The House the Sugar Bowl Built – The Gateway to Big-Time Football in New Orleans
[This story is part four of a series of stories highlighting the Allstate Sugar Bowl’s impact on the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana.]
Part 1: Sweet Economics – Sugar Bowl Dollars Make Sense for New Orleans and Louisiana
Part 2: More Than Football – The Allstate Sugar Bowl is Far More Than Just a Premier College Football Game
Part 3: The Revitalization of Joe Brown Park
Part 4: The House the Sugar Bowl Built – The Gateway to Big-Time Football in New Orleans
The House the Sugar Bowl Built – The Gateway to Big-Time Football in New OrleansRobert Samuel Kerr, the governor of Oklahoma, strolled into Sugar Bowl headquarters a couple days before New Year’s Day of 1946.
Football fever was at a fever pitch as Oklahoma A&M and St. Mary’s were set to play in the New Orleans Classic, a game in which a crowd of 75,000 shoe-horned into Tulane Stadium, though the crowd swelled by 5,000 more than the imposing facility could accommodate, at least officially.
Tickets were obviously scarce for those who wanted them, even for those who believed they had the clout to demand them.
Kerr spotted Sugar Bowl President Sam Corenswet and other bowl committeemen, walked over, and said, “Gentleman, I’m a man of few words. I want tickets.” Corenswet replied, “We’re men of few words, too governor. We haven’t got any.”
The incident before the ’46 games was emblematic of the phenomenal growth of the Sugar Bowl, that game being just the 12th in the Sugar’s history, which started with full houses of less than half the ’46 gathering.
That game was a landmark example of how football-starved New Orleans really was, and how area fans would flock to high-quality college games.
The Sugar Bowl provided those sporting outlets.
More than three-quarters of a century after its birth, the Sugar Bowl’s influence continues to color the New Orleans sports scene, and by far more than just the obvious annual showcase game.
Think about it this way: Without the Sugar Bowl there almost certainly would never have been professional football in the Crescent City. In fact, without the Sugar Bowl, any semblance of college football may have withered away in New Orleans long ago.
This is the point: Without Tulane Stadium, built largely by the Sugar Bowl, Tulane University, the only school of higher education playing the sport in New Orleans, and the city may have been out of major college football decades ago. It was the home of the Green Wave for 49 years, but Tulane had just a small facility when the Sugar Bowl was born, and, in stages, the Sugar built that stadium to in excess of 80,000.
And without that same 82,000-seat Tulane Stadium, the National Football League would never have anchored in New Orleans, where a suitable place was needed to house a team in the eight years between the arrival of the Saints and the completion of the Louisiana Superdome.
In many ways, that old stadium, the largest constructed of steel in the world, is still as symbolic of the New Orleans sports scene as it was in the Great Depression, though now it is just an unnoteworthy practice field, ringed by bleachers on one side, sitting empty behind the Tulane athletic complex, less than five miles from the Superdome, where tonight the eyes of the sporting world are fixed.
It was a long journey from there to here.
Tulane football was played in a variety of fields in its earliest days. Sportsman’s Park, Heinemann Park (later known as Pelican Stadium), and then on its own original gridiron on Freret Street.
When Clark Shaughnessy was hired as the head coach at Tulane in 1915, he began a drive to get a new stadium built for the Green Wave. Through a variety of creative fund-raising methods, a new concrete stadium was dedicated on Oct. 27, 1917.
The new facilities helped to generate increased success for the Green Wave and in less than a decade, they had outgrown the new stadium. After the 1924 victory in LSU’s new Tiger Stadium, and after the Green Wave’s stunning 1925 season in which it went 9-0-1, including a notable upset at Northwestern, Tulane rode an almost hysterical football crest to gather the necessary $300,000 in funds for a new, bigger football arena.
That was the foundation of what New Orleans would know as “Tulane Stadium” for the next almost half-century.
The 24,000-seat amphitheater was finished in time for the Oct. 23, 1926 game with Auburn, won by the Plainsmen, 2-0, in front of 15,000 fans. It was a huge crowd by the Tulane standards of the time.
Still, that stadium, ringed with additional temporary seats, was just perfect when the first Sugar Bowl, between Temple and Tulane, was played there on Jan. 1, 1935 before an overflow crowd. Each school got a check of $27,800, almost double the guarantee.
The next year Texas Christian and LSU drew 33,000 for a game that could have had a gate of 45,000. As it was, it was the largest crowd ever to witness a sports event in Louisiana.
