstanding Player honors when Georgia capped its national championship season in the 1981 Sugar Bowl, Scott Woerner may have been just as deserving. The senior cornerback tallied three tackles, three pass break-ups and a pair of interceptions in Georgia’s 17-10 win over Notre Dame. His first interception came in end zone and he also broke up a third-down pass in the end zone, but no play was bigger than his pickoff of a Notre Dame pass with 2:56 to go to clinch the victory. Head coach Vince Dooley said, “His secondary play in the Sugar Bowl was one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen.” The consensus All-American was inducted into College Football Hall of Fame in 2016.
Playing the foil to Walker in the 1982 Sugar Bowl was Pitt quarterback Dan Marino. Marino completed 26-of-41 passes for 261 yards and three touchdowns, but no pass was more critical than his final one. Trailing 20-17 with 42 seconds to go, Marino faced a do-or-die fourth and five at the Georgia 33. He delivered a near-perfect pass to John Brown for the game-winning score.
Todd Blackledge keyed Penn State’s first national championship with a Most Outstanding Player performance in the 1983 Sugar Bowl. The junior quarterback threw for 228 yards and a critical 47-yard TD strike early in the fourth quarter to clinch the victory over Georgia. He has added to his Sugar Bowl legacy by serving as the television analyst for six Sugar Bowl broadcasts on ABC (December 1995) and ESPN (2011, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2018). The 1982 winner of the Davey O’Brien Award as the top collegiate quarterback in the nation, Blackledge played seven years in the NFL before beginning his broadcasting career.
For the Golden Anniversary of the Sugar Bowl Classic in 1984, the committee had the opportunity to invite Auburn and its once-in-a-lifetime athlete Bo Jackson. While Michigan managed to hold Jackson out of the end zone, he still finished with 130 yards on 22 carries as the Tigers escaped with a 9-7 victory. The legend of Bo also gained another chapter in New Orleans as it is said that the young football star tossed a football off the Superdome’s ceiling replay screen (over 200 feet up) during an Auburn practice session.
Deion Sanders registered one of the top defensive plays in Sugar Bowl history during the 1989 game. With Florida State holding onto a 13-7 lead over Auburn, the Tigers drove the ball to the FSU 22 with 12 seconds remaining. However, Sanders dashed in front of the Auburn receiver on the potential game-winning pass and snagged the interception to preserve the victory. That memorable play continued to build his reputation as “Primetime,” a nickname which remained appropriate for him through his 17-year NFL career. He also played Major League Baseball for nine seasons. He has been inducted into both the College Football and Pro Football Halls of Fame.
Jerome Bettis turned in a legendary performance in the 1992 Sugar Bowl. Florida jumped out to a 16-7 halftime advantage and still led 22-17 late in the fourth-quarter. However, Notre Dame fed the ball to “The Bus” who broke loose for touchdown runs of 3, 49 and 39 yards in a 2:44 stretch to lift the Fighting Irish to a 39-28 victory. Bettis, who earned the Miller-Digby Award as the game’s Most Outstanding Player, went on to a 13-year NFL career. A member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he ranks seventh all-time in rushing in NFL history.
After many years of searching for a suitable replacement as its head coach, Alabama hired Gene Stallings in 1990. An assistant coach for the Crimson Tide’s Sugar Bowl trips in 1962 and 1964, Stallings directed Alabama to its first national championship in 13 years as his Crimson Tide shocked No. 1 Miami with a 34-13 blowout in the 1993 Sugar Bowl.
A native of Baton Rouge, Warrick Dunn rushed for over 1,000 yards for three straight seasons at Florida State. Following his sophomore season, he ran for a game-high 58 yards, caught nine passes for 51 yards and threw a 73-yard touchdown pass on a halfback option to lead the Seminoles to a 23-17 win over archrival Florida in the 1995 Sugar Bowl. He was back in the Sugar Bowl two years later, scoring on a rushing TD, but his Seminoles fell to Florida State. He went on to be drafted No. 12 overall into the NFL and enjoyed a 12-year professional career, earning three Pro Bowl selections. Dunn is also celebrated for his many contributions to the community – he was presented with the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in 2005 and received a Giant Steps Award in civic achievement from former President Bill Clinton.
The most recent “alum” in the Sugar Bowl’s Hall of Fame is Steve Slaton. Slaton would finish his freshman campaign with 1,128 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns in just eight games, capped by a now-legendary performance in the 2006 Sugar Bowl. That Sugar Bowl was the only one in 85 years played outside Louisiana as Hurricane Katrina forced the game to be played in Atlanta. Slaton set the Sugar Bowl record with 204 rushing yards on 26 carries while scoring three touchdowns (two on 52-yard runs) in a thrilling 38-35 win over Georgia.
While these 33 football legends have been selected in the first three classes of the Sugar Bowl Hall of Fame, they are but a sampling of the many greats that have entertained hundreds of thousands of fans in New Orleans (and millions around the world on radio and television) while competing in the Sugar Bowl Classic. So, stay tuned for the honoring of more Sugar Bowl greats in the years to come.