How the Gator Bowl killed the Tobacco Bowl
In 1945, two fledgling bowl committees were scrambling to secure the funding and paperwork to launch a New Year's Day game. One game is still played today. The other one never got started.
In December 1945, seven South Carolinians came up with a plan. The group — which included Governor Ransome Williams, Speaker of the House Solomon Blatt, and State Senate President Edgar Brown — pooled together $20,000 to put on a bowl game at the Columbia Municipal Stadium. In a span of five days, the bowl committee filed articles of incorporation and secured a state charter, hurrying to get their papers in order before the nation’s college football teams started accepting invitations from other bowl games.
The fledgling bowl corporation proposed that it would, each year, invite the best team in the state of South Carolina and match them up with an out-of-state opponent (or possibly the Southern Conference champion, if the Palmetto State champs and the SoCon champs were not the same team) in a game to be played on January 1. They would call their game the Tobacco Bowl. And, if all went to plan, the Tobacco Bowl would become a New Year's Day staple, along with the Rose, the Sugar, the Sun, the Cotton, and the Orange.
But all did not go according to plan.
Despite finishing the 1945 season with an uninspiring record of two wins, three losses, and three ties, South Carolina found itself invited to two separate bowl games: the Tobacco Bowl and an as-yet-unnamed bowl game set to debut on Jan. 1, 1946, in Jacksonville, Florida.
Like the Tobacco Bowl committee, the financiers of the Jacksonville game were also scrambling to get their papers in order. According to The State, the idea for the Gator Bowl — as journalists had, by New Year’s Eve, taken to calling it — wasn’t conceived until a few weeks before invitations went out. In fact, one member of the bowl committee was, for a time, working under the mistaken assumption that they must surely be aiming for Jan. 1 of 1947, not the Jan. 1 happening in one month.
The Gator Bowl’s first invitation went to Georgia, but the Bulldogs declined, accepting instead an Oil Bowl invitation that had been refused by Wake Forest. With the Demon Deacons now available, the Gator Bowl zeroed in on the Southern Conference runners-up. The Gator Bowl would have liked to pair the Bulldogs and Deacons, but UGA wasn’t interested in the matchup. In their efforts to secure an opponent for Wake Forest, the Gator Bowl talked to Tennessee and LSU, but with both teams having to make long journeys, travel costs proved prohibitive for each.
These were the dominos that needed to fall — plus, the war’s deleterious effect on rosters across the country — before the Gator Bowl turned to two-win South Carolina.
Meanwhile, despite a surfeit of bowl invitations, the Gamecocks weren’t necessarily sold on going to a bowl at all. The Gamecocks and Deacons had already played to a 13-13 draw earlier that season, and the notion of replaying that game did not impress some of the USC players. “Particularly the ROTC boys,” reported the Columbia Record, “who have a pretty tough schedule of work.”
But when the players put it to a majority vote, the outcome was this:
The Gamecocks would be playing in a bowl
The game would be located in Jacksonville, Florida
At the time the vote took place, the players would have known that Wake Forest had already accepted its Gator Bowl invitation as well.
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With both Tobacco Bowl invitees RSVPing “no,” organizers had to scramble to find two new teams. Clemson agreed to play, but when no suitable opponent for the Tigers could be found, the game was called off. State Senator William P. Baskin, who was also secretary-treasurer for the Tobacco Bowl, vowed that the game would return for 1947, “with two outstanding college teams.”
But Jan. 1, 1947 came and went, and no Tobacco Bowl game was played. At least, not in Columbia. Or even in South Carolina.
In November of 1946, business leaders in Lexington, Kentucky got together and organized a bowl game to be played at the University of Kentucky’s stadium. The first game would take place on Dec. 14, 1946. And they’d decided to call their game the Tobacco Bowl.
“I will put it mildly when I say we resent any infringement,” said S.C. Senate President Edgar Brown. “We chartered our bowl and the name with our Secretary of State a year ago.”
While that was indeed the case, it did not prevent Kentucky from having its own Tobacco Bowl. The Bluegrass State version of the game, played just the one season, had an oddly Northeastern flavor, pitting Western New York’s St. Bonaventure against Allenstown, Pennsylvania’s Muhlenberg College.
If the South Carolina contingent had decided to plow ahead with its own plans, surely the matchup in the South Carolina Tobacco Bowl would have eclipsed tenfold the of the Kentucky Tobacco Bowl. Or, they could have proceeded with the bowl game under a different name. Or, they could have brought the game back after the Kentucky Tobacco Bowl dissolved.
Instead, the Tobacco Bowl vanished without so much as a whimper. And with it, the bowl committee’s dreams of making Columbia into the setting of another New Year’s Day classic. Of using ticket sales and advertising revenue to upgrade the stands into 17,600-seat Columbia Municipal Stadium into a proper bowl. Of reserving an annual spot for the Palmetto State’s best team on the premier stage in college football.
This is so South Carolina.
Great lost history!