Steve Bullard walked through Fair Park before the Cotton Bowl back on New Year's Day 2002 feeling out of sorts.
All of the familiar landmarks were there. The exhibition buildings. The midway booths. Even Big Tex.
But there were no rides or games, no blinking lights or yelling barkers. There wasn't a corny dog to be found.
“It felt a little like Clark Griswold going to Walley World when it was closed,” said Bullard, a lifelong Oklahoma fan.
A game at Cotton Bowl Stadium without the Texas State Fair is a bit surreal. Like the morning after an atomic bomb. Like the day after the rapture.
Everything is there except the people.
Oklahoma and Oklahoma State fans have experienced it in recent Cotton Bowls, with the Sooners playing Arkansas after the 2001 season and the Cowboys playing Ole Miss after the 2003 season.
Now, Cowboy fans are about to head back to the land of the lost with the Heart of Dallas Bowl at Cotton Bowl Stadium.
They're sure to encounter the weirdness.
Chase Bartlett sure did back on New Year's Day 2004. The devout Cowboy fan was a teenager, and it was his first time attending a bowl game.
He was fired up about seeing his Cowboys in the Cotton Bowl.
“But looking at the fairgrounds, it was quiet and dead,” said Bartlett, now a student at OSU. “That really stuck out to me.
“It was like that until you got closer to the stadium.”
Once he was around the stadium, the feeling was much more like a normal game day. There was a pep rally. There was a sea of orange.
Jimmy Bunn Jr. was part of that wave. The OSU alum has worn something orange every day since his graduation in 1987. He even has a black, orange and white argyle suit that he sometimes wears to games.
He remembers the empty fairgrounds before that Cotton Bowl against Ole Miss — but it's not a bad memory.
“Going to the stadium was easy,” he said. “No parking problems and the Fair Park was empty.”
Bunn was looking forward to seeing the Ole Miss tailgates in all of their glory. Rebel fans are renowned for their pregame pageantry, fancy and formal tailgates that fill The Grove before their home games.
But Bunn saw little of the Ole Miss tailgaters.
Because the parking lots were so far removed from the stadium, most of the Rebel fans headed inside instead of staying outside.
“It was pretty much like any other game,” Bunn said. “Maybe a little more sedate.”
Perhaps we're all a bit spoiled by the aura of the Red River Rivalry. The spectacle is big, and even fans who've never been are aware of how special the scene is.
Nothing, not even a traditionally grand game like the Cotton Bowl, could compare.
“It was very different,” Sooner fan Dane Tucker said of that matchup against Arkansas. “Walking to the Cotton Bowl was almost a desolate type feeling.”
A season ticket holder since he graduated from OU in 1993, Tucker admits that it might've had something to do with the cold weather or the less-than-exciting opponent.
“There wasn't much energy at all,” he said.
A weird vibe around the stadium does not a bad bowl make, but one of the great things about college football is the entire game day experience. The vibe. The pageantry. The excitement.
Clearly, bowl games at Cotton Bowl Stadium leave much to be desired in those categories.
“Strolling through the Fair Park felt like walking through a ghost town,” said Ballard, the lifelong Sooner fan. “It was a bit of a downer that I went all the way down there for a (morning) kickoff and it wasn't even OU-Texas.”
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at (405) 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.