On Jan. 1, 1996, the 60th Cotton Bowl Classic was staged, and it hardly could have been more dreary.
Decrepit stadium. Cold, miserable weather. Oregon vs. Colorado, both conference runners-up, after 55 straight years of the Southwest Conference champ playing at Fair Park. The announced crowd was 58,214, but the actual count seemed to be about half that.
A proud tradition had cratered. Morale was low even among Cotton Bowl diehards. Interest was meager in Dallas.
On Jan. 1, 2015, the 79th Cotton Bowl will be staged with teams to be determined.
The world’s greatest stadium. Climate-controlled weather. Two teams judged to be worthy of major-bowl status in the new College Football Playoff system. The game already is a sellout.
Eleven days later, the Cotton Bowl will host the national championship game in Arlington. And in January 2016, the 80th Cotton Bowl will be one of the national semifinals.
The Cotton Bowl Classic is an American success story. The rise and fall and re-rise of a tradition.
Cotton Bowl chairman Tommy Bain was the featured speaker at the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame’s quarterly leadership luncheon Thursday and detailed his game’s rally from the dark days of the mid-1990s.
“Those were devastating times,” said Rick Baker, the Cotton Bowl’s 25-year chief executive officer. “We went from the top of the mountain to under the valley. It really changed us.”
The Fiesta Bowl had usurped the Cotton as the fourth major bowl. The early renditions of what became the BCS were forming. The Cotton was omitted from the rotation.
The demise of the Southwest Conference and the deteriorating Cotton Bowl stadium dropped the Cotton into second-tier status. The Big 12 had cast its lot with the Fiesta Bowl. The Cotton Bowl organizers met and wondered what to do.
“We weren’t feeling very good,” Bain said. “We sort of lost confidence. What are we to do next?”
Bain’s ties with the Cotton Bowl go back to New Year’s Day 1957, when his dad took him to the TCU-Syracuse showdown and he saw the Horned Frogs beat Jim Brown’s team 28-27. To see the Cotton become an also-ran bowl, to see it fall below the Capital One Bowl on the postseason food chain, to see it with no more relevancy than bowls 40 years younger?
“We were left out in the cold,” Bain said. “And it hurt.”
But the Cotton Bowl took the necessary steps to stage a revival. It acted big-time, even if it wasn’t, taking hospitality to new heights. It secured a Big 12/SEC contract that generally made for intriguing matchups that filled the stadium. It convinced Fox to put the game in prime time after Jan. 1, which meant it lined up along with the BCS games. And it moved into Jerry Jones’ marvelous new Dallas Cowboys stadium, starting with the Oklahoma State-Ole Miss game on Jan. 2, 2010.
And when the new College Football Playoff format arrived, the Cotton Bowl was ready.
Bain said the beaten-down Cotton Bowl leadership of the mid-’90s “put together a leadership team, put together a team with passion, put together a team with vision. We determined we were going to return to the very top of the landscape of college football. We had no idea how we were going to do it. We just said we were going to do it. We banded together.
“We decided we would conduct the Cotton Bowl as if we were a BCS bowl. In fact, we said we would conduct the Cotton Bowl as if it were a BCS championship game.”
That took money, and the sponsorship of Southwestern Bell and eventually AT&T provided it. So did the Fox television contract. While ESPN has commandeered almost every other bowl game, the Cotton stuck with Fox.
And the Cotton Bowl’s hospitality has indeed become legendary. Only the Fiesta Bowl rivals the Cotton in terms of accommodating hosts of visiting teams and media.
“We don’t have any mountains,” Bain said. “We don’t have any beaches. What’s our natural resource? Our natural resource is people. Just like Oklahoma. Very much that way. What we’re going to do is treat people better than they’re treated anywhere in the country.”