It was, in today’s parlance, an instant classic. A football game that had it all: high quality opponents, marquee name coaches and athletes, and memorable plays.
That first Sugar Bowl, 80 years ago between Temple and Tulane, was so good that everyone involved — the sponsors of the fledgling postseason game and both coaches — agreed there should be a rematch.
It never happened.
On Saturday, the Owls and Green Wave will meet at Yulman Stadium for the first time in football since the first day of 1935 in the inaugural Sugar, this time as charter members of the American Athletic Conference.
“It took 80 years, but we’ve finally made good on our promise to (Temple coach) Pop Warner and (Tulane coach) Ted Cox for a rematch,” Sugar Bowl CEO Paul Hoolahan said in reference to the Owls and Greenies coaches.
The game Saturday — as well as in any future games — would do well to approach the deering-do and heart-pumping excitement that first one did, which set the tone for the long string of high-profile postseason pairings in New Orleans.
The birth of the Sugar Bowl could hardly have been met with more enthusiasm, in large measure because of the teams. Temple was undefeated (7-0-2), third-ranked and considered “Champion of the North.’’ Tulane was 9-1-0, 13th-ranked, and co-champion of the 2-year-old Southeastern Conference.
The Owls boasted a battering-ram fullback named Dave Smukler, said to be “better than Jim Thorpe’’ by no less than Warner, who coached Thorpe at Carlisle Institute. Triple-threat Claude “Monk’’ Simons was the centerpiece of the Green Wave offense. Wearing a shoulder pad made partly of rubber after fracturing a shoulder in the act of a game-winning punt return against LSU one month before, Simons sprinkled the first glitter of lore onto the annual classic.
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This is what it took to get the Sugar Bowl off the ground, to get two prominent, nationally recognized teams to the game: a guarantee of $15,000 to Temple, $12,500 for Tulane (with $2,500 set aside for Sugar Bowl expenses).
This may sound like chump change now, but at the time, in the midst of the Great Depression, the total in today’s dollars was more than $500,000.
After a decade of New Orleans sports editor Fred Digby trying to get a postseason game off the ground in the Crescent City, the money was raised by a group of businessmen — known as the Midwinter Sports Association — with a plan calling for 300 guarantors to post $100 apiece, $30,000 in seed money.
This was at a time when the average American citizen made $1,388 a year; when a six-bedroom home cost $4,200; when a set of four tires cost $6.23; when a sirloin steak cost 29 cents.
So we’re talking a relative fortune for the time — equal to those eye-popping figures college teams get now for playing in some bowls.
In other words, this was a big deal for big money — though the Tulane players originally had to be convinced this wasn’t just another home game entailing just another month of grinding practice for them. After several “no’’ votes, the coaches swayed the players to play what turned out to be the most remembered game of their careers.
That Sugar Bowl was especially noteworthy for these particular teams. Temple would play in only three postseason games after 1935, and Tulane in nine over the next eight decades.
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Danny Testa, who would be the last participant of the first Sugar Bowl to pass away, at age 92 in 2009, scored the classic’s first touchdown. Barney Mintz of the Green Wave lost a fumble at the Tulane 10, and, in two plays, Smukler threw a 7-yard pass to Testa.
Another lost Greenies fumble, this one in the second quarter at the Tulane 18, led to another Owls touchdown, this one by Smukler from the 2.
“In case you hadn’t guessed,’’ said Tulane assistant coach Lester Lautenschlaeger, “we weren’t in the best of spirits at the time.’’
Down 14-0, Simons got the Wave back in it with a spectacular kick return. Temple kicked off within 10 yards of the sideline to keep the return man bottled up on one side. Tulane’s Johnny McDaniel took the ball at the 10 and ran up a few yards, taking most of the Owls coverage to his side. Then he lateralled to Simons 5 yards behind at the 15 and running in the opposite direction. A pair of defenders were fooled only for a second and rushed over to choke off the sideline alley to which Simons was slanting.
A huge cherry-jerseyed figure, the way Simons remembered it, with outstretched arms that seemed to cover the width of the field, looked as if he had him hemmed in at the 35. “It looked like he had me pinned to the sidelines,’’ Simons later said, “and I had just about made up my mind to run over him when Stanley Lodrigues, our substitute fullback, came out of nowhere and wiped him out. ... That was the biggest obstacle in my path.
“The rest of the team set up a wall and I simply ran down the sideline. No one laid a hand on me.’’
In the third quarter, Bucky Bryan ripped an equally memorable 28-yard gain that set up the tying touchdown from the 4. There, Bryan hit end Dick Hardy, who leaped between two Owls and came down with the ball despite one defender still clinging to his back.
Hardy would again get Tulane improbable points. From the Wave 42, Bryan tried to hit Mintz when Temple’s Horace “Bucco’’ Mowrey stepped squarely between the passer and the intended receiver. But the ball brushed Mowrey’s fingertips — and bounced up. Hardy rushed over, took the ball on the run and raced untouched the remaining 15 yards. Winfred Longsdert dove desperately at his heels to no avail.
Tulane had the lead, but Longsdert kept Temple’s hopes alive by blocking the PAT to keep the score 20-14.
Temple made one last stab at victory, driving to the Wave 13 before time ran out.
Simons laughed years later that he could still see Dave Smukler at a postgame party, wearing a derby, a seersucker suit and smoking a cigar. Members of both teams were given the suits, then a novelty.
“It’s a hellava thing,’’ Smukler told Simons, “to come all the way down here and wind up with a pair of pajamas.’’
Smukler came down for more than that. The attendance of 22,026 allowed the Sugar Bowl to present each school with a check of $27,500, almost double Temple’s guarantee (and $469,576.34 in 2014 dollars).
The quality of the teams — and the game — left fans buzzing.
Temple and Tulane put the Sugar Bowl in business.