As officials from the AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic spent Thursday reveling in their game’s return to national prominence, Cotton Bowl president Rick Baker reflected on a two-decade journey that led to Wednesday’s confirmation of playoff status for the annual game at Cowboys Stadium.
“It’s very emotional… to get back to being involved in the biggest games after almost 20 years of being on the outside looking in,” Baker said. “It’s gratifying and overwhelming. It’s something I’ll never forget.”
As one of six bowls in the semifinals playoff rotation under the new College Football Playoff system, widespread changes are coming to the Cotton Bowl. Among the tweaks will be a fresh date for most future games (Dec. 31) and a more national focus in future matchups, with teams assigned by College Football Playoff officials.
Those are welcomed changes in Arlington, where Cowboys Stadium will host its final Cotton Bowl matching Big 12 and SEC teams after this season (Jan. 3, 2014), with two high-profile games in a 13-day window the next year — the Cotton Bowl on Dec. 31, 2014, and the first national championship game of the playoff era on Jan. 12, 2015.
For the Cotton Bowl, left out of the lucrative top tier of bowl games for almost two decades during the BCS era, Wednesday’s inclusion in the semifinals rotation represents a huge boost in national prestige and annual revenues. It also represents a significant rebound from what Baker cited as the “lowest of lows” in Cotton Bowl history: a rain-soaked, sparsely attended 1996 game played without a title sponsor in an era when bowls need them to help pay the bills.
Colorado defeated Oregon 38-6 on Jan. 1, 1996, on a cold, wet day in front of 58,214 fans in Dallas. It remains the smallest crowd in Cotton Bowl history since the Cotton Bowl stadium — the game’s original home — was expanded to seat more than 47,000 for the 1949 contest.
Baker said the lack of a title sponsor for that contest, combined with being left out of the BCS loop and having no Southwest Conference champion to boost local ticket sales, drove home the difficulties bowl officials faced to regain lost footing on the college football landscape.
“If you ask our board members and civic leaders, they’d all say that was our lowest point,” said Baker, who has seen the game rebound in its new venue and in partnership with AT&T, the game’s title sponsor since 1997. “The last piece of the puzzle for us was the move to Cowboys Stadium. It took our game to another level.”
In the game’s four seasons in Arlington, the contest has drawn four of the top five crowds in Cotton Bowl history, including 87,025 for Texas A&M’s 41-13 victory over Oklahoma on Jan. 4. By reaching a new level of national prestige, as driven home by Wednesday’s announcement, the following changes will soon be evident at the Cotton Bowl: