How the Cotton Bowl reclaimed a spot among the bowl elite
JAN 02, 2014 12:39a ET
Neither team boasted local ties, and the two teams played in front of an announced crowd of 58,214. That estimate was, let's say, generous, and far below the crowds of 70,000 and more that the stadium was used to accomodating.
The game also didn't have a sponsor.
"Things really looked bleak," said Charlie Fiss, who has served as the bowl's VP of communications since 1994.
That day foreshadowed darker days in coming years for the Cotton Bowl, but a change of venue and the latest stage of college football's evolution have guaranteed the game's brightest days are ahead. Getting there wasn't easy.
The storied bowl game had long been one of college football's best, but an uncertain future lie ahead as the Big Eight adopted four Southwest Conference teams to form the Big 12 and begin play in the fall of 1996.
Two seasons later, the Bowl Championship Series was formed, and four bowls would rotate the national title game. The Cotton Bowl had played host to plenty of national champions in its first six decades, but the Dallas-based bowl wouldn't get that privilege anymore.
"We had worked so hard for so many years and so many people involved to put the Cotton Bowl at the very top," Cotton Bowl chairman Tommy Bain said, "and to be eliminated from the new wave of postseason at the highest level really hurt."
Everybody associated with the Cotton Bowl knew why. The Fiesta Bowl and Rose Bowl could annually guarantee good weather in the Phoenix and Los Angeles area.
The Orange Bowl in Miami could do the same, and was planning to move into brand-new stadium loaded with suites and other shiny new modern amenities. The Sugar Bowl was played inside the Superdome, which also had suites and had only been open a couple of decades when the BCS had to select which bowls would be included.
The Cotton Bowl had charm and history, but it didn't have a roof or an ability to sell high-dollar suites.
"That's what held us back," Bain said. "The logical side we understood, but the history, it hurt us that they didn't take any of that into account."
Dallas is hardly a frozen tundra on January 1, but having one of the bowl's classic games replayed over and overâa 22-point, fourth-quarter comeback from Joe Montana in 1979's "Ice Bowl"âdidn't help the game's battle against a chilly perception.
The bowl couldn't control weather, so it focused on what it could control after taking some time to "lick our wounds," Bain said.
"Even though we weren't a BCS bowl, we conducted ourselves just like we were," he said. "All through history, our game has been known for its hospitality. We didn't have the ocean, mountains or the French Quarter. We needed a niche, and that was going to be hospitality to student athletes who came to play."
Team hotels are turned into team facilities with weight and meeting rooms. They're also outfitted with gigantic players' lounges stocked with video game systems, ping-pong tables and other player-friendly activities to take up free time. Gifts for players often include gaming systems and now, Apple products that had Houston Texans, FOX Sports NFL Insider Mike Garafolo has confirmed. Less than two years after replacing Joe Paterno as coach of the Nittany Lions, the 44-year-old O'Brien will return to the NFL. He was an offensive assistant under Bill Belichick at New England from 2007-12. O'Brien was 15-9 at Penn State, hit hard by NCAA sanctions levied for the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal that cost the late Paterno his job. Despite a lack of scholarships, a bowl ban, an overall sense of doom, and many player defections from Paterno's final roster, O'Brien led the Nittany Lions to two winning seasons (8-4, 7-5), restoring some tempered enthusiasm in Happy Valley. But now the Nittany Lions are back to the drawing board after losing O'Brien in a similar circumstance that he turned down last year. After his first season, O'Brien interviewed with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Cleveland Browns, among others, only to stay in State College. 2013 year in review There was no shortage of riveting moments in 2013. We look back at a memorable year in sports. O'Brien was an assistant at Brown, Georgia Tech, Maryland and Duke, before joining Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady in New England. O'Brien will become the third coach in Texans history, following Dom Capers, who led the team from its expansion season in 2002, and Gary Kubiak. Kubiak took over after Capers was fired following Houston's 2-14 season in 2005. Kubiak went 61-64 and led Houston to its first two playoff appearances and two AFC South titles before being fired in early December in his eighth season. The Texans were expected to contend for the Super Bowl this season, but instead lost nine games by a touchdown or less as part of a 14-game skid to end the season with the NFL's worst record at 2-14. The job is still seen as a plum position because Houston has a roster filled with talent, including 2012 Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt and star receiver Andre Johnson. NFL COACHING CHANGES Lions fire Jim Schwartz Bucs fire Schiano, GM Redskins fire Mike Shanahan Vikings fire Leslie Frazier Browns fire Rob Chudzinski The Texans need to find a solution at quarterback though after veteran Matt Schaub had a terrible season and was benched after six games. He was replaced by Case Keenum, but the former record-setter at the University of Houston proved he wasn't the answer, either. Houston has the top overall draft pick and could use it on a one of a trio of talented signal-callers who could be available. Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater, 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M, and Fresno State's Derek Carr, younger brother of Houston's first-ever draft pick, David Carr, are the top-rated quarterbacks expected to be in the draft. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips served as interim coach for the last three games and reportedly interviewed for the job along with former Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith. But Houston went with O'Brien instead, going with a first-time NFL head coach for the second time in its short history. Many Penn State players took to Twitter on Tuesday night to congratulate O'Brien on his new job. Cornerback Stephon Morris tweeted: ''Couldn't be happy for coach O'B. Chasing his dream, he deserves it. Pls PSU don't bash him. He's done a lot for us & he deserve our support.''" target="_blank">Missouri players losing their minds last month. The bowl also floods teams with volunteers to make sure no need goes unattended.
