The Cotton Bowl Classic was founded in Dallas in 1937 at the Texas State Fair Grounds, when Texas oil executive J. Curtis Sanford financed the first one out of his own pocket. and star quarterback Sammy Baugh took on , winning 16–6, but the game lost money even though some 17,000 attended. Nonetheless, Sanford persevered, and in 1938 the game made a profit as of Houston defeated 28–14 in front of a crowd of 37,000.
Some 40,000 attended the 1939 match between and , with the Gaels upsetting the undefeated Red Raiders 20–13.
In 1940, an underdog team surprised the 6–3, in the first and only appearance at the Cotton Bowl Classic by Tigers coach . Attendance at this game was given as 20,000. Later that year, a group of prominent Dallas citizens took over the staging of the game as the Cotton Bowl Athletic Association. A few months later, the CBAA became an agency of the Southwest Conference. From 1941 to 1994, the SWC's champion hosted the Cotton Bowl Classic.
In 1943, The Texas Longhorns represented the SWC in their first ever bowl game against a highly ranked Georgia Tech team at the time. Prior to the game, sportswriters boasted that Texas did not belong in the same league as Georgia Tech. Texas proved the public wrong by defeating the Yellow Jackets 14–7 in what was mostly a defensive battle. This Cotton Bowl was the first bowl appearance for Texas as the Longhorns would go on to appear in a record 22 Cotton Bowls, the most of any team.
In 1946, was defeated by , despite the 4th quarter work of freshman fullback Robert (Bob) Lee Clodfelter, who was to mature under Weeb Ewbank at the next three years.
In 1947 and played in front of 38,000 people to a 0–0 tie in what would later become known as the "Ice Bowl." LSU got the better of Arkansas most of the game, but the game truly belonged to the weatherman.
In 1948 , in a bowl game for the first time in 25 years, played Dallas' to a 13–13 tie. Because none of the Dallas hotels would provide accommodations for the two African-American members of the Penn State team, the Penn State team ended up staying at a Naval Air Station 14 miles from Dallas. This was the first interracial game played at the Cotton Bowl Stadium.
The 1953 Cotton Bowl would be a rematch of the 1951 bowl game as and played for the second time. Texas defensive stars shut out the Vols 16–0 as the Longhorns avenged the previous meeting when Tennessee beat Texas 20–14.
The 1954 Cotton Bowl Classic featured one of the most famous plays in college football history. 's Dickey Moegle (last name spelling later changed to "Maegle") began a run around end from his team's 5-yard line and down the open field. 's jumped off the bench and tackled Moegle. The referee, Cliff Shaw, saw what happened and signaled touchdown even though Moegle was "tackled" at the 42-yard line.
The 1957 Classic matched the against the Jim Brown-led . Brown rushed for 135 yards, scored three touchdowns and kicked three extra points but a fourth-quarter blocked extra point by TCU's Chico Mendoza proved the margin of victory as TCU won, 28-27. TCU QB Chuck Curtis passed for 174 yards, threw for two touchdowns and rushed for another to lead the Frogs.
In 1960, defeated 23-14 to win the . Syracuse was led by bowl MVP Ernie Davis, who ran for one touchdown, caught a Cotton Bowl Classic record 87-yard touchdown, and intercepted a pass leading to a third touchdown. There was a brawl on the field just before the end of the first half; some said it was because of Texas taking cheap shots at Ernie Davis. The University of Texas president Logan Wilson called for an NCAA hearing on the fight after the game. Syracuse Athletic Director Lew Andreas asserted that no one from his university had accused Texas of dirty play, and attributed those claims to members of the media. The issue was dropped shortly thereafter. In , Davis became the first black athlete to win the Heisman Trophy, but died of leukemia before his pro career could begin.
defeated Arkansas 7–6 in the 1961 game. Duke scored with 2:45 remaining and recovered a fumble on the ensuing series to win the game.
In 1962, Texas would again be selected to play in the Cotton Bowl after winning another SWC Crown. This time the Longhorns faced a highly talented Mississippi Rebels team. The game was a low scoring meeting that came down to the final quarter as Texas won 12–7.
The 1963 Cotton Bowl Classic featured the returning Texas Longhorns and the , who, like Mississippi, were from the SEC. Lynn Amedee's 23 yard field goal gave the Tigers a 3–0 halftime lead after Texas had missed their own which led to an 80-yard drive. This was the first field goal in the Classic since 1942. Amedee recovered a Longhorn fumble at the 37 early in the third quarter and Jimmy Field scored 5 plays later on a touchdown run. Buddy Hamic recovered a Longhorn fumble to set up an Amedee field goal 13 plays later as the Tigers shut the Longhorns out.
