ARLINGTON — Back in the planning stages of what has become AT&T Stadium, Arlington Mayor Robert Cluck made a phone call to Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones to suggest a venue in his city as the future home of the local NFL franchise.Jones, stymied in efforts to relocate the team to a new stadium in Dallas, listened intently. He discovered a kindred spirit who also envisioned a wide variety of sports and other events unfolding under the domed roof of what has emerged as an iconic $1.2 billion stadium, with $325 million contributed by Arlington taxpayers.“I didn’t think Jerry would just play nine or 10 games here and lock it up. So it’s great,” Cluck said. “Once we opened up the facility, these big things started coming.”Local organizers barely have had time to revel in the record-setting crowds that attended the 2014 Final Four, capped by Connecticut’s 60-54 victory over Kentucky in Monday’s title game, before turning their attention toward the next big thing headed to Arlington: the inaugural national championship game of the College Football Playoff era.The contest, set for Jan. 12, 2015, will pit the winner of the Rose Bowl against the winner of the Sugar Bowl in the finals of the first four-team postseason playoff bracket used to settle major college football’s national championship.Bill Hancock, executive director of the College Football Playoff, spent time at the Final Four observing the operations within AT&T Stadium for ideas that can be adapted to his game in January.“We’re going to borrow lots of ideas from the Final Four and put in some new wrinkles,” Hancock said. “It will be here before you know it.”Hancock pointed to the stadium, which also has been the site of a Super Bowl and an NBA All-Star game, as the biggest asset his group has at its disposal in efforts to properly launch college football’s playoff era. He also welcomes the opportunity to borrow from the expertise of individuals familiar with staging big events at the venue, from Cowboys employees to members of the Cotton Bowl staff who will work in concert with officials from the Irving-based College Football Playoff. “It’ll be a great venue,” Hancock said. “I love the building. I love the community. For us, the convenience of having it in our own back yard is huge. You can’t put a value on that. It’s phenomenal. The Cotton Bowl staff is great and the building staff is great.“I think having another big college event here before our big event is great for us. We think differently in some ways than the pros do. We’re more in tune with the NCAA. We’ll borrow a lot from the Final Four.”What remains unclear is whether the January game will offer standing-room-only tickets in the end zones. That has happened at past neutral-site games, with each standing area adorned in the colors of one competing team, from balloons to streamers.NCAA officials did not use that option in setting up the stadium for the Final Four, which drew 79,238 for Monday’s title game and 79,444 for Saturday’s semifinals — the largest single-day crowd to watch a college basketball event. Adding the end-zone availabilities could boost capacity above 100,000, although Hancock said no decision has been reached. He did say there would be no installation of temporary seats.Consider that a lesson learned from Super Bowl XLV. Improper installation of temporary seats for that event triggered a ticket fiasco when the seats were declared unsafe — and unusable — hours before kickoff.Although many details have yet to be finalized for the January game, Hancock said: “We’re in very good shape with everything. We’re right where we want to be with the timeline.”Hosting college football’s first title game of the playoff era will mark another historic milestone for the stadium, which opened in 2009. The contest will be the last of six high-profile college games at the venue during the 2014 season. “I don’t even think the community recognizes how big that national championship game in college football is going to be,” said Tommy Bain, chairman of the Cotton Bowl Athletic Association. “When it actually comes to pass, I think people will realize that, outside of the Super Bowl, it’s going to be the No. 1 sporting event in the United States. And that’s awesome that it’s going to be right here.”Sites for the first three championship games of the playoff era are set. Local organizers envision being part of the mix when bids are taken to host future College Football Playoff title games in 2018 and beyond. In addition, AT&T Stadium is one of eight finalists to host another Final Four between 2017 and 2020.All of this, Jones said, is part of a master plan he envisioned more than a decade ago.“I have often said we wanted this building to be more familiar than the White House,” Jones said during last summer’s news conference to announce AT&T had purchased naming rights for the venue.The next step in raising the profile of Jones’ stadium will be the next big thing headed to Arlington: the first championship game of the College Football Playoff era, set for Jan. 12, 2015.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760 Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch