The Cotton Bowl faded into relative obscurity over the past two decades, due to the death of the Southwest Conference and a reshuffling of the New Year’s Day bowl lineup. Beginning in the latter half of the 1990s and continuing for a number of years, the Cotton Bowl was moved to a late-morning kickoff for a number of years on Jan. 1, leading to a decrease in visibility and prominence. It regained some punch in recent seasons due to a Friday night January slot on FOX, but it still wasn’t a crown jewel on New Year’s afternoon.
That changes this year. The Cotton Bowl marks its return to the big time with an ESPN slot for a huge contest between Michigan State and Baylor. One of college football’s four greatest bowl games is once again a destination event, not a landing ground for third- or fourth-place teams in conferences.
Due to the Cotton Bowl’s long-overdue return to the spotlight, we present the 10 most significant games in the event’s history:
10 – 1972: PENN STATE 30, TEXAS 6
This was an unremarkable game, and it didn’t decide a national title, but this marked the only meeting between Joe Paterno and Darrell Royal, two of the best coaches in college football history. The bowls will sometimes bring together the top coaches in the sport, whereas regular season games fail to do the same. Had it not been for the 1972 Cotton Bowl, Paterno and Royal never would have matched wits against each other.
9 – 1980: HOUSTON 17, NEBRASKA 14
The Big Ten in the 1970s was a Michigan-Ohio State conference. It’s easy to similarly think of the Southwest Conference as being the sole domain of the University of Texas, but the 1970s and early 1980s disproved such a notion. Baylor made the 1975 and 1981 games. SMU made the 1983 game (albeit due to paying players and such). No non-Texas team illustrated the depth of the SWC in the 1970s more than Houston. The Cougars won three SWC titles in four seasons, and by winning this game against Tom Osborne and Nebraska, coach Bill Yeoman’s Houston crew forged a 2-1 record in its three Cotton Bowls.
Everyone quite understandably talks about the Cotton Bowl Yeoman and UH lost in 1979 to Joe Montana and Notre Dame. What people forget is that Houston was the best team in the SWC over a four-season span… and was tough enough to respond to the 1979 Cotton Bowl gut-punch by winning the event the next season.
8 – 1982: TEXAS 14, ALABAMA 12
Bear Bryant got four cracks at Texas, all of them in bowl games. Three times, he faced a fellow icon in Darrell Royal, but this game came against Fred Akers, Royal’s successor. This was Bryant’s best chance to break through against Bevo, and when Alabama forged a 10-0 lead early in the fourth quarter, it seemed that the Bear would corral some cattle.
However, the Longhorns stunned the Tide with two touchdown drives to take a 14-10 lead. Alabama started a possession at the Texas 38 with 1:54 left following a long kick return by current South Alabama head coach Joey Jones, but quarterback Walter Lewis threw an interception at the Texas 1. The Longhorns took a safety at the end of their subsequent possession but won the game, 14-12. Thus ended the Bear’s last Cotton Bowl and his last appearance on the New Year’s Day stage.
7 – 1962: TEXAS 12, OLE MISS 7
This Cotton Bowl pitted Royal — the greatest coach in Texas history — against Ole Miss’s most iconic coach, Johnny Vaught, one of the giants in the history of the SEC. Vaught won six SEC titles in Oxford, a feat whose magnitude only grows with the passage of time. The fact that Texas and Ole Miss both entered this game in the top five only enhanced the meaning of this matchup.
Ole Miss and Vaught smoked Royal and Texas in the 1958 Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. Here, Royal and Bevo gained revenge in Dallas.
6 – 1951: TENNESSEE 20, TEXAS 14
The foremost coach in Tennessee history is General Robert Neyland. In 21 seasons in Knoxville, Neyland won 83 percent of his games. From the mid 1920s through the early 1950s, Neyland lost more than two games in a season only four times (keeping in mind that seasons were usually 10 games long then, 11 with a bowl).
