The city of New Orleans might as well dub the seven days leading up to the Allstate Sugar Bowl as “Archie Manning Week.”
Not only is Manning one of New Orleans’ most beloved athletes, having labored at quarterback for the Saints in some of their leanest season, but he is also a legend at one of the bowl’s participating teams: Ole Miss.
In fact, the last time the Rebels played in the Sugar Bowl -- Jan. 1, 1970 -- Manning started at quarterback and led Ole Miss to a 27-22 upset of Arkansas.
“It’ll be so much fun to have so many of our Ole Miss friends in town. Obviously everyone’s excited about being in the Sugar Bowl,” Manning said Monday. “Non-Ole Miss people can’t believe it’s been that long. Somebody will say it’s been 46 years since Ole Miss played in the Sugar Bowl and they’ll go, ‘You’re kidding me!’”
The Rebels (9-3) will face Oklahoma State (10-2) in the Jan. 1 bowl, marking the second straight season that Ole Miss has played in a New Year’s Six game. This one will be especially significant, however, because of what the Sugar Bowl represents to football fans in the Southeast.
Mississippi native Manning recalls Ole Miss playing in a bowl game as a nearly annual occurrence during his childhood -- and it was frequently the Sugar Bowl. Legendary coach John Vaught led the Rebels to the Sugar Bowl eight times between 1953 and 1970 prior to the drought that will finally end on Jan. 1.
Asked whether it made him feel nostalgic to look back on those Sugar Bowl memories, Manning cracked, “Nostalgia is a better word than making me sit and say it makes me feel old. But it is special, not only thinking about my teammates, but I’ve got good friends that were on that Arkansas team when we played them. Chuck Dicus, good friend of mine. Bill Montgomery was the quarterback that day, one of my best friends. So yeah, it does bring back great memories.”
Unlike Manning, another Ole Miss-Saints icon -- Deuce McAllister -- doesn’t have a Sugar Bowl memory to recall. McAllister was born eight years after Manning led the Rebels to victory in their last Sugar appearance, so he fully understands the electricity that accompanied Ole Miss earning a rare invitation to New Orleans.
“[Ole Miss fans are] extremely excited,” McAllister said. “The BCS and the playoff system has changed the landscape as far as the bowls are concerned, but you still think of the Sugar Bowl and its storied history and what it means -- just the appearances the university has had in it in the past and to be able to get back in that place, or at least in that rotation. It doesn’t show you’ve arrived, but you’re getting close to being in that [playoff] conversation.”
If Manning is the player most closely associated with the Ole Miss-New Orleans connection -- and he clearly holds that title, as Ole Miss even allowed him to pick the Rebels’ uniform combination for the game -- McAllister would be second. Like Manning, he made two Pro Bowls as a Saint, and he’s also the career rushing leader for both the Rebels and Saints.
That legacy will surely make Sugar Bowl week a memorable time.
“It’s definitely been cool,” McAllister said. “For me, the quote-unquote path of following in Archie’s footsteps has just been unbelievable -- obviously both of us playing at Ole Miss, both having an opportunity to play in New Orleans as far as our professional careers. Then for me, to see my alma mater come back and play in the Sugar Bowl and be part of its storied history, it’s definitely special.”
Plenty of Ole Miss alums clearly share Manning and McAllister’s opinions. Bowl tickets have been a hot commodity, and Manning fully expects the streets of the French Quarter to be overflowing with fans wearing red and blue around New Year’s.
After all, this bowl trip has been several decades in the making.
“Everybody wants to come. I’m real curious what the final number will be for Ole Miss people coming down here. I think it’s going to be a big number,” Manning said. “They bought all our tickets and asked for more, and the game’s been sold out now for a couple weeks. It’s going to be fun.
“People like to come to New Orleans anyway, but for Ole Miss to be coming to play in the Sugar Bowl for the first time in 46 years, it’s just really, really special.”