Cotton Bowl

By: Lisa C. Maxwell

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: May 3, 2021

The Cotton Bowl is the stadium in which the annual Cotton Bowl Classic football game is played. The stadium, located in Fair Park in Dallas, is the second stadium at the site. In the 1890s unsuccessful attempts were made to build a wooden stadium there to host a world-championship prizefight. In 1921 the first stadium, with a seating capacity of 15,000, was constructed on the site of the future Cotton Bowl and named Fair Park Football Stadium. It was used for community events and football games, and was never filled until it sold out for the 1923 football game between Baylor and Southern Methodist University. In 1930 ground was broken for the construction of the Fair Park Bowl on the site of the Fair Park Football Stadium. The 46,000-seat stadium was completed in time for a football game on October 26, 1930. The cut-and-fill construction lowered the playing surface twenty-four feet below the original ground level. The dirt that was removed was placed around the field, so that the back seats were fifteen feet above the street. In addition to football games the stadium was used for such events as the Cavalcade of History during the Texas Centennial Exposition (1936), an outdoor play with 250 actors. That same year President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke to 40,000 in the stadium. A milestone in the history of the stadium occurred on January 1, 1937, when the first Cotton Bowl Classic was played before a crowd of 17,000 between the Texas Christian University Horned Frogs and Marquette University; TCU won 16 to 6. The Cotton Bowl Classic, which reflected the new name the stadium had acquired, was the idea of J. Curtis Sanford, a Dallas oilman who lost $6,000 on the first game. Within three years the game was being called "Sanford's Folly," and in 1940 the 12,000 paid customers were not enough to prevent Sanford's losing $20,000. In 1941 Sanford arranged a partnership with the Southwest Conference, and the game between Texas A&M and Fordham University sold 45,507 tickets. After this first sellout, every subsequent game was sold out. World War II did not suspend the Cotton Bowl, as it did some other Dallas events. In 1944 a team composed of soldiers from Randolph Field in San Antonio played the University of Texas Longhorns. The score was the first tie at the Cotton Bowl Classic.

With the growing popularity of the Cotton Bowl games, the stadium was in need of expansion and renovation. Its design made maintenance difficult. Heavy rain during a tropical storm in 1947 washed dirt onto the playing field. The previous year Mayor Woodall Rogers had called for the sale of bonds to support renovation. These $100 bonds matured in thirty years and allowed the purchaser to buy reserved tickets for any event at the Cotton Bowl during that time. The proceeds virtually rebuilt the old stadium in 1948 and added 21,431 seats, bringing the seating capacity to 67,431. The next year more improvements increased the seating capacity to 75,504 and added new team dressing rooms, a three-story press box, and an automatic lawn-sprinkler system.

The opening baseball game of the Texas League season, attendance 53,748, was played at the Cotton Bowl on April 11, 1950, and pitted the Dallas Eagles against Tulsa. In 1952 the Dallas Texans played in the Cotton Bowl after Dallas was awarded a National Football League franchise, but poor fan support led to the team's moving to Baltimore the following year. Two other professional football teams, the Dallas Cowboys and an American Football League team named the Dallas Texans, had the Cotton Bowl as their home stadium at one time. The AFL Dallas Texans played there from 1960 through 1962 before moving to Kansas City. The Dallas Cowboys were at the bowl from their formation in 1960 until Texas Stadium was completed in Irving in 1971. On January 1, 1967, in the National Football League championship game, the Cowboys lost to the Green Bay Packers at the Cotton Bowl, 34 to 27.

The Cotton Bowl, however, is best known for the Cotton Bowl Classic, which until the demise of the Southwest Conference matched the winner of that conference with a highly rated team from some other conference or an independent team such as Notre Dame. Beginning in 1937, the game has been a showcase for future NFL stars and for winners of prestigious college football awards. The 1937 game featured Texas Christian University quarterbacks Sammy Baugh, later Washington Redskins quarterback and a member of the NFL Hall of Fame, and Davey (Robert David) O'Brien, who won the Heisman trophy in 1938 and later played for the Philadelphia Eagles. In 1946 Bobby (Robert Lawrence) Layne, future quarterback of the Detroit Lions, led Texas over Missouri. The 1948 game was the first to match undefeated and nationally ranked teams-Southern Methodist University (9–0-1), ranked number 3, and Penn State (9–0-0), ranked number 4. A black member of the Penn State team was the first African American to play in the Cotton Bowl. The 1954 game is best remembered for the off-the-bench tackle of Rice's Dickie Maegle by Alabama's Tommy Lewis. Syracuse University (10–0) and the University of Texas (9–1) played in 1960, the first time a national championship was decided by the Cotton Bowl Classic. The 1970 game was the outstanding bowl game of the season. Notre Dame (8–1-1), which had had a policy since 1925 of playing no postseason games, agreed to play the number-one-ranked University of Texas (10–0). Texas scored with a minute and eight seconds left to win both the game and the Longhorns' second national championship. The 1971 game was a rematch between Texas (10–0) and Notre Dame (9–1). Joe Theismann led the Irish to a 24-to-11 win and ended UT's thirty-game winning streak.

