KETR

The Cotton Bowl is Alive and Well and Living in Dallas

Dec 26, 2015

This evening's story is not a comprehensive history of the Cotton Bowl. As a pro football fan with limited interest in the college game, I lack the knowledge to wax eloquent about the glory days of the Southwest Conference as played out at Fair Park. What follows is a reflection written from the press box where Blackie Sherrod, Bob St. John, Randy Galloway, Frank Luska and many other bright writers worked before this particular dim bulb darkened the doorway.

It's a fun narrative, though. There are even East Texas State Lions. The dramatic tension is between the sepia-toned yesteryear and the gleaming, corporate now. My hope is to make this an enjoyable read for football die-hards as well as those who don't follow sports. For the benefit of the latter, here are the props and set as laid out by the stage crew.

The rise and decline of the Cotton Bowl

The Fair Park Bowl was built in 1930 on the site of the old Fair Park Football Stadium. The 46,000-seat venue was renamed the Cotton Bowl in 1936, the same year that Dallas hosted the Texas Centennial Exposition. Architect George Dahl transformed a state fairgrounds into an art-deco showpiece.  College football's Cotton Bowl game began in 1940 and, in the postwar era, rose in fame along with the sport. The stadium expanded its seating capacity in 1949 to 75,504 - in part so that more people could watch SMU halfback Doak Walker.

"The House that Doak Built" hosted national champions and Heisman Trophy winners for decades, but its run of glory ended in 2009. The following year, the Cotton Bowl game moved to Cowboys Stadium in Arlington. The lure of a shiny, new monstrosity with state-of-the-art everything made the decision easy for organizers eager to evacuate the game out of the old stadium, which by then had become more than a little shabby.

Besides, the Cotton Bowl game - we now must often clarify whether we're talking about the game or the stadium - was struggling to maintain relevance following the 1996 demise of the Southwest Conference, the championship of which had earned a berth to the game, often against a highly ranked independent school like Notre Dame.

Today, college football happens three times annually at the Cotton Bowl. The universities of Texas and Oklahoma continue to play each other there, as they have since 1932. The State Fair Classic, an annual game featuring teams from historically black schools, is older than the Cotton Bowl itself - dating to 1925. Prairie View A&M and Grambling have been the designated opponents since 1992.

And then there's the game that happened today. The Cotton Bowl might be a senior citizen, but a 92,100-capacity stadium in the nation's fourth-largest metropolitan era is not going to be ignored by NCAA Division I college football's patriarchs, whose appetite for postseason bowls is such that any team that posts a winning record is all but certain to play a bowl game somewhere.

Washington defeated Southern Mississippi today in the Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl. After the Cotton Bowl game changed its address to Tarrant County, a new and less prestigious game has been played at the Cotton Bowl. Known for a mercifully short time as the Ticket City Bowl, the game is now called the Heart of Dallas Bowl and since 2014 has been sponsored by the fast-food chicken franchise Zaxby's.

FDR, Billy Graham and New Year's Day parades

Those who love the Cotton Bowl do so for reasons as woven into the heart as reasons for any love.

College fans - UT, OU, Prairie View - cherish their team's annual appearances there. The Longhorns-Sooners rivalry is one of the most celebrated in sports. The State Fair Classic has adapted well to changing times, and Grambling's new role in the game fills the void left by the loss of Wiley College, which no longer plays football, and Bishop College, which closed its doors in 1988. SMU played its home games at the Cotton Bowl through 1970.

Those who enjoy historical ephemera might love the Cotton Bowl for the rich and somewhat random stories associated with the stadium that are hardly limited to football.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed an audience of about 40,000 at the Cotton Bowl in 1936. That same year, the stadium also hosted an outdoor play. Called "Cavalcade of History" - could anything today be called a cavalcade, non-ironically? - the show included a 250-actor cast. I found no record as to whether opera glasses were distributed. In later years, religious leaders Norman Vincent Peale and Billy Graham spoke at the Cotton Bowl. So did Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley have performed there.

The Cotton Bowl Parade began in 1958 and was first nationally televised in 1964. For almost three decades, the parade rivaled the New Year's parades in New York City and Pasadena, Ca. But the event died after CBS's decision not to continue its national broadcast of the parade. A second-generation version, sponsored by Comerica Bank, lasted from 2007-10.

In 1950, about 53,000 baseball fans watched the Dallas Eagles open the Texas League baseball season against Tulsa. The game set a Texas League attendance record. The Eagles' usual home, Burnett  Field, had a capacity for about 10,000. Located in the Trinity River Bottoms, the ballpark also hosted about that many mosquitoes during home games.

