The Big Queasy 'aint A Contest New Orleans All Abuzz Over Saints, But Not Sugar Bowl

Posted: December 30, 1992

NEW ORLEANS — There was a huge turnout at Champions Sports Bar in nearby Metairie for Monday night's live radio call-in show. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to talk about the Game of the Year.

No, not the Sugar Bowl matchup between No. 1 Miami and No. 2 Alabama scheduled for Friday at the Louisiana Superdome. Virtually all the talk centered on the NFC wild-card game between the New Orleans Saints and the Eagles that will be played Sunday at the Superdome.

"The Sugar Bowl is a much bigger game to the rest of the country than it is to us," said Kenneth Mack, 25, a graduate student living in New Orleans. ''We're Saints fans. Whenever the Saints play, that's the biggest game in town."

"I think we had one call about the Sugar Bowl," said Steve Portier, 36, who produced the one-hour talk show on WWL radio. "It was, like, 99.9 percent Saints. That's the way it always is."

But wasn't Portier just a little surprised since the Miami-Alabama game is for the undisputed national championship?

"New Orleans is hosting the game, but the teams have nothing to do with Louisiana," Portier said. "It is good for the town. The hotels and restaurants are making lots of money, so those folks are happy. But that's all it is - business.

"It's a totally different deal with the Saints. Now you're talking about people's hearts. They've grown up with the Saints, lived and died with them for 25 years. When they get to the playoffs, that's all people want to talk about."

That's not to say there is no visible trace of the Sugar Bowl. In the French Quarter, most of the honky tonks are decorated in Miami and Alabama colors. Every shop along Canal Street has a Sugar Bowl poster in the window.

Fans of the two teams began arriving Sunday, and their number increases each day. Last night, the Miami supporters and Alabama supporters took turns shouting insults (mostly good-natured) across Bourbon Street.

The mood is building, but it is confined to the downtown area. The farther you get from the French Quarter, the less you hear about the Sugar Bowl.

"Things pick up as the week goes along," said Burton Towe, 52, an Alabama fan who was waiting in line outside K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen, the popular restaurant owned by chef Paul Prudhomme.

"I know of several tour groups from Alabama that will be arriving. It will look like Mardi Gras before the week is out. It's early now. Only the real die-hards, like myself, are here."

"I can see where there would be a divided interest, the college crowd on one hand, the (NFL) fans on the other," said Carl Ferrera, 46, the lone Miami booster on a sidewalk jammed with Alabama fans.

"Personally, I don't care about the other game. That's just one out of how many in the NFL playoffs? Eight? Ten? Miami and Alabama are playing for the whole thing in the Sugar Bowl. To me, that's a lot more exciting."

As Ferrera spoke, a saxophone player worked the crowd outside the restaurant. It was obvious he knew about the Sugar Bowl: The first two songs he played were "Stars Fell on Alabama" and "Moon Over Miami."

"Don't applaud, throw money," he said, pointing at the open saxophone case on the sidewalk. In case you're wondering, "Stars Fell on Alabama" brought in $4. "Moon Over Miami" brought in nothing.

The Sugar Bowl has the look and feel of a carnival that is just passing through town.

It will be here a few days, make a lot of noise and light up the sky, but come Saturday, it will pack up and vanish for another year. The Saints aren't going anywhere. They are part of New Orleans, like the jazz halls and the wrought-iron terraces overlooking Jackson Square.

The tourists are here for the college game and that's fine. They are expected to drop a hefty $45 million into the local economy. It is almost impossible to get a restaurant reservation and every decent hotel within 80 miles is booked solid. The natives appreciate it, they really do, but they aren't going to get emotionally involved in the game itself.

As Portier said, the Sugar Bowl is business. The Saints-Eagles game, however, is personal.

"Most people think this is the Saints' best chance to reach the Super Bowl," Portier said. "We keep hearing (from callers): 'This is our year.'

"There is no dominant team this season, so it gives our fans a sense of optimism. But the Saints still have to clear that first (playoff) hurdle and that's always been a problem."

The Saints are the only NFL franchise without at least one postseason win. They have been to the playoffs on three previous occasions under head coach Jim Mora and each time they lost in the first round.

The New Orleans fans, a hot-blooded bunch, similar in many ways to Philadelphia fans, have grown impatient. They booed the Saints at some home games this season despite the team's 12-4 record.

Carl Smith, the offensive coordinator, actually tried to climb into the stands after one heckler, but he was restrained by several players and police. The incident took place Dec. 3, immediately after the Saints defeated Atlanta, 22-14, to clinch a playoff spot.

It should have been a happy occasion, but it wasn't.

In New Orleans, as in Philadelphia, just making the playoffs isn't good enough anymore. The fans want to know when the team is going to take that ''next step." A growing number are tired of waiting.

"People are frustrated with the (Saints) offense," said Richard Hall, 40, a bus driver from Shreveport. "They feel like the team could have been undefeated this season, if only the offense had played as well as the defense.

"There is a lot of criticism of the play-calling (by Smith), that it's too conservative. I can't criticize too much because I look at the record and how many other teams won 12 games this season? Not too many."

Mike Boyle, 31, of Metairie, is a true believer. He has been a Saints fan all his life.

Boyle remembers the 1980 season in which the Saints - better known as the 'Aints - won one game, lost 15 and the few fans who did show up at the Superdome wore paper bags over their heads. The franchise has come a long way since then. The Saints have won 62 games and lost 33 (not including playoffs) since the start of the 1987 season. Only San Francisco has a better record over the same period.

Boyle bakes gourmet pies and sells them to restaurants around the city. He delivers them in a blue minivan with the words "Go Saints" on the rear

window. This week, Boyle added the team's 1992 record, 12-4, to the window.

"I go to all the home games, I'll be there again Sunday," Boyle said yesterday. "I listen to the talk shows. When people criticize, I call up and take the other side.

"What has happened is we've created a monster. This team didn't have one winning season in its first 20 years. Then Mora came and turned things around. Now if he doesn't win every game, these people get mad. They're spoiled.

"When the Saints lose, I don't read a newspaper until Wednesday. I don't listen to the radio until Thursday. I can't stand it. It hurts too much."

Asked how he might feel if the Saints lose to the Eagles Sunday, Boyle shook his head.

"I'll hurt for a while, then I'll start looking ahead to next season," he said. "I won't stay mad at them. I can't. They're my team."

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