In 1964, No. 1 completed an undefeated season by defeating No. 2 (led by Heisman Trophy winner and future Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach). The game was played six weeks after the assassination of John F. Kennedy (coincidentally, a retired Naval officer) in Dallas. The 1964 game is the second bowl game in college football history to pair the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the nation (the 1963 Rose Bowl being the first).
In 1965, the Arkansas Razorbacks took an undefeated record (10–0) into the Classic versus a 9–1 Nebraska Cornhuskers team. Although Alabama had been awarded the AP and UPI (Coaches) polls national titles before the bowl games (which was standard at that time), Arkansas still had a chance to claim a share of the national championship with a victory over Nebraska. After a hard-fought defensive battle, the Hogs prevailed 10–7. That victory, coupled with an Alabama loss in the Orange Bowl to Texas (a team Arkansas defeated in Austin, Texas.), gave Arkansas the Grantland Rice Trophy awarded by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA), signifying the Razorbacks were the true National Champions of the 1964 season.
The 1967 game was moved to Saturday, December 31, 1966, due to the Dallas Cowboys hosting the NFL Championship Game at the stadium on New Year's Day, a Sunday. (Note: The other major bowl games that year -the Rose Bowl, Sugar Bowl, and Orange Bowl – were played on Monday, January 2.)
In 1969, Texas was off and running with its new offensive formation, the Wishbone. After dismantling all opponents of the 1968 season, Texas won the SWC crown again and this time faced the Tennessee Volunteers, in what was a lopside win for Texas with almost 400 rushing yards. Texas won 36–13.
The 1970 game featured 's return to bowl games after a 45-year self-imposed ban. When the Irish made that decision, 9–1 LSU was overlooked for the game, and the Tigers stayed home instead. The Irish, led by quarterback Joe Theismann, faced top-ranked and undefeated . Notre Dame led 17–14 late in the fourth quarter, but the Longhorns scored a late touchdown to clinch a 21–17 victory and an undisputed national championship. The same two teams met the next year, but this time, the Irish ended the Longhorns' 30-game winning streak with a 24–11 victory, denying the Associated Press national championship (the Longhorns had already clinched the regular season championship in the UPI poll, a pre-bowl poll until the season; won the AP title). Texas and Notre Dame met again in the 1978 game, with the Longhorns again top-ranked, only to see the Irish and quarterback Joe Montana roll to a 38–10 victory. The Irish vaulted from fifth to first in the final polls with the victory.
The 1973 game featured Texas and Alabama once again playing in a bowl game. Alabama led 13–10 going into the 4th quarter when Texas quarterback, Alan Lowry, ran the bootleg to perfection and scrambled 32 yards for the go-ahead touchdown. Again, Texas defeated Alabama and Bear Bryant, 17–13.
The 1976 Cotton Bowl showcased SWC co-Champ Arkansas against SEC stalwart Georgia. The Razorbacks had beaten No. 2 Texas A&M in a blowout to force a tie for the conference crown, and opened the door for Arkansas to stroll to Dallas on New Year's Day. After the Bulldogs jumped out to a 10–0 lead, the Hogs came roaring back, scoring 31 unanswered points, and defeating Georgia, 31–10. Arkansas finished the season 10–2.
The 1977 Cotton Bowl featured SWC Champions Houston Cougars, who were entering the Cotton Bowl for the first time, against the undefeated Maryland Terrapins. Houston won 30-21, handing the Terps their only loss of the year.
The 1979 Cotton Bowl Classic, nicknamed the Chicken Soup Game, featured one of the most historic comebacks in bowl history. Notre Dame trailed 34–12 midway through the fourth quarter. Thanks to a blocked punt and the brilliance of future NFL Hall of Famer Joe Montana, the Irish rallied to win 35–34, their second consecutive Cotton Bowl Classic victory.
The 1982 game between Texas and Alabama would be the final time that Bear Bryant would face the Longhorns. Having lost to Texas in all meetings prior, Alabama went into the fourth quarter ahead 10–0 and it would appear that the Bear would finally get a win over Texas while at Alabama. But the Longhorns scored their first points with a quarterback draw by on a 3rd-and-long with 10:38 remaining. On Texas' next possession, Terry Orr scored from eight yards out to cap an 11-play, 80-yard drive to put the Longhorns up 14–10 with 2:05 remaining. Alabama's returned the ensuing kickoff to the Texas 38-yard line, and Tide quarterback took over with 1:54 left. On the very next play, UT's picked off a Lewis pass at the one. The Longhorns took a to insure better field position and Texas once again stunned Alabama and the Bear with a 14–12 victory.
