All these years later, all 63 of them, the 1957 Sugar Bowl game between Baylor and Tennessee holds a magical grip on Baylor alumni and fans of a certain age.
To this day, the 13-7 upset over the No. 2-ranked Volunteers of Bowden Wyatt remains the highest-rated win in Baylor bowl history. The game was won with some of the brightest stars in the Baylor football galaxy. Future NFL standouts Bill Glass and Del Shofner played major roles, and they were joined by Baylor Athletic Hall of Famers Charley Bradshaw, Buddy Humphrey, Bobby Jones and Jerry Marcontell.
But the magic involved more than the game and the players. It was about regional pride and the cavalier dismissal of Baylor’s chances, sensitivities that likely resonate with followers of the Sugar Bowl-bound 2019 Bears. It also was about the involvement of the long-suffering Baylor fans, who participated in-person on the national stage for the first time.
Finally, it was about hope for an emerging era of Baylor dominance. On that matter, it’s best to remember that not every story has a happy ending.
In 1956-57, a bowl game was a big deal. Unlike today, when 40 bowl games clutter the landscape, just seven postseason games existed. Of those seven, only five – Cotton, Gator, Orange, Rose and Sugar – were designed for major programs. Baylor, as older alumni know painfully well, won a Southwest Conference championship in 1924 and did not claim another until 1974. The Bears had never been to the Cotton Bowl Classic. The 1956 team was only seven years removed from the school’s first bowl appearance – the 1949 Dixie Bowl.
Coach George Sauer took charge of the Bears in 1950 and brought the team to prominence over his six seasons, including a couple of major bowl berths. Despite his impressive 38-21-3 record, Sauer was dismissed after a 5-5 campaign in 1955. Former Baylor star Sam Boyd replaced him beginning with the 1956 season.
The Bears inaugurated the Boyd era with a one-point win at California. Led by Shofner – a Swiss-army-knife type who rushed, received, punted and defended in college football’s one-platoon era – the Bears won their next three in routine fashion to climb to No. 8 nationally.
But then came a tough one-two punch. Baylor narrowly lost consecutive games to Texas A&M and TCU to fall to 4-2 and out of the rankings. That brought the Bears to a Nov. 10 matchup with Texas.
The Longhorns finished 0-6 in league play in 1956. In no season since has a Texas team failed to win a conference game. On that day, however, the Longhorns were everything the Bears could handle. Baylor won 10-7; Texas would not lose to Baylor again until the Miracle on the Brazos in 1974.
No matter how unremarkable the Texas win may have been, it flipped a switch on Baylor’s season.
The Bears dominated Nebraska, SMU and Rice by a combined score of 98-20 to finish the regular season 8-2 with a national rank of No. 11. A&M won the Southwest Conference, but the Cotton Bowl berth fell to TCU because the Aggies were on NCAA probation.
Baylor, the third-place team in the seven-team SWC, was bound for the Sugar Bowl and a spot on the big stage.
Discussing the 1975 Cotton Bowl, sportswriter Morris Frank reportedly said, “Baylor fans took a $10 bill and the Ten Commandments to Dallas and didn’t break either one.” One can only imagine how true that was for the straitlaced mid-1950s and always debaucherous New Orleans.
No matter the lack of cultural mesh, Baylor fans did show up.
Bowl games were not a novelty for Baylor by 1956, but an accessible bowl was something new and exciting. Given the travel realities of the time, the 1952 Orange Bowl in Miami and the 1954 Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla., might as well have been on the moon. But the 1957 Sugar Bowl …. well, that was doable.
Baylor fans made the most of their opportunity.
Writing in The Baylor Line, sports information director George Wright estimated 10,000 Baylor fans at the game. They came on planes, buses and automobiles, and a lucky few found their way onto the “Sugar Bowl Express,” a train that transported fans from Waco to New Orleans and back.
As for accommodations, those with money landed in the hotels, but students – such as David McHam, later a Baylor journalism professor, and the late Jack Loftis, a future Houston Chronicle editor – required a more austere approach. The First Baptist Church of New Orleans opened its gym to Baylor students and set up about 30 cots for them. “It was sometime in the ’90s that Jack admitted he didn’t sleep well,” McHam said. “He wasn’t used to sleeping with other people.”
No matter how they got there or where they stayed or what they did in their spare time, Baylor fans were ready by game day for their time in the sun. The sun did not cooperate, but by day’s end, the Bear faithful could not have cared less.
Jan. 1, 1957, in New Orleans began bright. A film of the event, which is available online by searching for “1957 Sugar Bowl video,” shows a sun-splashed fleet of mid-1950s vehicles circling the field before the game, highlighted by the introduction of the Sugar Bowl queen.
