Bud Dudley had a dream.
At a time when there were far fewer bowl games than there are now, the former athletic director at Villanova wanted a bowl in Philadelphia. Its name would be the Liberty Bowl, and its logo would be the Liberty Bell.
Dudley was the only person in college football history to create and then become the sole owner of a bowl game. Dudley, a Notre Dame graduate and a World War II veteran, died in June 2008 at age 88.
The game was marred by poor attendance during its five seasons in Philadelphia. The first game in 1959 drew 36,211 fans as Penn State defeated Alabama by a final score of 7-0. The crowds got smaller in each of the next four years.
“Spectators were lashed by icy winds as they huddled in Municipal Stadium for the inaugural Liberty Bowl,” Frank Fitzpatrick later wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Piles of snow impeded their trips to concession stands. And several swore their coffee froze before they could return to their seats.”
Penn State graduate Bill Jaffe told the newspaper, “That was the coldest I’ve ever been at a football game.”
“Overhead, an airplane, tilting in the heavy gusts as it dragged an ad for General Copper & Brass, provided shivering spectators with perhaps the afternoon’s most entertaining moment,” Fitzpatrick wrote. “Wind tore away the sign’s second S, an act of alchemy that instantly transformed metal to lingerie.
“On the field below — far, far below in a stadium notorious for its poor sight lines — the football played by Penn State and Alabama never really thawed out either, the teams combining for just seven points. But had those frostbitten Penn State players and fans been aware, they might have been warmed by the knowledge that what that first Liberty Bowl lacked in amenities, it made up for in history. Until that 7-0 loss to Penn State, Alabama had never faced an integrated opponent in its 67-year football history.
“The first of 24 consecutive Alabama teams that Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant would take to bowl games was all white. The Nittany Lions’ roster included a handful of blacks, including tackle Charlie Janerette, a Philadelphian. Janerette would be shot to death during a 1984 confrontation with a Philadelphia policeman. A jury later found police to be negligent and awarded the ex-player’s family $188,000.”
When Alabama accepted the bowl invitation, the chairman of the Tuscaloosa Citizens Council wrote to Frank Rose, the Alabama president: “We strongly oppose our boys playing an integrated team. The Tide belongs to all Alabama, and Alabamians favor continued segregation.”
Bryant, however, ignored the segregationists back home.
Dudley would say years later, “Every year the weather would be fine until the day of the game. I was looking for a way to merge patriotism and football. And I still think it could have worked in Philadelphia if only it weren’t for the cold.”
The other eights bowls at the time — Cotton, Sugar, Rose, Orange, Gator, Tangerine, Sun and Bluebonnet — were all played in warmer locations.
The 1959 game’s only score came on a trick play. Alabama finished 7-2-2, and Penn State finished 9-2. The teams passed for a combined 68 yards on the windy day.
Dudley had scheduled a dinner for the players that night at a downtown hotel. Longtime Philadelphia Daily News writer Stan Hochman, who covered the game from an unheated press box, said Dudley “was working on a shoestring, a tattered shoestring. They ran out of food early in the buffet line.”
Hochman’s future wife was doing public relations work for the downtown hotel. She ran to the kitchen and convinced the staff to cook some hot dogs for the players. Dudley, meanwhile, had talked his friend Ed McMahon into bringing a relatively unknown comedian named Johnny Carson to perform after dinner.
By 1963, Mississippi State’s game against North Carolina State drew just 8,309 fans in Philadelphia.
Tourism promoters in nearby Atlantic City, looking for a way to bring people to town during what normally was a slow period in December, convinced Dudley to move the 1964 contest to Convention Hall (long the home of the Miss America pageant) for the first bowl game to be played indoors. Two inches of burlap was placed on top of the concrete floor, and sod was laid on top of that. Utah defeated West Virginia, 32-6. There were 6,059 people at the game.
Dudley decided the indoor venue would no longer work. He also decided that Philadelphia was too far north. He looked south, and Memphis greeted him with open arms.
