Saturday, January 1, 2011

A New Year's Eve Memory

A week ago, I wrote about the trips my family used to take to South Padre Island, Texas, during the Christmas break when I was a child.

We stopped doing that after about three Christmases and started making trips to New Orleans instead. We did that for two consecutive years, capping our visits by attending the Sugar Bowl — and then hitting the road for our home in Conway, Ark., the next day.

My father was a professor at a small Methodist college, which then operated on a trimester schedule, and the winter term always began the first weekday after New Year's Day.

In those days, the Sugar Bowl was played on New Year's Eve instead of New Year's Day, so we spent those New Year's Days on the road.

One return trip was fairly uneventful. The other, if memory serves, was cold and wet — and we had a rather exciting half hour or so just south of Little Rock when we had a flat tire and my father had to change it in a cold drizzle.

Going to the Sugar Bowl was never the goal of our trips. There were other things that attracted us. My mother always loved visiting the French Quarter, hearing the live music at night, consuming the chicory coffee and beignets in the mornings. The whole family did, really. And we all loved Cajun food, and my father liked to do some deep–sea fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. Sometimes my brother and I went with him.

We went to two Sugar Bowls in those years, and — to use an old Southern expression — we never had a dog in those hunts.

But, 35 years ago last night, we got to see two legendary coaches face each other.

Playing the Sugar Bowl on New Year's Eve was kind of a brief experiment, I guess. Perhaps it was intended to draw more attention to the Sugar Bowl instead of forcing it to compete for the TV audience with the traditional New Year's bowl games. But that Sugar Bowl had Bear Bryant on one sideline and Joe Paterno on the other.

Did that game need any help attracting an audience?

The first 38 Sugar Bowls were played on either January 1 or January 2, then the next four were played on New Year's Eve — and nearly all the Sugar Bowls played since the one that was played on New Year's Eve 1975 have been played in January.

But that New Year's Eve 35 years ago was the first time a Sugar Bowl was played in the Louisiana Superdome. Before that, all the Sugar Bowls were played in Tulane Stadium, which also hosted three Super Bowls before it was demolished.

I'm sure it wasn't the first game ever played in the Superdome, but it had only been open for about five monhs. It was still so new you could practically smell the fresh paint.

On the day of the game, we spent the afternoon strolling through the French Quarter. At one point, I saw a homemade banner hanging from a second–floor balcony. The banner showed an Asian girl and the words "Go, Arabama!"

When we arrived at the Superdome that evening, there was already a substantial crowd there.

My memory is that there were far more Alabama fans on hand than Penn State fans. I suppose that made sense. The Alabama campus is much closer to New Orleans than Penn State's. But if you were going to school in Pennsylvania, wouldn't you jump at the chance to spend New Year's Eve in New Orleans?

It seemed to me then — and it seems to me now — that there should have been a lot more Penn State fans at the game.

Almost everyone I remember seeing was wearing Alabama red. I heard several people — some of whom appeared to be complete strangers — spontaneously greet each other with "Roll, Tide!" Throw in a "yo" or two, and it could have been the 1975 version of gangsta speak.

We got some drinks and began making our way up the stairs. Our seats were near the top of the building. I'm not sure which yard line we were on — at that elevation, I'm not sure it mattered. You could barely see the players from that distance.

I guess Alabama was the sentimental favorite. The Crimson Tide certainly seemed to have the crowd on their side, but they didn't really need it. Fourth–ranked Alabama's defense stymied 10th–ranked Penn State, holding the Nittany Lions to two field goals and just over 200 yards in total offense.

Penn State never led in the game, and Alabama took the lead for good in the third quarter.

After that, Alabama's defense merely had to do what Bear Bryant's defenses always did so well — smother opposing offenses.

My memory is that it was fairly jovial where we were sitting. We were sitting in a section of Alabama fans, and they frequently found things to celebrate en route to the Tide's 13–6 victory. I'm sure they took their celebration into the French Quarter, where they rang in the new year an hour or so later.

My family went back to our campsite outside New Orleans and went to bed. We had our drive home ahead of us the next day.

And that is what happened that night in the Superdome 35 years ago.

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