Fifty years ago, at December’s end, Georgia played in the Cotton Bowl for the first time — competing against the winner of the old Southwest Conference Championship, Southern Methodist University.
More than a few football fans in the Lone Star state, with enduring passion for the SWC and the Cotton Bowl, remember those good ’ol days with the deepest of sentiment and now, after falling from grace, glory in the latent lift the game has gotten from Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys.
In its heyday, the Cotton Bowl featured some of the seminal names in college football history, many who would go on to legendary status and unforgettable achievement: Sammy Baugh, Bobby Lane, Doak Walker, Roger Staubach, Kyle Rote, Ernie Davis, Joe Montana and Jim Brown; coaches Ara Parseghian, Bear Bryant, Darrell Royal and Frank Broyles.
From 1937 until 1996, it was as if the center of the football universe was the SWC, which was cozily provincial with its original members—Baylor, Rice, Southern Methodist, Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Christian and the lone geographical outsider, Arkansas. Except for Fayetteville, the bus offered easy travel, the longest trip being Dallas (SMU) to Houston (Rice), 3 ½ hours. The only team needing an air travel budget was Arkansas (or when a Texas school had to journey to Fayetteville).
Eventually, the league broke up with Arkansas bolting for the SEC in 1990 and Texas, Texas A&M, Baylor, TCU joining the Big Eight Conference in 1996, making the new league, the Big Twelve.
The Cotton Bowl lost its relevancy when competing with the other long time major bowls after the Rose—Sugar, Orange and the new player on the block, the Fiesta Bowl.
When Jerry Jones planned his showcase palace in Arlington, the AT&T stadium, he immediately reached out to the Cotton Bowl Association to move its game from its tradition location (The Cotton Bowl) to Arlington. “Jerry had great sentiment for the Cotton Bowl,” says Charlie Fiss, Vice President of Public Relations for the Cotton Bowl. “He played in the game when he was at Arkansas, and with his support, we have been able to get into the picture as a host for a playoff game.”
Fiss was pleased to flash back to the Cotton Bowl Classic from the 1966 season. It was Vince Dooley’s first major bowl.
The ’Dogs came to town with the distinction of having won the first of six SEC titles under Dooley and defeated SMU, 24-9. It was the final game for the quarterback-turned-tackle, George Patton, who made All America. Dooley, with the game under control, allowed Patton to play quarterback in the last minute of play, the final game of the sanguine defensive tackle’s story book career.
The team featured a number of upstart sophomores including Kent Lawrence and Billy Payne. On the game’s third play, Lawrence dashed 74 yards for the game’s first score. Early in the second quarter, end Billy Payne, outfought a SMU defender for a 20 yard catch that enabled Georgia to extend the lead to 17-3. Fullback Ronnie Jenkins scored the final touchdown for the Bulldogs on a four yard rush. In 2003, Lawrence was elected to the Cotton Bowl Hall of Fame. Georgia would return to the Cotton Bowl twice more, giving Dooley a 2-1 record with the 1983 team posting one of the most memorable wins in Bulldog history, 10-9 over undefeated and No. 2 ranked Texas (Jan. 2, 1984).
The Bulldogs, disadvantaged offensively with Herschel Walker leaving early for the pros, became a team which could win with defense. With little offensive firepower, becoming one dimensional, the Bulldogs, nonetheless won nine regular season games and lost an opportunity to win four SEC titles in a row when Auburn won in Athens, 13-7.
Georgia got its tenth victory by edging the Longhorns in a classic defensive matchup. John Lastinger scored on the option after the Bulldogs recovered a fumbled Texas punt which opened the door for a serendipitous and sensational victory: 10-9 still resonates throughout Georgia circles.
Loran Smith, of Athens, the long-time sideline radio voice of the Georgia Bulldogs, writes a regular column.