When the news came down 15 years ago, it couldn't have been a surprise to Rick Baker.
The world was changing, and the Cotton Bowl's president/CEO realized his game wasn't in that world. The BCS world. For 55 years the Cotton had been a part of the landscape, mostly as the ancestral postseason home of the Southwest Conference. But the dilapidated Cotton Bowl stadium located on the Texas State Fairgrounds was in need of repair. That's a delicate way to put it.
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A relationship with the Southwest Conference was long gone because the SWC was long gone. At that moment in 1997, the Cotton ceased to be a major bowl, a Darwinian victim of the changing landscape. And that hurt.
“Keep talking us up,” Baker would say good-naturedly when he bumped into writers at various conference media days.
It's been a decade and a half now since the Cotton didn't make the cut as one of the four BCS bowls. It has been a long, sometimes frustrating slog since then. Baker, the city and his bowl were hopeful 15 years ago but were basically beaten out by John Junker and the Fiesta Bowl.
“The Fiesta Bowl was being as aggressive as all get out with the bidding,” said Michael Konradi, the Cotton's vice president of external affairs. “We were playing with an old antiquated stadium, was the biggest issue. Now that we have a stadium …”
Ah, yes the stadium. Now that Dallas has Jerry Jones' three-year-old state-of-the-art Cowboys Stadium a lot of things are going to change. Even if the city doesn't become the site of the lucrative Champions Bowl in the next few days, the stadium almost certainly will be a part of new playoff rotation.
In that sense, Dallas already has been re-validated as a college football capital. The annual Red River Shootout (Oklahoma-Texas) remains at the now-renovated Cotton Bowl stadium. The Cotton Bowl game has relocated to glittery Cowboys Stadium. The National Football Foundation and Big 12 both call the Metroplex home as well.
But getting the Champions Bowl -- featuring the SEC and Big 12 champs if available -- would be a validation of that long, hard fight back to relevancy for the Cotton. Sources indicated the Champions would take the name of the Cotton Bowl if Dallas wins the bid. (Champions Bowl became the working title when the it was announced in May).
Dallas and New Orleans (Sugar Bowl) are in a "dead heat" per CBSSports.com's Jeremy Fowler to land the new bowl. The Champions/Cotton would be the equivalent of the Rose Bowl without the century of tradition. The irony would be the Cotton Bowl having lost its major-bowl status in 1998 with decades of tradition.
Now the city could get a rebranded, major bowl on equal footing with the Rose -– at least financially -- without having played a game yet. Such is the new postseason world where conferences have taken ownership of major bowls in order to keep the money themselves. When the TV deal is finalized the Champions Bowl will almost certainly be worth the same as the Rose Bowl -- $80 million per year.
There's so much money there that the Champions partners have to consider how often they want their bowl “passing through” the playoff system as a national semifinal.
“Obviously we make more money the fewer semifinals we have,” said Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby. “That's the beauty when you're market driven.”
What city will win?
“The one willing to spend the most money,” one bowl official said.
In that sense, it's 1997 all over again. This time Dallas has the advantage. Don't bet against Jones and his $1 billion stadium. There is already speculation that the first playoff championship game in 2015 will be played at Cowboys Stadium. A Champions/Cotton bowl would a pricier reinvention of the current Cotton Bowl which takes secondary teams from the Big 12 and SEC. (The champions from the two leagues play in BCS bowls.)
In the new playoff beginning in 2014 it is assumed that least one of the Champions partners (SEC, Big 12) will finish in the top four in most years. In 13 of the previous 14 years of the BCS, at least one champion from one of the two conferences has finished in the top four. Given that history, in most years the Champions Bowl won't get both conferences champions.
But that's not the point. The grind for the Cotton these past 15 years is coming to an end. Getting second-place teams from the two most powerful conferences isn't a bad thing. A sure thing is better than a tease. Even when the BCS decided to add a fifth bowl in 2006, the Cotton was stoned. That fifth BCS bowl, added to provide more access for non-BCS schools, was played at the site of the national championship game. Double-hosting they called it. Since it wasn't in the BCS, the Cotton was not one of the hosts.
Now, one way or another, it can't lose. Dallas seems like it is about to become bigger time in college football.