Memphis had spent $4 million to build a stadium in 1965 to replace aging Crump Stadium. The original seating capacity was 50,160, and what’s now the University of Memphis would play its home games there. It was to be known as Memphis Memorial Stadium and would be at the Mid-South Fairgrounds along with the Mid-South Coliseum and the Libertyland amusement park.
The mayor of Memphis had a sports committee charged with finding other events for the new stadium. The committee’s chairman, Early Maxwell, learned that Dudley wanted to move the Liberty Bowl. Maxwell sent Memphis businessman Bill McElroy Jr. to Chicago in the summer of 1965 to meet with Dudley during the annual convention of the College Sports Information Directors of America. McElroy invited Dudley to attend the first regular-season game in the stadium between Ole Miss and Memphis. Dudley agreed to attend the game, and he was treated like a king by a who’s who of Memphis business and civic leaders.
Just a few months later, the 1965 Liberty Bowl was played in the new stadium. Ole Miss beat Auburn, 13-7.
Dudley’s intention was to move the bowl game every year or two to a city that didn’t have a bowl.
“After I got to Memphis, I never got to the other cities,” he said.
Coaches who have taken teams to the Liberty Bowl through the years include the likes of Lou Holtz, Steve Spurrier and Tom Osborne.
Four Heisman Trophy winners — Ernie Davis, Terry Baker, Doug Flutie and Bo Jackson — have played in the game.
Archie Manning played in the Liberty Bowl in December 1968, leading his Ole Miss Rebels to a 34-17 victory over Virginia Tech. Manning would lead the Rebels to a win over Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl the following year.
Holtz brought his North Carolina State Wolfpack to Memphis in 1973 and saw his team beat Kansas, 31-18.
Three years later, Bryant was back with the Crimson Tide, which posted a 36-6 victory over Terry Donahue’s UCLA Bruins.
Tom Osborne brought his Nebraska Cornhuskers to Memphis in 1977, and the Huskers beat North Carolina, 21-17.
In 1979, Joe Paterno brought his Penn State team and it edged Tulane, 9-6, in the only game in Liberty Bowl history in which a touchdown wasn’t scored.
The most notable game in Liberty Bowl history came on Dec. 29, 1982, because it marked Bear Bryant’s final game as a coach. Alabama came from behind in the second half to defeat Illinois, 21-15. Less than a month later, the most famous former Fordyce Red Bug was dead.
Arkansas lost in its first three visits to the Liberty Bowl — 14-13 to Tennessee in 1971, 21-15 to Auburn in 1984 and 20-17 to Georgia in 1987. In the game against Auburn, Bo Jackson ran for two touchdowns, including a 39-yard scamper late in the fourth quarter.
Arkansas finally got a Liberty Bowl win on Jan. 2, 2010. A field goal in overtime gave Bobby Petrino’s Hogs a 20-17 victory over East Carolina as the second-largest crowd in Liberty Bowl history — 62,742 — looked on in frigid weather.
With this being its fifth Liberty Bowl, Arkansas will now have more Liberty Bowl appearances than any other school. Ole Miss, Louisville, Mississippi State, Air Force, Alabama and East Carolina have been four times each.
The Liberty Bowl affiliated with Conference USA in 1996. The opponent in 1996 and 1997 was from the Big East. Beginning in 1998, the Liberty Bowl had second choice behind the Cotton Bowl between the WAC champion and a Southeastern Conference team. From 1999 to 2005, the Conference USA champion played the Mountain West champion all but two times. From 2006-13, the Conference USA championship game winner was contracted to play an SEC team. The game now features an SEC team against a Big 12 team. That contract, which began last year, runs through 2019. In the first game under the arrangement, Texas A&M defeated West Virginia, 45-37.
In February 2014, AutoZone extended its title sponsorship agreement through the 2019 season.
Were he still around, Bud Dudley would be smiling. With an SEC team, a Big 12 team, a presenting sponsor, an ESPN television contract and an ESPN radio contract, the Liberty Bowl has never been stronger.
It has come a long way since that cold afternoon of Dec. 19, 1959, in Philadelphia.