As for me, I have a family attachment to Fair Park. My grandfather - who lived just a stone's throw away on Garden Drive in South Dallas - was among many local men who put their hands to work building the massive complex. Family tradition says that he helped hang the star at the entrance that faces Exposition Avenue. Whether the star there now is the same star that was placed there in 1936, I don't know.

Fair Park's northern entrance, facing Exposition Avenue.
Credit Mark Haslett

I also love art deco and all 1930s style, for reasons obvious to all those who share that taste and inscrutable to all those who don't. I also love hearing stories about that time - how our sense of commonwealth was such that a public project such as Fair Park inspired optimism and pride, rather than suspicion and resentment based on the fact that it was public and not private. That was a different world - neither better nor worse - just different.

I can report that as far as 2015 is concerned, sports journalists are very happy to be covering a bowl game sponsored by a chicken restaurant, as opposed to, say, an insurance company. Sports journalists are a well-fed bunch, and can nose out a free meal as well as anyone. They also know the difference between a hot batch of wings and a paltry plate of cold cuts. There were all manner of fried treats available today, and a good time was had by all. You don't have to love history to love things about the Cotton Bowl.

First pro attempt sails wide off the mark

Pro football began at the Cotton Bowl in forgettable fashion. In 1952, the National Football League - still a second-tier circuit at the time - placed a team in Dallas called the Texans. The team, relocated from New York City where it had been known as the Yanks, was arguably the worst in postwar NFL history. Texas football fans, quite content with the college and high school versions of the game, had little interest in a bad pro team. After seven winless games, lowlighted by a loss to Los Angeles attended by only 10,000 or so, the team pulled up stakes and left Dallas. The team moved its business office to Hershey, Pa., and while keeping the name, played its final five games as a traveling team, sadly reminiscent of the barnstorming baseball teams of old.

The Texans' only victory, strangely, was over the mighty Chicago Bears in a game played at Akron, Ohio, after the team had abandoned Dallas. "Papa Bear" George Halas was so confident his team would romp past the sad-sack Texans that he started his benchwarmers. The homeless Texans jumped out to a 20-0 lead and held on to win 27-23. The game was played on Thanksgiving Day. Was the contest an odd foreshadowing of the Dallas Cowboys' Thanksgiving tradition, which began a decade and a half later? The Texans' team colors were royal blue and silver.

Yes, the Dallas Cowboys played there

Pro football returned to the Cotton Bowl with a flourish in 1960. The NFL awarded an expansion franchise to Dallas. After almost calling the new club the Rangers, club officials decided to name the team the Dallas Cowboys. In an aggressive move, the upstart American Football League also decided to place a team in Dallas for the league's inaugural 1960 season. Pro football was on the rise. Televisions had become commonplace and affordable. The game translated very well through video broadcast. And thanks in part to TV, the professional game was becoming as popular as its college counterpart.

For three years, Dallas was a two-team town. Each one had something to offer. The Cowboys were losers in their early years, but had the legitimacy and respectability of being in the NFL. The AFL Texans were of less noble lineage, but were successful on the field. The new league featured lots of passing, which fit into the daring, optimistic mood of the time. The whole Cowboys-Texans era is chronicled brilliantly in John Eisenberg's "Ten-Gallon War."

The Texans won the AFL in their last season in Dallas, though the championship game - a 20-17 overtime victory over the Oilers - was played not at the Cotton Bowl, but in Houston. In 1963, Texans owner Lamar Hunt, tired of competing with the Cowboys' owner, Clint Murchison Jr., moved his champions to Kansas City, where they became the Chiefs.

Dandy Don and Next Year's Champions

The Cowboys came into their own in the Cotton Bowl. Mount Vernon High School and SMU alumnus Don Meredith created a local buzz when he took over as quarterback. Tom Landry's complex and elaborate coaching practices, initially regarded as eccentric, began to yield results. The team's flashy play was highlighted on TV by their distinctive look - the silver helmets and pants, along with the practice of wearing white jerseys at home and on the road - were adopted in 1965. Eisenberg documented the Cowboys' 11 seasons at Fair Park in his equally engaging "Cotton Bowl Days."

The Cotton Bowl's age and spartan facilities were given as the official reasons for the Cowboys' building of and moving to Irving's Texas Stadium in 1971. Many felt that Fair Park's location in a mostly African-American neighborhood had as much to do with it.  