The early part of the day featured, of all things, a mascot confrontation. Baylor’s Judge was a mostly grown black bear, not at all a cuddly cub. In the spirit of sportsmanship, Judge was “introduced” to Tennessee’s Smokey II. Being a hound, Smokey sniffed, barked and lunged at Judge, who managed the indignity for a while. Finally, enough was enough, and Judge briefly acted like the wild animal that he was. The trainer held on for dear life as Judge went after Smokey, who managed a quick tactical retreat.
The game, played before a Tulane Stadium crowd of 78,000, was classic 1950s football. Tennessee, led by All-American and Heisman Trophy runner-up Johnny Majors, operated offensively from a single-wing formation. Baylor mostly used a straight T. Both teams were extremely run-reliant, but Tennessee’s passing game that day bordered on inept, especially after rain began to fall midway through the second quarter. The Volunteers were 1-of-10 passing for 16 yards with 4 interceptions for the day.
The Bears managed only 24 passing yards, but they made the most of half of them when Jones found Marcontell behind the Volunteer secondary for a fourth-down, 12-yard touchdown pass midway through the second quarter. Shofner set up the score with a 54-yard run down the right sideline to the Tennessee 26. A missed extra point left Baylor with a 6-0 halftime lead.
The real story of the first half was the Baylor defense, which sought to take big plays away from the previously explosive Tennessee passing game.
“We decided we had to be always in position to cover the deep pass,” Boyd said afterward, “and that left us in the position of having to cover either the run or the short pass from the run-pass option. We had to guess on each play which of these two we should cover closely in addition to the deep pass. It’s just an impossible thing to cover all three.
“Fortunately for us we guessed right most of the time, and we’re still very thankful Tennessee didn’t use the short pass more often.”
The Volunteers finally managed enough offensive punch in the third quarter to take the lead. Starting from the Baylor 39, they scored in 10 plays as Majors twisted and stumbled for the final 2 yards, leaving part of his tear-away jersey in the hand of lineman and future Baylor assistant coach Lee Harrington. The extra point made it 7-6 Vols with 7:06 remaining in the third.
The rout was not to be. After a brief surge by the Volunteers and an intense fight between the squads, the Bears regained possession late in the third quarter. A penalty blunted a promising drive, and Shofner punted away early in the fourth.
Reuben Saage fell on it for the Bears.
The field was a mess, the Tennessee defense remained a force, and a score was not assured. In fact, the Bears needed six plays to cover the short distance, but reserve quarterback Humphrey finally snuck it over from the 1-foot line. This time, Don Berry’s extra point was good, and the Bears led for good, 13-7.
A final Tennessee push left the Baylor fans weak-kneed. The Volunteers marched to the Baylor 32 late in the final quarter, but Letbetter saved the day with successive tackles for 15 yards in losses, effectively ending the game.
The Bears had survived to earn their sweetest victory ever. They were Sugar Bowl champions.
Shofner was named the Sugar Bowl MVP after running for 88 yards on 14 carries; intercepting a pass; punting six times; and, in immortal words, “tackling like a demon.” About the only aspect Shofner didn’t excel at that day was catching passes, but he made up for that over the next decade as a five-time NFL All-Pro receiver for the New York Giants.
Glass also became a dominant NFL player. He starred at defensive end for 11 years with Detroit and Cleveland and played a leading role in the Browns’ 1964 NFL championship. After football, Glass worked with the Rev. Billy Graham on his crusades, and in 1969 he created his own ministry; in 1972, the focus shifted to prison ministry.
The 1956-57 Baylor team was in fact filled with high-achievers, and none seemed more destined for greatness than Bobby Jones. His career as a Baylor quarterback was up and down, but he possessed obvious leadership talents. No one was surprised when he became a coach, and some even saw him as a possible future Baylor head coach. By 1965, he was an assistant at Tennessee.
On the morning of Oct. 18, two days after a 7-7 tie with Alabama, a train crossing through the western part of Knoxville slammed into a cramped Volkswagen Beetle containing the 30-year-old Jones and fellow assistants Charlie Rash and Bill Majors, the brother of Johnny Majors. Jones and Majors were killed instantly, and Rash died three days later. A commemorative plaque in Knoxville featured a special version of the familiar Tennessee block T that was created to honor the fallen men. It displayed a cross in the middle column of the T.
As for the Bears of 1957, hopes were stratospherically high after the Sugar Bowl.
It was a false dawn. The 1957 Bears scored only 20 points over their last five games and failed to win an SWC game on their way to a last-place finish. The next year was not much better. Boyd resigned and was replaced by John Bridgers.
Of course, no one knew what the future held as about 1,000 well-wishers met the returning champions on Jan. 2, 1957, at the Waco airport. A Baylor Line photo shows the joyous Bear faithful jammed shoulder-to-shoulder on the tarmac.
The page remains bright as the 2019 Bears return to the city where so many cherished memories were made.
David Pickle is a 1974 Baylor journalism graduate and former Lariat sports editor. He worked for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, Waco Tribune-Herald, Houston Chronicle and the National Collegiate Athletic Association. He is now retired and lives in northern Georgia.