Sooners have sweet history in Sugar Bowl

Inside OU Sports Magazine writer J. Brent Clark takes a look back at OU's history in the Sugar Bowl.

By now, every Sooner football fan on the planet has at least contemplated being in New Orleans this Sunday for the spectacle that will decide college football's national championship.

The Louisiana Superdome has seen just about everything from Pistol Pete Maravich during his Jazz days, to monster trucks. However, the Superdome has never seen the Sooners of Oklahoma, a monster of a different variety.

There are some noticeable similarities between these magnificent Sooners and the marvelous Sugar Bowl Classic. Both survived the Great Depression to rise to prominence. Both have a bit of a checkered past.

In the fall of 1934, the New Orleans Mid-Winter Sports Association was born, having escrowed the paltry sum of $30,000 for the promotion of the inaugural Sugar Bowl Classic.

The game would be played on the metropolitan campus of Tulane University. The organizing committee settled on the name ‘Sugar Bowl' and acquired a genuine antique silver bottle wine cooler for presentation to the winning team. The victorious program would also be presented a gleaming replica for permanent display in its trophy case.

That first Sugar Bowl game following the 1934 season matched Tulane's Green Wave, unbeaten in the South, against the Temple Owls, the only unbeaten team in the North. Temple was coached by the legendary Glenn ‘Pop' Warner.

Admission prices to the game were $1.50 and $3.50. Each participating team received $27,800 from the gate receipts. Tulane prevailed, 20-14, in that inaugural event.

A scant two years later, the annual event had grown such that a stadium expansion package was undertaken. Bonds totaling $550,000 were sold to build the largest, most dramatic steel, double-deck stadium in the nation, seating over 70,000 spectators. The stadium expansion was completed in time for the 1940 New Year's Day game.

After World War II, Tulane Stadium was once again expanded to a total of 81,000 seats. That is the site of OU's prior Sugar Bowl appearances.

The 1948 edition of the Oklahoma Sooners had the distinction of having opened its season with a loss to Santa Clara, 20-17, before reeling off nine straight victories.

The Associated Press ranked the Sooners No. 5 coming into the Sugar Bowl Classic, against the No. 3-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels. The ‘Heels were installed as a nine-point favorite, principally because of the nation's infatuation with Charlie ‘Choo Choo' Justice, North Carolina's fabulous single wing tailback.

Sooners coach Bud Wilkinson was coaching his first postseason game in just his second season at the helm. Furthermore, he was carrying the banner of the Big Seven Conference, which had never won a major bowl victory.

‘Choo Choo' had finished second in the Heisman voting to SMU's Doak Walker. Justice was a triple threat to be sure. He finished the 1948 season second in the nation in total offense, having accounted for 23 touchdowns, including 12 touchdown passes. He led the nation in punting with a 44.0-yards-per-punt average, and finished eighth in the nation in punt-return average.

The Sooners of ‘48 were led by ‘General Jack' Mitchell, its seasoned quarterback, and All-American lineman Buddy Burris. A packed stadium of nearly 82,000 fans watched North Carolina take the opening kickoff and move to OU's 16-yard line. On the next play, ‘Choo Choo' Justice threw a spot pass that was intercepted by Oklahoma linebacker Myrle Greathouse who rambled 72 yards to the Tar Heel 13-yard line. Eight plays later, Mitchell scored.

Later in the quarter, an OU fumble led to a North Carolina touchdown but the extra point was missed. OU led 7-6.

The Sooners would never trail. The great ‘Choo Choo' Justice was matched in every way by the play of Oklahoma's reserve quarterback and defensive back, Darrel Royal. Royal, at 158 pounds, was a terror that day. He led the offense on a game-clinching drive, featuring a 43-yard pass to sophomore end Frankie Anderson. Lindell Pearson scored from 8 yards out and the Sooners celebrated their first major bowl victory ever, 14-6.

The Sooners of 1949 are considered one of the great teams in OU's glorious history. Emerging undefeated after its regular season, Oklahoma was invited back to New Orleans for a curtain call.

This time, the Sooners, ranked No. 2, were matched against the Bayou Bengals of LSU.

The game itself was overshadowed by the infamous ‘spying incident' involving former LSU player Walter ‘Piggy' Barnes. It seems Barnes was collared from his perch atop a sink in the men's room at the Sooners' practice facility in Biloxi, Miss.

So much better, it seemed, to view the Sooners' pregame drills. Ned Hockman, OU's legendary photographer extraordinaire, snapped the famous photo of the police, along with Sooner supporter Dr. C.B. McDonald, wrestling Barnes away from the practice field.