The 1984 game featured No. 7 Georgia of the SEC against undefeated No. 2 Texas of the SWC. Texas led 9–3 with more than four minutes to play in a battle of field goals between Georgia's and Texas' Jeff Ward. A Chip Andrews (Georgia) punt was muffed by Texas defensive back Craig Curry late in the fourth quarter, then Georgia quarterback John Lastinger ran 17 yards for a touchdown with 3:22 left to play to capture a 10–9 victory, costing the Longhorns a possible national title.
The 1989 game between and was highly publicized in the Dallas area because Bruin quarterback Troy Aikman was expected to be the top pick in the 1989 NFL Draft; the first pick was held by the Dallas Cowboys. Much was made of Cowboys longtime head coach Tom Landry watching Aikman practice at Texas Stadium, UCLA's practice facility for game preparation. Landry never got to draft Aikman, because he was fired the next month, but his successor, , did. UCLA and Aikman won, 17–3.
The Cotton Bowl Classic has seen its share of great quarterbacks. Sammy Baugh, Davey O'Brien, Babe Parilli, Bobby Layne, Norm Van Brocklin, Y. A. Tittle, Bart Starr, Roger Staubach, Ken Stabler, Joe Theismann, Joe Montana, Dan Marino, Doug Flutie, Troy Aikman, and Eli Manning all have played in the game.
Three of the four Heisman Trophy winners from the 1984–87 seasons finished their college career in the Cotton Bowl Classic: Doug Flutie for in January 1985, Bo Jackson of in 1986, and of in 1988.
Brown and fellow Heisman winner Davey O'Brien, who played in the 1937 Cotton Bowl, both attended nearby Woodrow Wilson High School (Dallas, Texas) in the Lakewood area. "Woodrow" became the first high school ever to produce two Heisman winners.
For 53 years, the champion of the now-defunct Southwest Conference (SWC) played as the home team in the Cotton Bowl Classic, a tie-in which continued through the . Until the mid-1980s, the contest was universally considered as a major New Year's Day bowl. However, by the late 1980s the Cotton Bowl Classic's prestige had fallen, as many SWC teams served NCAA probations for rule violations, rendering them bowl-ineligible. Also, the conference's quality of play suffered a marked decline. The SWC champion lost the last seven times they hosted the event, and the last national champion to play in the Cotton Bowl Classic was Notre Dame in 1977. Finally, the Cotton Bowl Classic was played outdoors during cold weather on occasion (most notably the 1979 game).
Meanwhile, the Fiesta Bowl, unhindered by conference tie-ins and played in generally warm weather, propelled itself to major-bowl status by attracting contenders, most notably with its January 1987 matchup between two independent teams and . In the minds of many fans, the Fiesta replaced the Cotton as a major bowl. Despite this, the Cotton Bowl Classic still retained enough prestige that it was included as one of the top bowls in the Bowl Coalition when it was formed in 1992. However, in 1995, the new Bowl Alliance (the predecessor of the BCS) chose to include the Fiesta over the Cotton in its rotation. While it was still a major bowl capable of landing Top 10 teams, it was no longer in a position to host a National Championship contestant. In 18 of the 21 seasons since 1995, the Cotton Bowl has featured two ranked opponents. In the other three seasons, one of the teams was ranked (2002, 2003, and 2010).
In 1995, the SWC gave up control of the Cotton Bowl Classic as part of its planned dissolution after the season. The Big 12 Conference took over control, sending a team (usually the championship game loser or a division runner-up) as its representative, facing off against either the champion of the Western Athletic Conference or the second-place finisher of the Pac-10 Conference. In 1996, the No. 5 joined Notre Dame as the only programs outside of a major conference to play in the Cotton Bowl in the modern era, defeating the Kansas State Wildcats 19–15, winning an NCAA record 14th game, and finishing the season ranked fifth in the country with a 14–1 record.
In 1999, the Cotton Bowl arranged for a team from the Southeastern Conference to be the Big 12 opponent, and Southwestern Bell (now AT&T) began sponsoring the event. More often than not, the SEC representative came from the West Division. However, Tennessee appeared in 2001 and 2005, and Missouri appeared in 2014.
Through 2008, the Cotton Bowl Classic continued to be played on New Year's Day (except in 2004 and 2006, when the game was moved to January 2) and was usually the second game of the day to kick off, generally following the Outback Bowl.
