The Bear Still Casts a Giant Shadow on the Game
By Marty Mulé
In the 74 games played in Sugar Bowl history, Bear Bryant coached in just nine. When you say it like that, and quickly, the number doesn’t seem so gigantic.
Of course, that is more than any other coach, and his eight victories (an .888 percentage) is by far more than any other coach. Four of the six national championships claimed by his Alabama team were showcased in the Sugar Bowl, and Bryant’s Crimson Tide knocked off two opposing No. 1 teams in New Orleans.
Two of the all-time great games in the history of college football – the 1979 victory over Penn State, immortalized in the famed goal-line stand when the Tide stopped the Nittany Lions inches from the tying touchdown, and the 1973 shootout with Notre Dame, in which the Irish snatched the No. 1 pennant from Bama by a single point – were coached by Bryant in the Sugar Bowl.
Let those figures sink in for a while and the magnitude of Bryant’s Sugar Bowl accomplishments are nothing short of colossal.
The Bear, even today, almost 30 years after his death, casts a giant shadow on the Sugar Bowl, larger than any other person in the game’s history other than Fred Digby and Warren Miller, the founding fathers.
And there’s more. It’s not too far-fetched to say that without Bryant the Sugar Bowl today could have a completely different complexion. He was the linchpin in affecting the tie-up that brings the Southeastern Conference champion to the Sugar Bowl each year.
“Coach Bryant was an extraordinary presence, and the Sugar Bowl was his stage,” said Mickey Holmes, the former executive director of the Sugar Bowl, on the occasion of Bear’s passing in 1983. “He had an impact far beyond that of an ordinary football coach.”
Bryant, of course, was no ordinary coach. In a 38-year career that spanned five decades at Alabama, Texas A&M, Kentucky and Maryland, he coached in an astounding 29 bowls. The Sugar Bowl, obviously, became his favorite. Why was Bear so fond of New Orleans?
The answers could be, at least in part, because of his relationship with Sugar Bowl member Aruns Callery, who became one of Bryant’s closest friends, and perhaps because of his first bowl trip to New Orleans, when he had to beg his way in.
This wasn’t at Alabama, a program that he had annually among the sports’ elite and had bowls salivating for the Tide’s holiday presence. This was at Kentucky, a program with little football tradition at the mid-point of the 20th Century. In 1950, Bryant, in his fourth year at Kentucky, won the school’s first Southeastern Conference championship, clinching in the ninth game with a 48-21 victory at Mississippi State.
The Wildcats were 10-0-0 and ranked second in the nation when they traveled to Knoxville, Tenn. to play Tennessee on Nov. 25. Charlie Zatarain, then the president of the Sugar Bowl, also went to Knoxville and was greeted by 8-degree temperature and four inches of snow.
“It was a miserable day,” Zatarain said. “I went to Knoxville for the purpose of inviting Kentucky, but they lost.”
The 7-0 defeat was doubly painful for Bryant, who had held other bowls off in hope of spending New Year’s in New Orleans.
“I didn’t know where we stood,” Bryant said. “The Orange and Cotton bowls had filled, and I couldn’t blame the Sugar Bowl folks if they didn’t want us after Tennessee whipped us.”
Bryant and Zatarain wound up in a hotel room with Kentucky athletic director Bernie Shively and Southeastern Conference commissioner Bernie Moore. “We had a line open to the Sugar Bowl,” said Zatarain, now deceased. “I told them Kentucky was a great team and that as far as I was concerned, I still wanted them.
“The committee talked it over, then came back to tell me to ask Bryant if he’d play if he got the invite. Bear reached out, took the phone, and said, ‘If you invite me, I’ll beat Oklahoma!’ ”
That was a bold vow. Oklahoma was the national champion – at that time, the champion was declared at the end of the regular season – and was undefeated in 31 consecutive games, then the longest streak in college football history.
“I’m sure that some Sugar Bowl members and some people in the New Orleans sports media were snickering behind Charlie Zatarain’s back for pushing Kentucky,” Holmes said. “It wasn’t a popular choice.”
The stuff of legend is what it turned out to be, the first of the monumental Bryant victories to gain national attention. Bryant tinkered with his defense and came up with a multiple scheme that sometimes featured a nine-man line with three ends and four tackles to slow Oklahoma’s wide option.
Kentucky won 13-7.
“When you think back on that game,” Holmes reflected, “the football world should have seen the budding genius of Bear Bryant.”
There would be more examples. Even the one Sugar Bowl a Bryant-coached team ever lost featured mesmerizing performances by both teams. Notre Dame slipped past the Crimson 24-23 in the 1973 game, a victory not determined until the final minutes after six lead changes. There was also the 14-7 upset of No. 1-ranked Penn State in 1979. When the Nittany Lions found themselves at the doorstep of the end zone in the fourth quarter, Penn State quarterback Chuck Fusina asked Crimson Tide linebacker Marty Lyons how far was the ball placed away from a touchdown. Lyons held his fingers two inches apart, then advised, “You’d better pass.”
Alabama twice held Penn State out, and claimed the national championship for itself.
Still, for all Bryant achieved in the Sugar Bowl, his lasting legacy may well be his role in the SEC-Sugar Bowl marriage – a union that did not favor the Bear in those days when SEC teams, champions or not, could pick and choose where they wanted spend the holidays.
Bryant’s Crimson Tide was at its zenith, and year-in and year-out, he could pick where he wanted to go.
But times were changing.
The Orange Bowl had resumed its affiliation with the Big Eight, and with the Orange likely landing national title contenders Nebraska or Oklahoma almost every year, the Sugar realized how enticing it might become for Bryant to plan trips to Miami instead of New Orleans.
The Sugar began courting Bryant, and although privately some of the coaches supported the idea, none would commit to the tie-in until hearing from Bryant.
At first, Bryant was against the tie-in. He told Callery so. But a few months later, Callery said Bryant called him back and gave the alliance his blessing.
“I have to think of the conference, too,” Callery said Bryant told him.
And thus, postseason football was changed.
“The Sugar Bowl was great bowl before Bear Bryant ever set foot in New Orleans, and its been a great bowl since he left us,” Holmes said. “But there’s no question he helped shape the Sugar Bowl.”
THE BEAR IN THE SUGAR BOWL
1951: No. 7 Kentucky 13, No. 1 Oklahoma 7
1962: No. 1 Alabama 10, No. 9 Arkansas 3
1964: No. 8 Alabama 12, No. 7 Ole Miss 7
1967: No. 3 Alabama 34, No. 8 Nebraska 7
1973: No. 3 Notre Dame 24, No. 1 Alabama 23
1975: No. 4 Alabama 13, No. 10 Penn State 6
1978: No. 3 Alabama 35, No. 9 Ohio State 6
1979: No. 2 Alabama 14, No. 1 Penn State 7
1980: No. 1 Alabama 24, No. 6 Arkansas 9
BRYANT IN ALL BOWLS
Bluebonnet Bowl: 0-0-2
Cotton Bowl: 2-3-0
Gator Bowl: 0-2-0
Great Lakes Bowl: 1-0-0
Liberty Bowl: 2-2-0
Orange Bowl: 2-4-0
Sugar Bowl: 8-1-0
Marty Mulé is an award-winning sportswriter who covered national and Southeastern Conference sports, including the Sugar Bowl, in his 33 years at the New Orleans Times-Picayune. He is now a free-lance writer.