How the Cotton Bowl reclaimed a spot among the bowl elite

Texas A&M Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel (2) celebrates with the trophy after a victory against the Oklahoma Sooners during the 2013 Cotton Bowl at Cowboys Stadium. The Aggies beat the Sooners 41-13.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

On the first day of 1996, Big Eight member Colorado played Oregon in the first Cotton Bowl without a Southwest Conference team in 55 years. The weather was cold. The sky was gray.

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 over—a 22-point, fourth-quarter comeback from Joe Montana in 1979’s "Ice Bowl"—didn’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 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.