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.”
But the last piece of the puzzle was the stadium. The Cotton Bowl stadium, well-known to Oklahomans because of OU-Texas, is an historic venue and frankly is still quite the setting in October, when the State Fair is in session and the weather is gorgeous. Yet in January, when Fair Park is deserted and it can be cold and rainy, the Cotton Bowl loses all charm.
“Even though we had the rich history, the rich legacy, our stadium held us back,” Bain said. “We were doing all these things, and we needed a new stadium. We were talking earlier about the vision of Oklahoma City, attracting business and like the Thunder. We had the very opposite going on in the city of Dallas. We had a tremendous void in leadership. We had a lack of vision.
“We made a presentation to the city of Dallas one time. We took the University of Texas’ stadium, and Texas A&M’s stadium, and we had photographs of those every decade since World War II, how they’ve grown, how they’ve put their amenities together, put suites in. And side by side, the third photo we had was the Cotton Bowl. It was the same photograph for 50 years. We’re showing this to the city of Dallas, saying we need to band together.”
At the same time, Jones was politicking Dallas to help fund his new stadium, including a plan to build it at Fair Park.
They were rebuffed.
“They missed a generational opportunity,” Bain said. “The leadership of Dallas today would not let that happen. They would see the benefit of that stadium being in their city.”
Bain said the Cotton Bowl Classic had an agreement with Jones. They would place their game wherever he built his stadium. Dallas, Arlington, Fort Worth. Didn’t matter.
“If Jerry had built that stadium in Oklahoma City, our game would be in Oklahoma City,” Bain said. “This was the last puzzle to make us the very best.”
Bain sat in the Rose Bowl last January, watching the Auburn-Florida State national championship game. “When it kicked off, I said, ‘We’re next. We’ve got the next national championship,’” Bain said. “I was looking at those beautiful mountains and sunset. But as soon as it kicked off, everything went to the game. Our stadium is our mountains. People love coming and experiencing our stadium.”
The bond between the Cowboys and the Cotton Bowl Classic is strong. Cotton Bowl headquarters are in JerryWorld, for which the Cotton Bowl pays $1 a year, and that includes renting the stadium for the game. But in return, the Cotton Bowl organizes all the college football games that the Cowboys host, which this season numbers six: OSU-Florida State, Texas-UCLA, Texas A&M-Arkansas, Texas Tech-Baylor, the Cotton Bowl Classic and the national title game.
With the Cowboys’ stadium secured, the Cotton Bowl Classic was poised to strike when college football’s postseason format changed. In 2013, that indeed happened. A post-bowl championship game was established, a six-bowl system was set to provide two semifinals on a rotating basis and the Cotton was an easy choice to claim an even higher status than it enjoyed in the salad days before the demise of the Southwest Conference.
The Cotton Bowl is back. Bigger than ever.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.