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NOLA History: AllState Sugar Bowl

The Sugar Bowl has been a New Orleans New Year’s tradition since 1935, and is now a full-scale annual event known as the AllState Sugar Bowl.

New Year’s is an important celebration in New Orleans for several reasons. It’s the Seventh Day of Christmas, which means Carnival season is not far away, and of course, we get to ring in the New Year. Most importantly, some of the best college football in the country comes to town, for the annual Sugar Bowl game. The first game was played in 1902, as part of the Tournament of Roses festivities in Pasadena. The Rose Bowl became an annual event in 1916. By the mid-1920s, other cities began planning to jump on the Pasadena bandwagon. In 1935, Miami, El Paso, and New Orleans joined Pasadena, holding the Orange, Sun, and Sugar Bowls (respectively) on New Year’s Day. The first Sugar Bowl game, which was held in Tulane Stadium, was between Tulane and Temple Universities. Tulane won, 20-14.

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Tulane Stadium, home of the Sugar Bowl, 1936-1974. Aerial view of a Sugar Bowl game from the 1940s (Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

The notion of playing a bowl game in New Orleans on New Year’s Day began in 1927, by Colonel James M. Thomson, who was the publisher of the New Orleans Item. Thomson, along with his sports editor, Fred Digby, regularly promoted the idea, and in 1934, a group of businessmen formed the Mid-Winter Sports Association which was tasked with organizing such a game. Thomson chose Sugar for New Orleans’ bowl because of some very specific connections between New Orleans and sugar. Tulane University was built on the site of the old Foucher Plantation. Paul Foucher’s father in law, Etienne de Bore’, successfully granulated sugar on the plantation. The city had been the commercial focal point for the sugar industry since that time. The game is currently sponsored by Allstate Insurance, making its official name the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

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Texas A&M Band performing at the 1940 Sugar Bowl. The Aggies defeated Tulane, 14-13. (Photo courtesy Texas A&M Library)

The logical location for such a game was Tulane Stadium. The stadium, which was built in 1926, originally seated 35,000 people. After the success of the 1935 and 1936 Sugar Bowls (TCU defeated LSU in 1936, by a score of 3-2), the stadium’s seating grew to 49,000 in the 1930s. Tulane Stadium was expanded to greater than 80,000 seats by the 1950s. The stadium hosted the Sugar Bowl, as well as being the home ground for Tulane and for the New Orleans Saints of the NFL. In 1975, the Sugar Bowl and the Saints moved into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where Nebraska defeated Florida, 13-10, on December 31, 1974. That game was the first year the relationship between the Southeastern Conference (SEC) and the Sugar Bowl was made official (by contract). From 1935 to 1974, the selection committee chose the SEC champion and an at-large opponent by tradition. With the evolution of the Bowl Championship Series (through its predecessors, the Bowl Coalition and Bowl Alliance), the SEC champion briefly took a backseat when the Sugar Bowl was the national championship game. Now that the BCS Championship Game is separate from the traditional bowl games, the SEC affiliation is back.

new orleans sugar bowl
Georgia Coach Vince Dooley and Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker, posing next to a Delta Air Lines special flight to New Orleans for the 1981 Sugar Bowl (Photo courtesy Delta Air Lines Museum)

Many of those who played in the Sugar Bowl during their college careers went on to have successful (and notable) careers playing professionally. Heisman Trophy winners who played in the Sugar Bowl include Billy Cannon (LSU), Steve Spurrier (Florida), Tony Dorsett (Pitt), Herschel Walker (Georgia), Bo Jackson (Auburn), and Danny Wuerffel (Florida). The Sugar Bowl also awards an MVP award, named the Miller-Digby Trophy. Recent winners include JaMarcus Russell of LSU, and Tim Tebow of Florida (Tebow also won the Heisman).

The Mercedes-Benz Superdome, decked out for the 2005 Sugar Bowl (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user Autiger)

While the Sugar Bowl was traditionally played on January 1, the game has been held on dates ranging from the evening of December 31 to January 4. In recent years, television contracts spread out the bowl games from all-on-New Year’s to a week of football. This year, the Sugar Bowl will be played on Thursday evening, January 2, 2014. New Orleans hosts the University of Alabama and the University of Oklahoma. ‘Bama plays Sugar this year because the SEC champions, Auburn, play for the national championship, and they were the conference runner-up. Check out all the fun Sugar Bowl fan events this year leading up to the big game!

Edward Branley is the author of New Orleans: The Canal Streetcar Line, Brothers of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans, and Maison Blanche Department Stores, in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series. His latest book, Legendary Locals of New Orleans, is available at bookstores and online. He is owner of Yatmedia LLC (Social Media for Social Justice), and is @Yatpundit on Twitter.

Author of five books on the history of New Orleans, Edward Branley is a graduate of Brother Martin High School and the University of New Orleans. Edward writes, teaches, and does speaking engagements on local history to groups in and around New Orleans. His urban fantasy novel, "Hidden Talents," is available online and in bookstores. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, @NOLAHistoryGuy.

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