"The bowl is as first-class as any I've been associated with, and I've been to many, many bowls over the years," said Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, who brought his team to the 2007 game, too. "They do a great job."
Hospitality helped retain the Cotton Bowl's reputation as a well-run operation, but no amount of food or service was going to push the Cotton Bowl back to the adults' table of the college football postseason.
AT&T Stadium, the new $1.3 billion home of the Dallas Cowboys, opened in 2009, and provided opportunity. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones won a national title as a player at Arkansas in the 1965 Cotton Bowl, and wanted a piece of history to find a new home.
"He's always had a soft spot in our heart because he played in it," Fiss said. "When he built this new stadium, he wanted us to go there."
It was a much-needed development for a game that was in danger during the early part of the decade.
"There was a year or two in there when we felt like we were sliding a little bit," Bain said.
Houston was building Reliant Stadium, a state-of-the-art facility that hosted the 2004 Super Bowl and 2011 Final Four. San Antonio was upgrading the Alamodome.
"We were stuggling in our own city," Bain said. "Lo and behold, the Jones family and the Cowboys organization began birthing what they were going to do. The minute we knew they had that on the horizon, we began negotiating to be a part of it."
At the end of the 2009 season, the Cotton Bowl moved out of its namesake for its future's sake. The following season, it moved to primetime for the first time ever, departing from its traditional slot on the morning of New Year's Day.
Despite not being in the BCS, the continued partnership of the Big 12 and SEC since 1998 have produced matchups that often exceed those played in BCS games, both in quality and national attention. Unlike bowls in the BCS, the Cotton Bowl is never obligated by BCS rules to take a team like Northern Illinois in 2012 or eight-win UConn in 2010 that have produced forgettable blowouts garnering little viewership.
The work paid off last spring when the Cotton Bowl was named one of six "access bowls" that would be part of the College Football Playoff, beginning in 2014. The inaugural season will bring college football's national championship to Dallas for the first time in the game's modern era.
Friday's game will be the end of the Big 12-SEC partnership, as well as a move back to a 1 p.m. kickoff time on New Year's Day.
Getting that nod is a moment the bowl committee worked to receive for nearly two decades.
"That was as good a day as 15 years before was a bad day," Bain said of the announcement. "It was a celebration for North Texas that we were going to bring back the top of the CFB landscape. I was extremely happy for all those people that had worked for some 75 years before us that had really set the stage for us that had built our reputation for so many years."
Fiss, who worked closely with the Cotton Bowl at the Southwest Conference from 1984 before joining the bowl itself, said he wanted to see the bowl return to prominence before he retired. He never knew if his wish would be granted.
The game struck out when the BCS began and struck out again when the postseason added a fifth game before the 2007 season, but chose to let bowls host two games, rather than included a fifth bowl in the rotation.
With a new weather-proof stadium and the same old hospitality that's made it one of college football's most beloved games, the Cotton Bowl's days of striking out are officially over.
"It's a time for celebration at the Cotton Bowl we're pretty excited about what's happening around here," Bain said.