Don McCauley put it succinctly: “Paul inspires people through his leadership. He’s a natural leader, and he always has been.’’
He was discussing Paul Hoolahan, his old teammate at North Carolina and the guard he often followed into the line more than four decades ago.
“Paul would just give a look in the huddle that said, ‘Follow me,’ ” McCauley said. “He’d show the way.’’
In their senior season, McCauley followed Hoolahan to the NCAA single-season rushing record of 1,720 yards — relegating O.J. Simpson to second place.
That type of hegemony has been the hallmark of Hoolahan’s two-decade tenure of keeping the Sugar Bowl in its place of prominence among college football’s elite postseason destinations.
It sometimes behind the scenes has been difficult, and at least once nearly disastrous.
That the Sugar Bowl, in a city with no Fortune 500 companies and a high poverty rate, is still in the top tier of championship venues is largely due to its chief executive, Hoolahan.
It’s also the reason Hoolahan, a native of Long Island, N.Y., is being recognized with the Louisiana Sports Writers Association’s Dave Dixon Leadership Award, which also puts him in the company of the state’s athletic giants in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame on Saturday in Natchitoches.
Hoolahan has overseen the Sugar Bowl since 1996, and is a now rare administrator with hands-on experience through college football’s evolutionary phases of the Bowl Alliance, Bowl Championship Series and College Football Playoff systems.
“You can’t look back at what he has done and not be impressed with Paul’s knowledge and leadership,’’ said another Tar Heel teammate, John Swofford, the commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference. “Paul is tremendously capable, a blend of smarts, toughness and with a big heart. He’s done a wonderful job for the Sugar Bowl and college football in general.’’
When Hoolahan, formerly the athletics director at Vanderbilt, accepted stewardship of the Sugar Bowl in 1996, the game had money problems.
The first game he oversaw, the Florida-Florida State national championship, lost money.
“A national championship game should never lose money,’’ Hoolahan says now, with a tone of disbelief.
He had to straighten — meaning change — business matters with the Sugar Bowl’s partners. It was no easy task, and the Sugar Bowl would later receive criticism for enlisting minimal state aid, although the state is a major beneficiary of the game’s drawing power.
Later, after Hurricane Katrina flattened — and nearly drowned — New Orleans, the Sugar Bowl was in mortal danger.
The torn Superdome was unusable, and there was a strong possibility there could be no Sugar Bowl in 2006. Had that happened, the Sugar Bowl as we know it, an elite postseason game, would have evaporated, along with partnerships with the Southeastern Conference, ABC-TV and the BCS.
That would have been the Sugar Bowl’s death knell.
A month after the storm, Hoolahan and some staffers received permission to enter the Superdome, with masks to lessen the putrid smell after the building’s long period without electricity, to retrieve computer hard drives where all the game’s vital information and contacts were stored — and went to work getting the Sugar Bowl on track.
With the help of the Atlanta Tourist and Convention Bureau as well as Peach Bowl personnel, the Sugar Bowl set up headquarters in Georgia.
Hoolahan rounded up his staff, and started work. Despite losing six weeks to the circumstances, the staff and 50 Sugar Bowl members made up ground.
The result was a 38-35 West Virginia upset of Georgia, one of the best games in Sugar Bowl annals, and a game run virtually without a major hitch.
The third obstacle, in 2014, was directing the Sugar Bowl into prime position in the College Football Playoff system after the BCS evolved into the four-team playoff model for the title.
With a rising tide of wealthier cities trying to buy their ways into the championship rotation — which had become a high-bidder’s auction — the Sugar Bowl, with probably less resources than any of its competitors, found its way back to the first rank of postseason games.
“We kept the bar high and we kept meeting that standard,’’ Hoolahan, who has overseen five national championship games, said. “This is the Sugar Bowl, a name that means something. For eight decades its name, tradition and history have meant something.
“It meant something to me, and I wasn’t from here, and it has meant something to college football. That’s not going to change if I can help it.’’