The stage was set for a grudge match of sorts.

The local favorite, LSU, received a tremendous ovation upon entering the stadium. Sixty minutes later, the Tigers had been vanquished by a highly motivated Sooner squad, 35-0.

Darrel Royal, who would later coach in the Sugar Bowl game as the head man at Texas, once again demonstrated his nimble talents, flipping a pitch to Lindell Pearson who, in turn, threw a beautiful forward pass to George ‘Jr.' Thomas, for a 34-yard touchdown.

Another Sooner star of the game was fullback Leon Heath. Heath bulldozed for 170 yards on the day, good for third place on OU's individual bowl game rushing list. He also was named Most Valuable Player of the game.

Coach Wilkinson was named National Coach of the Year in only his third season as a head coach. The Sooners of ‘49 most certainly had a claim as the nation's best team.

In a statistical curiosity, the Sooners would be invited back to New Orleans for a third straight appearance following the 1950 season. The Sooners of 1950 had already finished the regular season undefeated and had been named national champions for the first time ever.

Kentucky, coached by Paul ‘Bear' Bryant, was set to tangle with the Sooners. The Wildcats entered the game as a 7-point underdog, but were led by a great throwing quarterback, Babe Parilli.

Other notables on that Kentucky team were Jim Mackenzie, Pat James and Charlie McClendon.

The Sooners, riding a 31-game win streak, were the victims of five fumbles, which proved their undoing. Behind Parilli's passing, Kentucky tallied two touchdowns in the first half, which proved to be enough.

Late in the game, Billy Vessels tossed a touchdown pass to Merrill Green to narrow the final margin to 13-7.

Twenty years would pass before the Sooners would once again participate in the Sugar Bowl. The Sooners were invited to match up against the Auburn Tigers in the New Year's Day game of 1972.

The Sooners of 1971 were simply remarkable in several respects. The Oklahoma wishbone, quarterbacked by Jack Mildren, led the nation in total offense at 566 yards per game. The Sooners' total rushing yardage per game averaged a stunning 472 yards and the offense was scoring at 45 points per game.

Most notably, the Sooners had played toe-to-toe with the eventual national champion Nebraska Cornhuskers in the Game of the Century the previous November.

Auburn's quarterback, Pat Sullivan, had been awarded the Heisman Trophy. But on this day, the game belonged to Jack Mildren.

The Auburn defense, geared to stop the wishbone pitch-outs to Greg Pruitt, had no answer to Mildren's running plays. So overwhelming were Mildren's cross-country rambles, that OU amassed a Sugar Bowl record 439 yards rushing, with Mildren accounting for 149 yards of the total.

OU's halftime lead of 31-0 left Auburn's coach Shug Jordan virtually helpless. Auburn managed to make the final score respectable, 42-22.

Clearly, the Sooners were once again among the elite in college football, finishing second in the final AP poll behind Nebraska. Conference foe Colorado finished third.

Oklahoma's last Sugar Bowl appearance came the following year. OU had the unusual distinction of playing two Sugar Bowl games in one year, January 1, 1972 and December 31, 1972.

The 1972 Sooners were a bit different in make-up. The great Jack Mildren had graduated, leaving a journeyman quarterback, Dave Robertson, to guide the club.

Robertson proved more than adequate as the Sooners posted a regular-season record of 10-1, losing only to Colorado at Boulder.

The Sooners were matched against Joe Paterno's Nittany Lions of Pennsylvania State University. Both teams entered the contest with records of 10-1. The Sooners were ranked No. 2 in the country while the Nittany Lions were tagged at No. 5. The Sooners came in as a 13.5-point favorite, which proved to be prophetic.

The Sooners defense had returned to its Oklahoma 5-2 roots, anchored by a formidable nose guard named Lucious Selmon. In Chuck Fairbanks' final game as head coach, the Oklahoma defense dominated.

The Nittany Lions could muster only 11 first downs and 49 yards rushing for the game. Had OU not lost five fumbles, the game would likely have turned into a rout.

Dave Robertson's passing was superb, as he found freshman wide receiver Tinker Owens repeatedly. Owens finished as the games' Most Valuable Player, a portend of things to come.

Thirty years have passed since OU last visited the Crescent City of New Orleans for a football contest. The stakes, in 2003, could not be higher. If the Louisiana Superdome hosts the Sooners on Sunday, both the City of New Orleans and the Oklahoma Sooners can pay homage to their colorful, rich histories and the full expectation of glories to come.

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