The ESPN College GameDay crew—including analyst Lee Corso in a giant Bevo mascot head—was on hand last Saturday at the Cotton Bowl. So were Billy Bob Thornton, Peyton Manning, Mark Cuban, Big Tex, LeAnn Rimes, Roger Clemens, Fletcher and his corny dogs, fried everything and, of course, 104 years of Red River Rivalry history.
Burnt orange. Crimson and cream. Texas Fight. Boomer Sooner.
And, oh yeah, lurking in the periphery—like an art collector discreetly eyeing his next piece—was the looming shadow of one Jerry Jones.
"Well, that would be great," the Dallas Cowboys' owner said last week of hosting Texas-OU at the $1.2 billion Cowboys Stadium in Arlington beginning in 2016. "We know the great tradition of that football game and certainly we would want to have that game be an away game for both teams and a home game for both teams and you can do that by having it at our stadium."
This just in: Aside from a playoff victory the last 13 years, what Jones wants he usually gets.
Texas-OU, played at the Cotton Bowl since 1937, is married to the recently refurbished old joint through 2015. After that, I'm afraid it will move 20 miles west, in the way of the Cowboys and the Cotton Bowl game and, well, let's face it, the entirety of all cool things in Dallas.
Prediction: Oklahoma will beat Texas in Cowboys Stadium before any of us drive down a toll road splitting the Trinity River Project.
Though Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops said last week he is open to the idea of changing the rivalry to a home-and-home series with annual games alternating between Austin and Norman, Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds recently said keeping the game at the Cotton Bowl nets the schools about a $5 million profit per year.
Though he wasn't referring directly to his wooing of Texas-OU, Jones recently described his baseline business strategy.
"Anything I've ever bought that was really successful," he said, "I overpaid for."
The Fair is a unique backdrop, the Cotton Bowl is certainly more manageable after its $57 million upgrade and Texas-OU is currently profitable, but we all know Dodds and Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione would be fools not to at least entertain Jones' outlandish overtures.
The OU-Brigham Young game at Cowboys Stadium in September, for example, drew 75,000 fans and netted the Sooners a guaranteed $2.25 million payday. If it were dollar-for-dollar revenue, Texas-OU would remain rooted at the Cotton Bowl. Jones, however, plays by his own crafty, creative rules in buying up all the cool Monopoly pieces.
"I'd hate to see this game leave," Richardson resident and longtime Texas fan Bill Coughlin said hours before last Saturday's ridiculously early 11 a.m. kickoff. "It's a big part of the State Fair and vice-versa. It's not just a football game, it's the event part of it, you know? As far as Dallas, it's about all we got left."
While the football games have escalated in importance via Heisman Trophy winners, National Championship teams and compelling games, the revelry of the rivalry has become diluted since the riotous days of the '70s and '80s. Back then, Commerce Street was an up-and-down orgy of orange, red and open cans of beer. It was fights. Arrests. It was mattresses tossed out of hotel windows. It was—at 2 a.m.—human debris literally cleaned from the streets by fire hoses and mounted police.
These days it's more private parties, hotel ballroom events and some orderly meandering through the West End. But a sure sign the game still has some recuperative powers: Friday night, Texas-OU even had the ghost town formerly known as Victory Park buzzing. Texas cheerleaders. The OU band. Dale Hansen and his WFAA-Channel 8 pre-game special.
Texas-OU is the best game in town. And not just because it's now the only game in town.
"We went out to Arlington for our BYU game, and it just wasn't the same," Oklahoma fan J.D. Wyatt said Friday at Victory Park. "It's a nice stadium and all, but there's no college atmosphere really. Here in Dallas we can get a little crazy and go to the Fair. It's the atmosphere."
Dallas' fear, however, is that Jones, one of the greatest marketers in the history of sports, will build a Bigger Tex. He'll turn Six Flags into the State Fair, Randol Mill Road into a Midway and Rangers Ballpark into the perfect setting for pig races. He'll give Fletcher a suite on the Hall of Fame level. And mostly, he'll add a corporate sponsor, thousands more to the attendance and millions to the bottom-line offer to ADs Dodds and Castiglione.
With the Cotton Bowl game set for Cowboys Stadium in a couple months, the Cotton Bowl stadium is looking to fill its otherwise void dance card. Maybe a Dallas Football Classic pitting middle-of-the-pack teams from the Big Ten and Conference USA is in the works, but keeping Texas-OU is the key to keeping college football relevant in Dallas.
While city of Dallas leaders get convicted for corruption, act surprised to find sand in levees and pour millions into a Convention Center hotel the majority of its citizens will never use, Jones will swoop in and steal the area's signature sporting event. And don't think he isn't already pondering a back door into the Arlington White Rock Marathon.
Jones: Why not?
Rip off a sheet of coupons, munch on some deep-fried butter and cherish Texas-OU while you can.
"There's no scene in college football like it," ABC play-by-play voice Brent Musburger told viewers before the game. "Nothing like getting a Fletcher's corny dog and a cold beer before a game at 11 in the morning."
Said Texas quarterback Colt McCoy, "There's so much to choose from here, but I'm a funnel cake guy."
If Jones was kicking the tires last weekend, maybe Texas 16, Oklahoma 13 gave him a cautious case of buyer beware. The game was anything but a beautiful billboard for college football's best rivalry. Usually Texas-OU is a season unto itself, 60 minutes on the field that lasts 365 days on the calendar.
But let's be honest. Last Saturday's offering was one of the most forgettable in series history. On the heels of last year's scintillating 45-35 Texas victory that resonated in the ears of BCS voters into January, this game featured only 29 total points, eight turnovers and somebody named Landry Jones as the leading passer.
We came to see 2008 Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford, and the OU quarterback was knocked out of the game with a shoulder injury eight plays in. We came to see 2009 Heisman hopeful McCoy, and the Texas quarterback fumbled twice, was sacked four times and made the game's defining play—a tackle.
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A ticket to the game cost $95, but included admission to the Fair. More than 96,000 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The game has attracted 64 consecutive sellouts in Dallas. Football fans stayed in our hotels and rode DART's Green Line and ate at city restaurants and guzzled at post-game bars.
Everything about Texas-OU Weekend is working. Shame it has to end.
But it is—sooner or later—going to end.