January 3, 2010

Cotton Bowl hopes new home leads to BCS

SATURDAY: McCluster carries Ole Miss to Cotton Bowl win

ARLINGTON, Texas - Looking out the window of his office, Rick Baker can see a Wal-Mart and a parking lot. If he crooks his neck and peers to the northeast, he can see a few rides at nearby Six Flags Over Texas.

A discount department store, lined asphalt and a roller coaster ... that's not exactly the corner-office view to which most executives aspire.

But Baker, president of the Cotton Bowl, couldn't be happier. That's because the best view of his office is from the outside looking in. And that's where the Cotton Bowl is right now - on the outside of the Bowl Championship Series and hoping to get in.

The Cotton Bowl once was one of college football's major postseason games, and its officials hope to regain that status. Those hopes are boosted by the game's relocation from the antiquated Cotton Bowl near downtown Dallas to the palatial new Dallas Cowboys Stadium, where Baker's office is located.

"The hardest decision we ever made was to leave our namesake stadium," Baker said. "Internally, the choice was hard. Externally, it was an easy choice between the old and the new. The new stadium has a roof on it and we've had weather issues."

Boy, have they.

In 1979, with the wind-chill factor at minus-6 degrees, Notre Dame quarterback Joe Montana left the game against Houston suffering from symptoms of hypothermia. He ate hot chicken soup in the locker room to raise his body temperature, then returned in the fourth quarter to lead the Irish from a 34-12 deficit to a 35-34 victory.

Although that endures as one of the greatest individual and team comebacks in college football history, it also gave the perception that the Cotton Bowl annually was played in conditions more favorable for frostbite than football.

That was one of the reasons the Cotton Bowl became the Pete Best of bowl games. It was originally among the "Fab Four" of postseason games, along with the Rose, Sugar and Orange bowls. But like Best - the original drummer of the Beatles - the Cotton Bowl was unceremoniously dumped from the group for a more appealing fourth member. Best was replaced by Ringo Starr; the Cotton was replaced by the Fiesta Bowl.

Inclement weather, a dying Southwest Conference, a plague of probation within that conference and a deteriorating stadium led to the Cotton Bowl being shunned by the BCS - and exiled into second-tier status - in 1998.

Saturday's Cotton Bowl between Ole Miss and Oklahoma State was the first played in the billion-dollar Cowboys Stadium, which may be the finest football venue in the country. The retractable-roof domed stadium can seat as many as 111,000. Saturday's crowd for the Ole Miss-Oklahoma State contest was 77,928 - the second-largest in Cotton history. The stadium already is set as the venue for the 2010 NBA All-Star Game, the 2011 Super Bowl and the 2014 NCAA men's Final Four.

It may be just a matter of time - four years, perhaps - before the BCS wants to stage one of its games there, too.

A fifth site likely wouldn't be up for discussion until the summer of 2012 - roughly six months after the current BCS contract ends. In a best-case scenario the Cotton Bowl wouldn't be elevated to BCS status until 2014, after the current contract expires.

"There hasn't been a serious discussion about going to five sites, but I certainly think that could be part of the discussion for next round, which won't take place for a couple of years now," Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe said. "If there is consideration for a fifth site, I think the Cotton Bowl would be a prime location."

Adding a site would require BCS officials - conference commissioners, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick and university presidents - to make changes in the BCS format, a potential move that won't be popular with the current four BCS bowl games and their sponsors.

There are five BCS bowls - the Rose, Fiesta, Sugar and Orange and the BCS championship game. Every four seasons, one of those bowls also plays host to the national championship game.

A fifth BCS site would mean each of those bowls would host the national championship every fifth season instead of every fourth. The sponsors of those bowl games would rather be linked to the national title every four years.

The flipside: A fifth site would not require the staffs of those bowl games to face the demands of staging two games every fourth year.

But Bill Hancock, the executive director of the BCS, said that isn't a problem.

"The double-hosting has worked," Hancock said. "When it comes time to re-evaluate, we'll have six or seven years of double-hosting under our belts. It has worked out fine and the bowls are learning from each other. You can imagine, logistically, the extra burden is noticeable on the part of the bowls, but they've worked through it. They've looked on it as a badge of honor to pull off two games in a week.

"Right now, we have four cities hosting five games and it's working. But there's no way to know what will happen in the future."

Baker is hoping the Cotton Bowl's past will help shape its future.

If a fifth site were proposed, Cowboys Stadium likely wouldn't be the only site under consideration. Reliant Stadium in Houston, the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, a refurbished Citrus Bowl in Orlando and even a northern city - Ford Field in Detroit - could be considered.

Beebe would push to add the fifth site in Texas so the Big 12 would have a BCS bowl game in its area. The SEC has the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, the ACC has the Orange Bowl in Miami and the Pac-10 has the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.

As it is now, the Big 12 is aligned with the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Ariz., which actually is a Pac-10 area.

"If we expand the number of sites, we certainly want it in our part of the country," Beebe said. "Texas makes a lot of sense.

"Having said that, we would support the Cotton Bowl situations only if it meant we could continue the same relationship we have with the Fiesta Bowl. We really don't want to depart from that partnership."

Baker would welcome any scenario that elevates the Cotton Bowl's status. He hopes the combination of Cowboys Stadium and the Cotton Bowl's history as an elite postseason game would tip the scales in its favor.

Other than the new stadium, the Cotton Bowl's history is one of its greatest selling points. The game began in 1936, with TCU defeating Marquette 16-6, and since has been the site of some of the most memorable moments in college football history.

That's where Alabama's Tommy Lewis leaped off the sideline to tackle Rice's Dicky Maegle on a long run in 1954. Syracuse, with Ernie Davis, finished off the 1959 national championship season there with a 23-14 win over Texas. Notre Dame ended its self-imposed bowl drought against Texas in the 1970 Cotton Bowl. And though Montana's rally in 1979 is a great moment in college football history, it also was the first in a series of body punches that sent the Cotton Bowl reeling.

For most of its existence, the old SWC champion received an automatic berth in the Cotton Bowl. But in the '80s, all but three conference schools were put on NCAA probation for football recruiting violations. As a result, the conference's overall reputation and caliber of play suffered, and the Cotton Bowl rarely had matchups with national-championship ramifications.

In 1992, Arkansas left the SWC for the SEC. Six years later, the SWC died when Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor joined the Big Eight schools to form the Big 12.

"The thing that shook us to our roots was when the Southwest Conference went out of business," Baker said. "You add to that a stadium that hadn't stayed up to standard and the perceived weather problem - even though once in 10 years the weather may be less-than-ideal - and all those factors shook us to our roots. We took body blow after body blow after body blow."

The knockout punch was delivered in 1998, when the BCS was formed. The Rose, Fiesta, Sugar and Orange were chosen as the four "elite" bowls.

The Cotton Bowl has bounced back a bit. It's affiliated with the Big 12 and the SEC, which in some seasons has made for better matchups than some of the BCS bowls have had.

Now, it has a big-name title sponsor in AT&T. It has a spectacular venue. And it has its great history. Still, it might not be enough to sway the BCS to change.

"I know that everybody in the business respects Dallas, respects Rick Baker and certainly the Cotton Bowl," Hancock said. "Right now, we have four cities hosting five games, and it's working.

"But there's no way to know what will happen in the future."

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.


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