It was plain that football interest had exceeded expectations. After the Tulane-Temple game, Times-Picayune sports editor Bill Keefe saw the need to add 5,000 seats. After the TCU-LSU game, Fred Digby, the New Orleans Item sports editor whose mind conceived the idea of the Sugar Bowl and who worked tirelessly for a decade before it came to fruition, thought even bigger – Digby envisioned a 60,000-seat stadium.
Before the 1937 game, 5,000 temporary seats had to be installed in Tulane Stadium, which brought capacity to 41,000. It still wasn’t enough.
Sugar Bowl officials approached Tulane authorities in 1938 with a deal. Tulane’s north end zone wooden seats would be taken out and a steel stand would be erected, pushing the stadium’s permanent capacity to 37,000. With temporary seating, a crowd of several thousand more could be accommodated.
Tulane University loved the idea, but there was one slight hitch: The Sugar Bowl didn’t have the estimated $180,000 for the project. A deal was made with Tulane to loan the money to the Sugar Bowl for the renovations. Albert Wachenheim Jr., a Sugar Bowl executive board member, recalled, “We had to persuade Tulane that it was to their benefit, too.”
Tulane agreed to loan a total of $164,768.84 and notes that consisted of a $20,000 payment for each of the following eight years, plus five percent interest. Tulane beared the responsibility of stadium upkeep and the Sugar Bowl continued its rent-free status.
After the ’38 Santa-Clara-LSU game, which drew 39,000, Digby, in a front-page column in the New Orleans Item, again stoked the notion of a 60,000-seat stadium, suggesting the issuance of debenture bonds to cover the $200,000 project.
Favorable reaction came from near and far, including an endorsement from former World War I flying ace Colonel Eddie Rickenbacker, then-president of Eastern Airlines, Louisiana Governor Richard Leche wrote Digby an eight-page letter and promised that the state would take $3,000 of the issuance. Mike O’Leary, manager of the historic old St. Charles Hotel, spoke for many when he declared: “Let us strike while the iron is hot.”
After weeks of studying sketches, the Sugar Bowl membership, with Tulane’s approval, decided to build the capacity to 70,000 backed by $550,000 in debentures, which were to be paid off at the rates of $25,000 a year.
Each purchaser of a $100 bond would be given the option of buying two choice Sugar Bowl tickets prior to public distribution, and two percent interest would be paid after five years. It doesn’t sound like much now, but 40 days after the drive began on March 7, 1939, the goal was reached.
The contract was awarded to Doullut & Ewing, Inc., and the firm itself purchased $40,000 in debentures to guard against any contingencies that could possibly arise, “We’ll have that stadium ready for Jan. 1, 1940,” said Jim Ewing to the Sugar Bowl when the company got the contract. “It will be a close fit, but we won’t let you down.”
The fit was even closer than Ewing thought. Originally it was thought the enlargement would be concrete, but the cost would have exceeded the $550,000. So the addition to the bowl and the double-decking of the side stands were made of steel. The war in Europe threatened to skyrocket expenses in steel, and it became mandatory that the metal needed for the stadium be obtained without delay. This could be done only with a cash outlay above the partial payment already made. It was June before the first piling was driven. Working constantly, except on Saturdays when Tulane played home games, using steel from the Virginia Bridge Company of Birmingham, the contractors met the deadline between the end of Tulane’s season and prior to Jan. 1, 1940. Tulane Stadium was now a complete bowl and the largest stadium in the South.
The expanded stadium wasn’t enough, even for one year. A record Southern crowd of 73,000 poured into the gates for top-ranked Texas A&M and Tulane. Even Arch Underwood, a director of the Cotton Bowl, was in attendance.
“I think the Sugar Bowl I remember best was the first time I sat in the press box high above the west stands and looked across at the double-deck packed with people, the Tulane-Texas A&M game….It looked like a beautiful painting hanging from the heavens.”
It still wasn’t enough to satiate fan interest. In early 1947 President Sam Corenswet appointed a committee to look into the feasibility of further expansion. Chairman Joseph David presented a plan to extend and double-deck the north end zone, which would add 12,241 seats and make Tulane a complete bowl.
The 1949 match between national champion Oklahoma and North Carolina was the first played in the expanded seat stadium, which now was a gigantic 82,000 seats. Even with that space, even for those with pull and clout, tickets still weren’t always easy to come by – at least for one game a year.
That old never-to-be-forgotten structure on Willow Street is a permanent part of the football presence in this old town. Come to think of it, there might never have been any significant football presence here without it.
Story by Sugar Bowl historian Marty Mulé, an award-winning sportswriter who covered college football and the Sugar Bowl for the New Orleans Times-Picayune for 33 years.