My reign as “Sports Promotions Guy” was soon to end. I was being given responsibility for “Dealer Materials.” These were all the showroom trim deally bobbers and car toppers that made every dealership that much more festive. My defining moment as the sports promotions guy was going to be the Liberty Bowl between USC and Texas A&M, in Memphis, on December 22, 1975. Before the explosion of bowls that now allow any college team with a winning season to appear in a lucrative post-season game, the Liberty Bowl was quite a deal. America’s Bi-centennial was coming up, and the Liberty Bowl was going to be college football’s salute to it. America’s car, Chevrolet, was going to be all over it. In addition to being the major TV sponsor, Chevrolet was going to present checks to the Offensive and Defensive Players of the Year in a live ceremony on the field at halftime. Tawny Godin, the newly crowned Miss America for 1976, was going to make a special halftime appearance while the combined USC and Texas A&M marching bands played patriotic songs. The game was held at Memphis Memorial Stadium, a record crowd of 52,129 was expected. Because the game was being played three days before Christmas, there were no other bowl games competing for TV viewers.
The producers of ABC Sports had finally chosen the scholarship winners. I received the call from New York. The Offensive Player of the Year was Chuck Muncie from Cal Berkeley. The Defensive Player of the Year was Steve Niehaus from Notre Dame. I had the privilege of contacting their Athletic Directors to give them the good news. I called the legendary Edward Walter “Moose” Krause, the Athletic Director of Notre Dame. He served as AD there for thirty-two years. He was ecstatic upon hearing the news. I told him that Chevy was going to fly them to Memphis and put them up at the headquarters hotel. He was going to call Steve with the news and get back to me about travel. I called Dave Maggard, the AD at Cal Berkeley. He too was quite excited about the honor. I told him that we would fly them out to Memphis the morning of 12/22, and fly them back on 12/23. Dave’s excitement waned. “Tom, Chuck is in the middle of exams. He has a test on the morning of 12/22, and one on the morning of 12/23. He won’t be able to make it.” If there was one thing I had learned from working on the Chevy account, it was the operational standing order to “Make It Happen!” This was a time to make it happen. After doing a CYA memo to my boss, I made a few phone calls. I called Dave Maggard back. “Dave,” I said, “a chartered Gulfstream jet is going to pick you both up at the local airport right after Chuck’s exam. It will fly you to Memphis where a limo will drive you two to the game in time for the presentation. Immediately after the award ceremony, the limo will take you back to the jet, which will get you into Berkeley by midnight, your time.” “That’s fantastic, we’ll be there,” he said. Whew! It’s amazing what you can do with $7800 of someone else’s money.
I arrived in Memphis the morning of 12/21. We had a pre-pro meeting at the hotel and then went to the stadium for the award ceremony walk-through. Liberty Bowl officials took us up to the press box area that had been converted into an executive skybox for the game. We all received our Liberty Bowl credentials. I had five different badges that would hang around my neck. They allowed me to go anywhere in the stadium. I made sure that at least one of them allowed me into the skybox suite. Plans were finalized for the scholarship award winners. Moose Krause called me and said that he would drive down from South Bend, pick up Steve Niehaus in Cincinnati, and then drive to Memphis. I told him that Chevy would fly him, but he was determined to make the twelve-hour drive.
The big day had arrived. The temperature at kick-off was expected to be 40 degrees. The game went on the air at 8:00 PM, the kick-off was scheduled for 8:15. Dave Maggard and Chuck Muncie were on their way to the stadium. The Texas A&M cadets marched in. The Southern Cal cheerleaders (aka Song Girls) posed for the cameras. Excitement ran high in the packed stadium. Even Reveille IV, the Aggie collie mascot, was amped. Not so much by the event, but by the loud noise the cannon she was stationed next to made when it was fired. This was legendary USC coach John McKay’s final game. Fortunately, this was a night game, so I didn’t have to worry about the sun-visor silliness. LET THE GAME BEGIN!!!!
The Aggies, favored by seven, had their cadet hats handed to them in the first half. The half ended with USC ahead 20-0. I had ushered the award winners onto the sideline just prior to the end of the half. As the teams left for the locker rooms, we sprang into action. Cameras and a podium were wheeled out to the center of the field. The dignitaries were positioned. The big, fake checks were propped up behind the speakers. The award winners gave great speeches. The Chevy exec gave a great speech. The red light on the camera went out. It’s a wrap! Dave Maggard and Chuck Muncie raced for their limo back to their jet. Moose Krause and Steve Niehaus looked around, not knowing what was next. It was now about 37 degrees. I was done for the day, and setting my sights on the party skybox. I invited Moose and Steve to join me. They were genuinely grateful. As we left the field, the two schools’ marching bands came out. Hundreds of local school children appeared on the field waving American flags and red, white, and blue banners. Miss America was wheeled out on a float, giving the famous “pageant wave.” She was wearing a sleeveless ball gown and her crown. She had to be freezing.
I made my way to the press box elevator, flashed my credentials at the guard, and sent Moose and Steve up to the party. I wanted to take one more look to see if Miss America had turned into a pillar of ice yet. When I got back to the elevator, the guard was having a heated discussion with the USC coaching staff. They had left their credentials in the press box when they went down to the ABC production truck to look at video from the first half. No credential, no admittance. I heard one of the coaches scream one of my favorite phrases, “”Do you know who I am?” I flashed my credential at the guard on got on the elevator. I figured that since the Aggies were getting whipped, they could use all the help they could get. I waited until about 8 minutes had passed in the third quarter before I told the one remaining USC press box spotter (who was quite frantic by this time) that his compadres couldn’t come up because they had left their credentials on their chairs.
In the middle of the third quarter, Miss America and her chaperone arrived in the skybox. The game was pretty much over. Texas A&M almost scored, but fumbled the ball away. I saw Miss America standing, somewhat forlornly, by herself watching the game. I saw my chance to ask my burning question. “Uh, excuse Ms. Godin, I almost froze to death out there, even with my overcoat. How did you endure the cold?” She gave me a sly smile as she put her drink down and grabbed the hem of her gown, pulling it up to her armpits. “A little trade secret,” she said. “Specially made thermal long johns. They’re also foam padded. Feel them.” I was in mid-squeeze when the Miss America chaperone appeared out of nowhere to pull Tawny’s gown back down, and admonish her, “That is NOT permissible behavior.” Miss America rolled her eyes as the chaperone marched away. “Is she with you 24/7?” I asked. “No,” she said. “Just when I’m out in public.” “Is having drinks with us at the hotel after the game being out in public?” I asked. “Nope,” she replied. “We’ll be in the Atrium Bar,” I said.
The final score was USC 20 – Texas A&M 0. The only Aggie happy that night was Reveille IV, who didn’t have to go nuts when the canon went off. I extended the bar invitation to Moose Krause and Steve Niehaus. They gratefully accepted.
Next: Behind The Green Curtain