Heisman Trophy winners who have played in the Cotton Bowl Classic are Davey O’Brien (TCU, 1937 Cotton Bowl), Doak Walker (SMU, 1948;1949), Ernie Davis (Syracuse, 1960), Roger Staubach (Navy, 1964), John Cappilletti (Penn State, 1972), Earl Campbell (Texas, 1978), Doug Flutie (Boston College, 1985), Bo Jackson (Auburn, 1986), Tim Brown (Notre Dame, 1988), Gino Torretta (Miami, 1993), Ricky Williams (Texas, 1999), and Johnny Manziel (Texas A&M, 2013). Outland Trophy winners have been Bud Brooks (Arkansas, 1955 Cotton Bowl, Scott Appleton (Texas, 1964), Tommy Nobis (Texas, 1964), Lloyd Phillips (Arkansas, 1965), Bill Stanfill (Georgia, 1967), Brad Shearer (Texas, 1978), Dave Rimington (Nebraska, 1980), Mike Ruth (Boston College, 1985), Russell Maryland (Miami, 1991), Kris Farris (UCLA, 1998), John Henderson (Tennessee, 2001), and Luke Joeckel (Texas A&M, 2013). Lombardi Award winners in the Cotton Bowl have been Walt Patulski (Notre Dame, 1970;1971 Cotton bowls), Wilson Whitley (Houston, 1977), Ross Browner (Notre Dame, 1978), Kenneth Sims (Texas, 1982), Dave Rimington (Nebraska, 1980), and Tony Degrate (Texas, 1984). Winners of the Walter Camp Award have been John Cappilletti (Penn State, 1972 Cotton Bowl), Ken MacAfee (Notre Dame, 1978), Doug Flutie (Boston College, 1985), Bo Jackson (Auburn, 1986), Gino Torretta (Miami, 1993), Ricky Williams (Texas, 1999), and Darren McFadden (Arkansas, 2008). Davey O'Brien Award winners who have played in the Cotton Bowl Classic have been Earl Campbell (Texas, 1978 Cotton Bowl), Mike Singletary (Baylor, 1981), and Doug Flutie (Boston College, 1985). The Maxwell Award has gone to Davey O'Brien (TCU, 1937 Cotton Bowl), Doak Walker (SMU, 1948; 1949), Roger Staubach (Navy, 1964), Tommy Nobis (Texas, 1964), Ross Browner (Notre Dame, 1978), Doug Flutie (Boston College, 1985), and Johnny Manziel (Texas A&M, 2013). Some others who have played in the Classic and become professional football stars are Kenny Stabler (Alabama, 1968 Cotton Bowl), Tobin Rote (Rice, 1950), Vito "Babe" Parilli (Kentucky, 1952), Jim Brown (Syracuse, 1957), King Hill and Frank Ryan (Rice, 1958), Joe Montana (Notre Dame, 1978), Bob Golic (Notre Dame, 1978), and Troy Aikman (UCLA, 1989).

The Classic was first televised nationwide in 1953, and in 1958 a long-term contract with CBS sports was signed, the same year the Cotton Bowl Parade was first held. The parade was televised by CBS for the first time in 1964. By 1992 it had become an important Dallas event, with an attendance downtown of 150,000 and a television audience of twenty million. That year the parade had forty-seven floats, six helium balloons, and ten marching bands, with a total participation of 5,000. The next year, however, the parade was canceled because lost television coverage had caused a loss of financial support from businesses.

In addition to the Cotton Bowl Classic the annual football game between the University of Texas and the University of Oklahoma is played in the stadium. Southern Methodist University played its home games there until Texas Stadium was built. By the 1990s the Cotton Bowl was supported by Mobil Oil and was called the Mobil Cotton Bowl Classic. In 1993–94 the Cotton Bowl was renovated, after a great deal of controversy. The $2.8 million expense was authorized by the city of Dallas to prepare for hosting part of the 1994 World Cup Soccer Tournament. It required the removal of some seats to expand the field and the replacement of the artificial turf with natural grass.

Sporting events have not been the only entertainment at the Cotton Bowl. Every Independence Day a display of fireworks has been held. General Douglas MacArthur spoke before a crowd in the bowl. Such religious leaders as Norman Vincent Peale and Billy Graham have spoken there. In addition, in the early days USO shows were performed at the Cotton Bowl. Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley appeared there, and rock concerts occurred at the bowl into the 1990s.

Dallas Morning News, June 11, 1992. Dallas Times Herald, October 12, 1985. Carlton Stowers, Cotton Bowl Classic: The First Fifty Years (Dallas: Host Communications, 1986).

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Lisa C. Maxwell, “Cotton Bowl,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 20, 2022,

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May 3, 2021

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