The concourse of the Cotton Bowl, an 83-year-old stadium in Dallas, is decorated with large banners of 21 Heisman Trophy winners. Images of football legends such as Roger Staubach, Earl Campbell, Doug Flutie and Bo Jackson towered over me as I walked to my seat on New Year’s Day. Each of them had played here, upon the very field UNLV was about to take for the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Somehow it seemed more prestigious than a trip to the Las Vegas Bowl, where the Rebels would have landed had they won the Mountain West Conference.
The actual Cotton Bowl game hasn’t been played at the stadium since 2009 (Jerry Jones’ palatial Cowboys Stadium lured it away), but as a UNLV alum and a Rebels fan for more than 30 years, I was ready to root as if the team was playing for the national championship. After all, when the Rebels started the season 0-2 (which included trailing Arizona 45-6 at halftime in their home opener), they seemed en route to their 22nd losing season in the last 26 years. The team was coming off of three straight two-win seasons. But then something remarkable happened: Sparked by Caleb Herring, who took over at quarterback early in the third game, UNLV finished the regular season 7-5 and reached its first bowl game since 2000. How could I not make the trip to Dallas?
The crowd of 38,380 seemed sparse in the 92,100-seat Cotton Bowl, and seemingly more than 38,000 of those fans were wearing their North Texas green, filling the stands behind their team’s sideline from end zone to end zone, not surprising with the campus located about 45 minutes from the stadium. Small clumps of Rebel red did their best to buoy UNLV, a near-touchdown underdog.
The teams’ honorary captains were announced for the pregame coin toss, the first of many times the Rebels were outclassed on the field that day: UNLV’s representative was former cornerback Kevin Thomas, a decent enough player who had one interception in 24 career games with the Buffalo Bills. North Texas, meanwhile, was honored with the presence of Mean Green legend, Pro Football Hall of Famer and iconic Coca-Cola pitchman “Mean” Joe Greene, who still looked like he could sack someone at the age of 67. UNLV President Neal Smatresk gave Rebel fans the next cheer, though, one month before he takes over as North Texas’ president, when his ceremonial coin toss came up UNLV’s way.
The crowd was quiet early, when the Rebels drove 95 yards for a touchdown to take a 7-0 lead on their first possession. And when the Mean Green were stopped on their next drive, it seemed like it might be UNLV’s day. But then the Rebels’ Keith Whitely muffed the punt, and North Texas parlayed the gift into a game-tying touchdown. UNLV never did regain its swagger.
In the second half, the Rebels fell behind by 21 points, and fans could only hope Herring could replicate Joe Montana’s performance in the 1979 Cotton Bowl, when the flu-ridden QB rallied Notre Dame from a 22-point fourth-quarter deficit to defeat Houston.
Alas, there was no Irish luck for the Rebels, who fell 36-14. Their last bit of hope had come when they pulled to within 28-14 midway through the fourth quarter. On the ensuing kickoff, they were called for a 15-yard personal-foul penalty. “Learn how to lose, UNLV!” screamed a North Texas fan.
With the Rebels’ track record of misery entering this season, never has a more ironic taunt been heard. It was like yelling at a fish to learn how to swim. But even with the Heart of Dallas Bowl disappointment, UNLV fans can be hopeful that the Cotton Bowl experience is part of a greater lesson plan: remembering how to win