How Tennessee and Air Force Met in the 1971 Sugar Bowl

For 12 years, since the death of Fred Digby, the Mid-Winter Sports Association had basically been run by committee.  Edna Engert, the secretary hired by the organization in 1936, carried out the day-by-day duties of the office, and the various committees of the membership made the hard-and-fast decisions.  The Sugar Bowl had realized for some time that it needed an executive director.

Navy Captain Joseph T. Katz, a native New Orleanian, was retiring.  His last tour of duty in a 28-year military career was as head of public relations and special projects for Vice Admiral Tom Connolly.  On July 27, 1970, Joe Katz was appointed executive director.

The pickings for bowl eligibles outside the South were slim in 1970.  Nebraska, Notre Dame, and Air Force, in that order, were the obvious choices to fill the 1971 berths.  At an early date it appeared that Notre Dame and Nebraska would meet in the Orange Bowl, though the Irish had a late-season game with formidable LSU.  The Sugar Bowl wanted either of those teams or, in lieu of the Southeastern Conference champion, the higher-ranked SEC runner-up Tennessee Volunteers.

Voting for the Associated Press national champion would again be done after the bowls, and this situation added some spice to postseason games.  When the champion was picked before the bowls, the higher-ranked teams seemed to look more for the easy mark and a good time.

The No. 3-ranked Cornhuskers wanted the No. 6-ranked Irish because Notre Dame was viewed as Nebraska's stepping-stone to the national championship.  It was reported that same Orange Bowl officials wanted Notre Dame win, lose, or draw against No. 7-ranked LSU; others wanted the Irish-Tiger victor.

Texas, with a No. 1 ranking, was a huge attraction for the Cotton Bowl, and it was also keenly interested in the LSU-Notre Dame winner.

As it turned out, Notre Dame won a somewhat controversial 3-0 victory over the Tigers and accepted a Cotton Bowl invitation.  The snubbed Orange Bowl was then left with a choice of LSU or Arkansas.  Any chance the Sugar had with LSU may have been dashed the year before when the Mid-Winter Sports Association opted for Ole Miss.

LSU accepted a provisional invitation from Miami that stipulated the Tigers had to defeat its final two opponents, Tulane and Ole Miss.  At the same time, the Sugar invited No. 8-ranked Tennessee, which in most years would have been a prime bowl target, and No. 10-ranked Air Force, an exciting offensive team, though both had difficult games remaining.

The Vols handled their assignment well, defeating Vanderbilt 24-6 and UCLA 28-17 and rose to 4th in the polls.  Air Force did not do as well, beating Rose Bowl-bound Stanford 31-14 but getting drubbed 49-19 by Colorado in its final game.

Charles Zatarain represented the Sugar Bowl at the Air Force-Colorado game, trying to keep a smile on through the darkest moments of the ordeal.  An officer came to Zatarain's seat and informed him there had been a crank call about a bomb planted in the press box.  "Don't worry about me, Colonel," smiled Zatarain, casting an eye toward the scoreboard.  "I've already been bombed."

So, while the Cotton Bowl and Orange Bowl had the earmarks of No. 1 shoot-outs, the Sugar and Rose Bowls had only outside shots at one of their teams becoming the national champion.

Still, New Orleans would be getting an interesting contrast.  Air Force averaged 423.6 yards in offense, third best in the nation.  The Vols were second nationally in defense, surrendering a miserly 88.4 yards a game.

The pragmatic Sugar Bowlers made a concession to realism for this game.  New Orleans and Dallas, the only bowls that competed in the same approximate time slot, had been inflicting damage on each other's television ratings.  The Cotton Bowl had come out the better in recent years.  With No. 1 Texas and an attention-grabber like Notre Dame, the Sugar realized there was no way anybody was going to top the Cotton Bowl's viewer interest.  The Mid-Winter Sports Association moved its kickoff to noon, which gave it an hour jump on Dallas.  It was also realized that the move would hold the Sugar viewers until just about the half.

Tennessee, under 29-year-old Coach Bill Battle, opened a 10-point favorite.  Battle, who felt that a bowl trip was a reward, worked his team hard in practice but allowed the squad freedom to enjoy the city.  On the other hand, Air Force Coach Ben Martin appeared grim and determined to make up for the Colorado defeat.  Writers, noticing this and Tennessee's mediocre 6-10 bowl history, began picking the Falcons. 

 Recap excerpted from the book "Sugar Bowl Classic: A History" by Marty Mulé, who covered the game and the organization for decades for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.