Neyland didn’t produce a winning record in bowl games, but this game is immensely significant for him and Tennessee because it marked the general’s second bowl win, following the 1939 Orange Bowl. Capturing a prestigious bowl title over No. 3 Texas, 12 years after a previous New Year’s Day victory, powerfully affirmed Neyland near the end of his legendary career.
5 – 1978: NOTRE DAME 38, TEXAS 10
The Darrell Royal-Ara Parseghian matchups were the centerpieces of “Texas-Notre Dame At The Cotton Bowl” in the 1970s, but the 1978 game between Fred Akers and Dan Devine said something about the durability of these programs in a subsequent period of time. Notre Dame won this battle for post-icon prominence, setting the wrong tone for the Akers era in Austin. Texas became an “almost” program during the Akers years, and while the program enjoyed an occasional return to a big bowl game, it wasn’t until Mack Brown arrived that the Longhorns once again became an entrenched power. Notre Dame did indeed falter during the Gerry Faust years, but this win against Texas helped make Devine an unquestioned success in South Bend.
Full game here:
4 – 1971: NOTRE DAME 24, TEXAS 11
When Darrell Royal and Ara Parseghian met in consecutive years at the Cotton Bowl, this was the rematch. Notre Dame broke Texas’s 30-game winning streak and denied the Longhorns a third straight Cotton Bowl win. Thus ended one of the great runs in the sport’s history, alongside Oklahoma under Bud Wilkinson in the 1950s, Miami under Butch Davis and Larry Coker in the early 2000s, and USC under Pete Carroll just after The U’s big run, among others.
3 – 1984: GEORGIA 10, TEXAS 9
The Fred Akers era at Texas began with the 1978 Cotton Bowl loss to Notre Dame. It officially ended after the 1986 season, but it essentially died on Jan. 2, 1984, with this loss to Georgia. When Miami beat No. 1 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, Texas could have been the national champion with a win in Dallas. However, the Longhorns’ offense never got off the ground. For all the sweet triumphs Texas has earned in this event over the decades, this loss marked what was perhaps the program’s most wrenching and lasting defeat.
Full game here:
2 – 1970: TEXAS 21, NOTRE DAME 17
The Longhorns had already been proclaimed national champions by President Richard Nixon, in a story that will be documented by the ESPN 30for30 franchise this weekend:
Yet, after beating Arkansas at the end of the 1969 regular season, Texas still faced a moment of truth against a Notre Dame team that was making the school’s first bowl appearance in 45 years after a self-imposed ban. Notre Dame appearing in a bowl? That was a national occasion. The hype associated with this game went through the roof, and the quality of the competition lived up to the buzz. Texas, trailing 10-0, rallied for two touchdowns and a 14-10 lead early in the fourth quarter. Notre Dame scored with just under seven minutes left to retake a 17-14 advantage, but the Longhorns scored with 1:08 left to win the game and prove to the nation that yes, they were the best team in the nation in the 1969 season.
1 – 1964: TEXAS 28, NAVY 6
This game is historically significant for a number of reasons, and the football reasons are only a modest part of the larger story.
At the time, this was the second bowl game in history matching the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country, the previous instance being the 1963 Rose Bowl between USC and Wisconsin.
This game also pitted one of the sport’s superpower programs against the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, Navy’s Roger Staubach, a man who would make even more of a name for himself in the city of Dallas several years later.
The 1964 Cotton Bowl marked one of the last times that a service-academy program competed for a national championship. This is a kind of game permanently consigned to a distant era — it’s not going to be replicated or re-created anytime soon.
Yet, all these facts pale in comparison to a matter of overarching importance: This Cotton Bowl was the one which immediately followed the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas (in November of 1963). This game didn’t solve any problems or fix any lingering issues, but it did help the community of Dallas to move forward, step by painful step, in the aftermath of one of the nation’s deepest and most wrenching tragedies.