The Cowboys never won an NFL Championship or a Super Bowl while they called the Cotton Bowl home. On New Year's Day in 1967, Green Bay defeated Dallas 34-27 at the Cotton Bowl in the NFL Championship Game. Had the Cowboys won, they would have played as the NFL's representative in the first-ever Super Bowl against the AFL's Kansas City Chiefs, their former housemates. The Cowboys' last game at the Cotton Bowl was a first-round playoff victory over Detroit by the odd (for football) score of 5-0. Dallas finished the season on the road - defeating San Francisco and then losing to Baltimore 16-13 in Super Bowl V.

The Cowboys of that era were great fun. While Meredith was leading the team into contention, fans enjoyed the obvious contrast between the team's frosty head coach and fun-loving quarterback. Players like running back Bob Hayes, a former Olympian, made the team exciting to watch. Landry's quirky schemes, along with his boldness in calling trick or high-risk plays, added to the interest. Dallas rose into the league's elite, but couldn't quite nudge past Green Bay and Cleveland. A decade before NFL Films gave them the regrettable nickname "America's Team," sportswriters laughingly referred to the Cowboys as "Next Year's Champions" - a talented team that could not win the big games.

One thing about those Cotton Bowl Cowboys that's hard to imagine now - the team did not have legions of bandwagon fans across the country and had not become a symbol for corporate conceit and folly. They were just a good NFL team that played in Dallas. A different world, indeed.

The game is gone; blame not the Jones

Speaking of the Cowboys, it would be easy to blame Jerry Jones for the infuriating state of affairs wherein the Cotton Bowl no longer hosts the game that bears its name.

But, there's little room at the top of big-time college football for facilities that are historical landmarks. Miami's Orange Bowl, built at about the same time as the Cotton Bowl, lost its namesake game in 1996 and was demolished in 2008. Of course the Rose Bowl, older even than the Cotton Bowl, continues to host its big game, as it has since 1923. But the Rose Bowl is an outlier. It's inevitable that the Cotton Bowl, like an elderly gent who once wore sable but must now clip coupons, would "come down in the world," as the older generation would say of those who outlived their wealth.

Of course, it would be satisfying to blame Jones, however irrational that might be. As anyone who's studied politics knows, the irrational can be extremely satisfying.

The last Cotton Bowl game played at the Cotton Bowl stadium was in 2009. Ole Miss defeated Texas Tech 47-34.

Lions' Cotton Bowl appearances include victory over Prairie View

The Texas A&M University-Commerce Lions are 7-2 all-time at the Cotton Bowl, with a perfect 6-0 record back when the school was known as East Texas State. Old ET made its first appearance at Fair Park with a 13-7 victory over West Texas State. The Lions have the unusual distinction of being the only non-HBCU team to have ever played in the State Fair Classic. East Texas State defeated Prairie View A&M 38-10 at the State Fair of Texas in 1975.

ESTU vs. Prairie View media pass from 1975
Credit Texas A&M University-Commerce

Most recently, A&M-Commerce played three Harvey Martin Classic games at the Cotton Bowl. The Lions defeated East Central (Okla.) 27-15 in 2008 before losing to Abilene Christian (20-14, overtime, 2009) and Angelo St. (31-10, 2010). The Harvey Martin Classic was an annual, regular-season contest named after former South Oak Cliff High School, East Texas State and Dallas Cowboys defensive lineman Harvey Martin.

Washington 44, Southern Mississippi 31

So yes, there was a game today. Washington's Huskies came into Dallas as an eight-point favorite over Southern Miss. Most of the fans in attendance were cheering the Golden Eagles, who played Washington close through most of the game. Southern Miss tied the game at 24 with less than three minutes to play in the third quarter. But Huskies freshman tailback Myles Gaskin busted an 86-yard touchdown run seconds later to give Washington a lead that it did not relinquish. Gaskins finished with 181 yards on 26 carries with four touchdowns. The Huskies' defense held the Golden Eagles to just 22 yards rushing, and even in today's pass-happy world of college football, that's not going to win a game. Washington fans can look forward to some more memorable efforts from Gaskin.

The press box is clearing out now. A couple of young women who work for the facilities crew are laughing and cutting up nearby. An older, bearded gent - presumably a reporter who has filed his story - is now placidly looking at the emptying stadium.  Skies are darkening and the much-anticipated thunderstorm front is rolling in. When the Michigan State and Alabama kick off at the Cotton Bowl game in Jerryworld this Thursday evening, this place will be cold and silent.

But next year, on the day after Christmas, fans from far away will once again come to the Cotton Bowl. And this game will be played again. And just like this year, the stadium will once again be far from full, and the game far from significant. And the ghosts here will be glad, as they always are, for some company. 

Nobody here but the staff.
Credit Mark Haslett