Mike McRae remembers his senior year in high school in 1975, the fans taking over Commerce Street, half chanting for Texas, half for Oklahoma.
“I don’t think it’s quite the same now, but on Saturday morning people used to look and see how many fans from Texas and Oklahoma had gotten thrown in jail the night before for getting a little bit out of control,” said McRae, who expected a big crowd Friday at his restaurant, Stan’s Blue Note Grille on Greenville Avenue.
For 85 years, the Texas-Oklahoma game has thrived at the Cotton Bowl in Fair Park, with generations of fans drawn to the annual spectacle during the State Fair of Texas.
But when AT&T Stadium opened in 2009, it appeared inevitable that the game would move there. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones lured the Cotton Bowl in 2010, and over the years the stadium’s schedule of college games has grown. This year, four FBS games will be played there, including the Big 12 championship in December.
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Yet for fans of Texas and Oklahoma, newer and more comfortable does not necessarily mean better.
“Most of the fans who attend this game have been going with their dad, their sibling or their friends for many, many years,” said Ken Kapps, a 1982 graduate of Texas and president of the Texas Exes. Saturday will be his 39th consecutive Red River Showdown.
“Knowing it’s going to be in the same place, on the same day every year means a tremendous amount to people.”
Fan surveys from ticket holders are positive, officials from Texas and Oklahoma said, even when there are problems with the facilities at the 87-year-old stadium. The game has been played there since 1932.
“I think the history, the atmosphere, the pageantry … I think those things seem to obliterate whatever might create a negative for a fan,” said Kenny Mossman, a senior associate athletic director at Oklahoma.
In 2006, with construction underway at AT&T Stadium, the city of Dallas started a $57 million renovation project at the Cotton Bowl, which included 16,000 additional seats and a scoreboard, prompting the schools to extend their contract through 2015. Another $25 million in improvements in 2012 helped extend the deal through 2020.
In 2014, the schools agreed to play at the stadium through 2025.
“This game is one of the important hallmarks of what makes Dallas great … and I would be heartbroken if it left the city,” Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings said. “Having it at the State Fair makes it an event that rivals the Kentucky Derby or the Indianapolis 500 — those iconic sports events throughout the country that’s on everyone’s bucket list.”
Both universities have also made sure to split their own hefty profit. In 2007, Texas and Oklahoma each earned $250,000 as well as a share of the ticket sales. After the Cotton Bowl Classic moved to AT&T Stadium, the subsidy increased to $450,000 and was at $500,000 by 2012.
Given the intensity of the rivalry, some might assume that it would be difficult for the staffs of these heated rivals to cooperate with one another.
“We’re fierce rivals on the field obviously, but as far as the business and planning part of this we’re very lucky to have a first-place partner in Oklahoma,” said Jeff Orth, an associate athletics director at Texas. “We kind of watch out for one another in that regard.”
Will the game make it to a 100-year milestone in 2032?
“The contract renewal issue has gone on forever, and there were some issues for a little while, but the reality is, I don’t think the schools want to be responsible for ending the tradition,” McRae said. “If the game weren’t in Dallas, at the Cotton Bowl, it just wouldn’t be the same.”
Texas vs. Oklahoma
2:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPN