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View from the 'ville
Thursday, December 18, 2008

By Al Myatt

History still unfolding in Liberty Bowl

By Al Myatt
All rights reserved.

Vintage comedian W.C. Fields is credited with saying, "I once spent a year in Philadelphia. I think it was on a Sunday."

Like the Liberty Bowl, Fields was born in Philadelphia. After difficult circumstances in their early years, both achieved fame elsewhere. The trophy for the Liberty Bowl is still a scaled-down replica of the Liberty Bell, which remains in Philadelphia.

Steeped in history, the Liberty Bowl's rich past will no doubt be amplified as East Carolina and Kentucky meet in the 50th anniversary of the college football postseason event that began in the city of brotherly love in 1959 with Penn State topping Alabama, 7-0.

That was Bear Bryant's first bowl trip with the Crimson Tide. The Nittany Lions had an assistant coach named Joe Paterno.

ECU will be playing in the Liberty Bowl for the third time, falling 30-0 to Illinois on Dec. 31, 1994, and achieving a measure of redemption the following year with a 19-13 triumph over Stanford.

The Pirates earned their berth in the golden anniversary contest as champions of Conference USA.

"We are excited about the opportunity to represent Conference USA in the 50th Anniversary of the Liberty Bowl," said ECU coach Skip Holtz.

There have been times when there has been much less excitement about the Liberty Bowl.

The Liberty Bowl almost vanished in 1963 when Mississippi State's 16-12 win over N.C. State drew just 8,309 to Philadelphia Stadium, which had football seating for 102,000.

The facility regularly was filled to capacity for the Army-Navy game and drew 120,757 for the first heavyweight title bout between Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey in 1926. The sprawling structure was known as Sesquicentennial Stadium initially and later Municipal Stadium.

It was Philadelphia Stadium on the program for the 1963 Liberty Bowl and in the Associated Press account of the game that year. It would become JFK Stadium in 1964 in honor of the 35th President, John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in Dallas 30 days before that frigid matchup between the Bulldogs and Wolfpack.

JFK Stadium has since been demolished.

The AP story on that Mississippi State win in 1963 called the contest "the fifth annual and possibly last Liberty Bowl football game." Conditions were nearly unbearable with 22-degree temperatures compounded by 15-mile per hour winds.

It was the first day of winter in 1963 and the venue was far from fan friendly. It was reported that organizers lost $40,000 on the bowl that year.

The Liberty Bowl in Philly had its share of star power. Heisman Trophy winners Ernie Davis of Syracuse and Terry Baker of Oregon State led their teams to victory in 1961 and 1962, respectively.

Liberty Bowl officials responded to its reputation as the "Deep Freeze Bowl" by moving the contest indoors to the Atlantic City (NJ) Convention Hall in 1964. The building had hosted the Democratic Convention and the Beatles in their first U.S. tour in the preceding months. Atlantic City businessmen put up a $25,000 guarantee as they sought to bolster traffic to the resort area.

The Liberty Bowl became the first major bowl game to be played indoors as Utah overwhelmed West Virginia, 32-6. The game was played on natural grass because artificial turf was not available at the time.

The grass was four inches thick and beneath it was two inches of burlap, which covered the convention hall's cement floor. Field preparations cost $16,000. Special lighting was installed and left running all day to help the grass grow.

Because of the size of the convention hall, the end zones had to be shortened to eight yards, two yards less than standard depth.

In 1964, the Liberty Bowl was one of just eight major college bowl games. The game was shown nationally on the ABC Television Network with Paul Christman, Curt Gowdy and Jim McKay describing the action. The network paid $95,000 for the broadcast rights to the first nationwide telecast of an indoor football game.

The live audience was only 6,059 and the indoor experiment lasted only one year.

In 1965, the game was moved to Memphis. Ole Miss topped Auburn, 13-7, before a then-record Liberty Bowl crowd of 38,607. The game has been played in Memphis ever since.

Kentucky is just a season removed from a triple-overtime win over national champion LSU as the Wildcats provide the opposition for East Carolina in the 50th Liberty Bowl on Jan. 2.

As the Liberty Bowl celebrates its golden anniversary, both coaches have connections to the event's storied past.

Wildcats coach Rich Brooks played in the game at its original site in Philadelphia in 1962 as a senior for Oregon State when the Beavers topped hometown Villanova, 6-0. Brooks was an assistant at UCLA in 1976 when the Bruins got drilled by Alabama, 36-6.

Holtz was a youngster when his dad, Lou, was coaching N.C. State to a 31-18 win over Kansas in the 1973 Liberty Bowl.

Bryant coached his last bowl win in Memphis in 1982.

Heisman winners Doug Flutie (Boston College) and Bo Jackson (Auburn) led their teams to the Liberty Bowl in 1983 and '84.

ECU and Kentucky are close across the board in terms of team statistical categories. There is a marked contrast in conference records — the Pirates were 6-2 in C-USA while the Wildcats were 2-6 in the SEC.

ECU finished strong while Kentucky struggled at the end of the regular season.

The Pirates are bidding for their first 10-win season since the 1991 team was 11-1.

ECU will be a part of history at this season's Liberty Bowl. The Pirates can make some history, too.

Send a message to Al Myatt.

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12/18/2008 03:00:59 AM


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