The Sugar Bowl turns 81 on Friday, and Thomas Wicker has been there to see it all — and he has played a part in some of its most significant moments.
Well, nearly everything. A little thing called World War II did prevent him from attending a couple of games.
But on Jan. 1, 1935, Wicker was a 12-year-old Cub Scout serving as an usher when Tulane met Temple in the inaugural game.
On Dec. 31, 1973, during Wicker’s first year as a Sugar Bowl committee member, Alabama played Notre Dame in the bowl’s first pairing with the national championship on the line.
On Jan. 1, 1987, during Wicker’s term as president, LSU faced Nebraska in the bowl’s first year with a title sponsor: USF&G insurance.
And on Friday, Wicker, now 92, will be on hand when Ole Miss meets Oklahoma State in the first game of the bowl’s partnership with the Southeastern Conference and the Big 12.
And just as importantly, Wicker’s son, Carey, is president of the organization now in its ninth decade. They are the sixth father and son to serve in the post.
“I think he’s doing great,” Thomas, a retired court of appeals judge whose appointment to that post came during his Sugar Bowl presidency, said of Carey, also an attorney. “We made a successful bid for the national championship game (in 2020), which took real leadership by Carey, the executive committee and our leadership. I think the Sugar Bowl’s in better shape today than it’s ever been.”
Of course, Carey would say his job is made easier by having his father as an unofficial consigliere.
“I’m asking him for his advice all the time,” the younger Wicker said. “The issues may change and we’re much more of a year-round organization now, but the principles are the same. That’s fulfilling our mission to promote amateur sports and to be an economic engine for the city.”
Thomas certainly has a wealth of knowledge about the bowl.
As a youngster, he was there for Monk Simons’ 85-yard kickoff return that helped Tulane beat Temple in the inaugural game. And, a year later, he saw TCU’s Sammy Baugh make two touchdown-saving tackles, intercept two passes, punt 14 times in the rain for a 48-yard average and hold for the winning field goal as the Horned Frogs edged LSU 3-2.
“My favorite player from those early games was Jarrin’ John Kimbrough from Texas A&M,” Wicker said. “They were playing Tulane (in the 1940) game and, when he ran over Bobby Kellogg, the star for Tulane, he told him, ‘I hope I haven’t hurt you, partner.’ Kellogg said, ‘You big so-and-so. You broke every bone in my body.’ ”
Needless to say, Wicker, a Holy Cross graduate who lived Uptown and who would that fall enter Tulane, was hooked on the Sugar Bowl. After graduating in early 1944, Wicker entered the Navy and served six campaigns in the Pacific aboard the USS Lackawanna. His ship was in Tokyo Bay for the surrender of Japan.
A Tulane Law graduate as well, Wicker helped found the school’s first athletic booster group. In the 1960s, he was a founding member of the Saints’ first booster group as well.
By the early 1970s, many of the Sugar Bowl’s founders had died or were too old to be involved any longer. At the same time, few of their sons — it was an all-male organization at the time — were interested taking leadership roles.
The result: In 1973, 11 people were invited to become members, including Wicker, by a district court judge in Jefferson Parish.
That year’s game — won by Notre Dame 24-23 — remains the one Wicker considers the greatest in bowl history. It also solidified his desire to take a leadership role on the committee, culminating in his elevation to the presidency in 1986.
That was also the year then-bowl executive director Mickey Holmes proposed the idea of having a commercial title sponsor. The Florida Citrus Association had put its name on what had been called the Tangerine Bowl in Orlando since 1983, but this was different.
“Some of our members thought it was gauche, and other bowls made fun of us,” Wicker said. “But I urged that we should at least explore the idea. Elliott Laudeman brought USF&G to us, and they were a wonderful sponsor for a long time. And now every bowl has a sponsor.”
The sponsorship issue presaged the Sugar Bowl’s issues of the past few years: adjusting to the post-BCS world by beating out Dallas and Houston to land the SEC-Big 12 deal, then scoring the 2020 title game after being passed over for this season’s. Both moves tested the bowl’s financial resources.
“Watching my dad as president was very insightful to me,” Carey said. “It made me keenly aware that you have to balance your fiduciary responsibilities while being true to your mission. Everybody understood the importance of getting the championship game, and we were thrilled when it happened. We’ve been good stewards, and I think it’s played out very nicely.”
The elder Wicker approves.
“Times are changing in college sports,” he said. “So we’ve got to look forward instead of backwards.
“We’re sponsoring about 50 events now, and it’s especially wonderful what we’re doing for the high schools. And to know that Carey is involved in it is very rewarding and enjoyable.”