For the Sunday Oklahoman, I wrote about the Cotton Bowl’s return to national status as a college football post-season game. You can read that column here.
I chatted with Cotton Bowl chief executive officer Rick Baker, but we didn’t connect until Saturday night, after I had submitted my column. I inserted a little bit from Baker, but he had a lot of interesting things to say that I didn’t have time to get into my Cotton Bowl piece. I thought I would share them with you here:
* Baker made a great point that I never had fully heard. The diminishing ranks of the independents transferred the post-season power from the bowls to the conferences.
In the 1980s, Penn State, Florida State, Miami, Notre Dame, South Carolina, Boston College, Pittsburgh and West Virginia were among the independents. The bowls had plenty of leverage with conferences; the bowls could draw plenty of quality schools from the independent ranks. Two national title games during that era, the 1986 and 1988 seasons, featured national title games that matched independents (Penn State-Miami, West Virginia-Notre Dame).
But starting with the 1991 season, the independent ranks withered. The Big East began sponsoring football. Florida State joined the ACC, Penn State joined the Big Ten, South Carolina joined the SEC. Eventually, only Notre Dame was left as a major independent.
“The bowls were really going through a transition,” Baker said. “All of the independents … kept the power out of the commissioners’ hands. Sort of allowed the bowls to have a little bit more power and influence. The total inventory wasn’t necessarily controlled by the commissioners.”
* Just as Cotton Bowl chairman Tommy Bain said, the demise of the Southwest Conference hastened the Cotton’s fall. During bowl realignment, with the advent of what became the BCS, the Rose had the Big Ten and Pac-10 on its side. The Orange had the Big Eight. The Sugar had the SEC. But with no Southwest Conference, the Cotton had no constituents. “We didn’t have anyone at the table negotiating for us,” Baker said. “We were out there adrift. No one was looking out for us.”
The Fiesta Bowl had shoved its way into major status already. Suddenly, it became a Fiesta vs. Cotton debate. The Fiesta had better weather and a (slightly) better stadium. University of Phoenix Stadium didn’t open until 2006, so the Cotton Bowl stadium wasn’t that far behind Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz. But the new Big 12 Conference voted to align with the Fiesta.
* The Cotton had major television problems. CBS dropped the Cotton Bowl after 35 straight years of broadcasting the event. NBC picked up the Cotton for the 1993, 1994 and 1995 games. But Baker said that NBC then dropped the Cotton. Liberty Media bought the Cotton Bowl rights and leased out network time on CBS for New Year’s Day, but “no one was really promoting us. We didn’t have a champion in our game anymore. It was really tough.”
The Cotton Bowl also lost Mobil as the title sponsor. For the ill-fated 1996 game, Colorado-Oregon, the first non-SWC Cotton Bowl after 55 straight years, the game didn’t even have a title sponsor.
“It was the low of the lows,” Baker said. “We just decided as an organization we were going to build back up, no matter how long it took.”
In the fall of 1996, the Cotton signed a contract with Southwestern Bell as the title sponsor. Southwestern Bell was not a big player at the time. The company was in just five states. But Southwestern Bell had a plan, and promotion was part of that. Remember, in 1998, Southwestern Bell also signed on as the naming rights sponsor of Oklahoma City’s new Bricktown ballpark.
Within a few years ago, Southwestern Bell was buying up Pac Bell, Bell South, AT&T Mobile. It became one of the biggest companies in America and even bought out AT&T, taking over the AT&T name.
The Cotton Bowl grew with Southwestern Bell.
And in 1998, FOX wanted to get in the college football business. It signed a contract with the Cotton Bowl, a partnership that flourished and remained intact until now; ESPN has the rights to the new College Football Playoff bowls, of which the Cotton is a part.
* Finally, in autumn 1998, the Cotton signed on with the SEC, assuring a Big 12/SEC matchup every year. The No. 2 Big 12 team vs. the No. 3 or 4 SEC team. Marquee names, close geography, rabid fan bases. “All of a sudden, our games became sellouts again,” Baker said. “All of a sudden we were back. We had our title sponsor and a good TV contract that promoted us. We were having big games, but obviously we were not in the rotation of having national championships. But we were back on where we had spotlight type of games again. We built on that.”
* And as Bain said, the move to Jerry Jones’ new Cowboys Stadium was huge.
“The last piece of puzzle was ’07, when we voted to move our game out of our namesake stadium,” Baker said. “Very difficult decision to make. The Cotton Bowl had been our home for 70something years. Dallas had been very good to us. But that was still hanging over our heads.
“When Jerry Jones and the Jones family decided to build, we were the first very first non-Cowboy entity that joined up. A lot of it was because of Jerry. Jerry loved the Cotton Bowl (having played in the game as an Arkansas guard in the 1960s). Stephen (Jones’ son) was an Arkansas grad, loved the Cotton Bowl.
“Truly was the last piece of the puzzle. Great title sponsor, terrific TV network, all of a sudden playing in the finest football facility in the country. Add it all up together, right place at the right time. We feel very honored to be where we’re at right now.”