Updated at 2:36 p.m., Tuesday, January 8, 2008
CFB: Sugar Bowl chief: 'New Orleans is back'
By BRETT MARTEL
Associated Press Sports Writer
"What I would like to say is the city came together in a way that makes me truly proud," Paul Hoolahan said today. "It was a challenge that was sent out to everybody top to bottom, from the shoeshine man to the person at the very top. Everybody met that challenge and I think exceeded expectations.
"It's an important statement to the country the New Orleans is back and ready to perform and put on the classic big-time college events that we're known for, professional and otherwise."
When Hurricane Katrina swamped much of the city in August 2005, displacing hundreds of thousands of residents and tearing up the Louisiana Superdome, the Sugar Bowl was forced to temporarily move operations to Atlanta, which hosted the game that season.
Meanwhile, contractors worked around the clock for about nine months to get the Superdome ready for the return of the NFL's New Orleans Saints for the 2006 season. That allowed the Sugar Bowl, which started in 1934, to return to New Orleans last season as well.
The first one back in New Orleans, which also featured an LSU victory, was deemed a success, although not everything went as smoothly as Hoolahan would have liked. Back then, employers were still having trouble getting fully staffed because of a housing crunch caused by Katrina's widespread devastation.
Hoolahan said last year's event was understaffed, but that improved substantially this year. Meanwhile, the areas of the city in which the Sugar Bowl operates, from practice facilities at Tulane University in uptown New Orleans, to the downtown hotels, to the restaurants of the French Quarter, all are in arguably as good or better shape now than they were before the storm.
The BCS national championship game, responsibility for which rotates among the four BCS bowl committees, gave New Orleans an opportunity to demonstrate that the images of still-rotting flood-damaged homes in some of the hardest-hit neighborhoods do not alone define the city.
Many of the historic parts of town cherished by residents and tourists alike are brimming with success stories of rebuilt homes and businesses, the results of resilient people who cared too much about a unique place to let it wither away without a fight.
On the eve of the game, Antoine's, a renowned French Quarter restaurant that has been around since 1840 and still lists menu items in French, made an exception to its normal practice of closing on Sunday nights.
It was packed for dinner with people gazing in wonder at its antique chandeliers and elaborate crown molding adorned with carved fleur-de-lis, an old symbol of French royalty that also became the symbol of New Orleans. They dined on dishes like Oysters Rockefeller, which was invented at Antoine's, indulged in desserts like baked Alaska and otherwise immersed themselves in the refined, old-world cultural richness that distinguishes New Orleans from many other places in North America.
When it was time to play football on Monday night, a Superdome-record crowd of 79,280 jammed a stadium that has never looked better.
"New Orleans did it in New Orleans style and New Orleans fashion," Hoolahan said. "It was really a litmus test, as you know, and we know the eyes of the country were on us. ... Great credit goes out to the entire community."
Yet there were still signs of the hurricane's aftermath.
Soon after the game was over, temporary workers moved in to start cleaning up the spilled beer and nacho cheese left behind.
"I think we're still going through a disaster," said Kalvin McCrimmon, 54, cleaning up for $8 an hour. A roofer by trade, McCrimmon said many rebuilding jobs have been taken by out-of-town firms, or Latino immigrants willing to accept working conditions and pay he will not.
"Things like this game help the city. In some ways it helps me," he said, explaining that a lack of better jobs had driven him to the clean up crew for the first time. "But instead of taking the jobs we can do, we're taking what we can get."
Associated Press reporter John Moreno Gonzales contributed to this story.