This decade was kicked off in grand fashion, as two former Southwest Conference rivals faced off in the 2000 Classic. The Arkansas Razorbacks, now a member of the SEC (as of 1992), and Texas Longhorns, now a member of the Big XII (as of 1996) faced off in the first college football game of the last year of the 20th Century. After a lackluster first half ended with the game tied 3–3, the Razorbacks opened things up, led by Offensive MVP running back Cedric Cobbs. Arkansas beat their former hated rival, 27–6, holding the Longhorns to negative yards rushing, and sacking the Texas QB a bowl-record 8 times.
The 2003 Cotton Bowl Classic saw a rematch between the Texas Longhorns and the LSU Tigers. LSU led at the half 17–7 however Roy Williams of Texas had a tremendous breakout in the second half to lead Texas to victory over the Tigers, 35–20.
The 2004 Cotton Bowl Classic saw the return of the , whose last appearance in the Cotton Bowl Classic was a 12–7 loss to Texas in 1962. The 2004 Cotton Bowl Classic would also be current New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning's last college football game. Manning led his team to beat 31–28.
The 2007 Cotton Bowl Classic was between played the ; Auburn won 17–14.
In the 2008 Cotton Bowl Classic, 's running back Tony Temple broke the bowl game rushing record by gaining 281 yards on 24 carries. (The record was previously held by Rice's Dickey Maegle, who had rushed for 265 yards.) Missouri beat Arkansas 38–7.
Panoramic view of the 2008 Cotton Bowl Classic between
In April 2008, Cotton Bowl Classic officials announced that in 2009 and 2010 the game would be moved from its traditional start time of 10 a.m. CST on January 1 to 1 p.m. CST on January 2.
In the final Cotton Bowl Classic game to be held in the Cotton Bowl stadium, the 8–4, No. 20 defeated the 11–1, No. 7 , 47–34. Tech quarterback Graham Harrell broke the NCAA record in this game for most touchdown passes thrown by anyone in Cotton Bowl Classic history.
In 2010, the Cotton Bowl Classic moved to the new Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, as part of a bid by bowl officials to make it part of the BCS in 2011. Although the Cotton Bowl had recently been remodeled, Dallas' cold January weather had been a longstanding concern, and was thought to have hampered any prospect of upgrading the game to the BCS. In contrast, the new stadium would offer top amenities and a retractable roof. A new four-year agreement between the BCS and ESPN had forestalled any possibility of the Cotton Bowl Classic joining the BCS until 2015 at the earliest. Later findings that the Fiesta Bowl reimbursed employees more than $46,000 for political contributions could have opened the door for the Cotton Bowl to replace the Fiesta in the BCS bowl rotation; however, the Fiesta Bowl did not lose its BCS rotation.
In the 2010 Cotton Bowl Classic played between the Oklahoma State Cowboys and the Ole Miss Rebels at the new Cowboys Stadium, the Rebels shut down the high scoring Cowboys offense to win the 74th annual Cotton Bowl Classic 21–7.
In 2010, the Cotton Bowl celebrated its 75th Anniversary with a new logo dedicated to the year-long celebration. played in the 2011 AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic on January 7, 2011. LSU would beat Texas A&M 41–24. This was the first Cotton Bowl Classic to be played in prime time, as well as the latest calendar date for the game.
In the 2012 Match-up, the defeated the 29–16. It was a BCS-worthy game, featuring two Top 10 teams. The game was highlighted by Razorback Joe Adams punt return of 51 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter, to give Arkansas early command. It was the first punt returned for a touchdown in the Cotton Bowl Classic since former Razorback Lance Alworth did it in 1961. After the Hogs posted 19 unanswered points, Kansas State responded with 16 consecutive points of their own in the second and third quarters. But the Razorbacks pulled away late in the third quarter and early fourth quarter, led by quarterback Tyler Wilson, the game's offensive MVP. Arkansas improved to 11–2 for the 2011 season, and finished ranked No. 5, while K-State fell to 10–3.
In 2013, the No. 10 defeated the No. 12 41–13 to win the Cotton Bowl Classic and to finish the season with an 11–2 record. Johnny Manziel rushed for 229 yards during the game, a Cotton Bowl record, rushing for two touchdowns and throwing for two more. Though the halftime score was 14–13 Texas A&M, the Aggies went on to score 27 unanswered second half points to win the game.
The Cotton Bowl Classic returned to "major" bowl status in the 2014 season in conjunction with the first year of the new . It will host a national semifinal once every three years (in the 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024 seasons), and in other years will host two at-large teams that did not get selected to the four-team playoff. As part of this move, television rights will switch to ESPN, which will also televise the other games in the playoff system. The 2014 Cotton Bowl Classic was a bowl game between the No. 9 of the Southeastern Conference and the No. 13 of the Big 12 Conference. The Tigers beat the Cowboys by a score of 41–31 to claim the school’s second-ever Cotton Bowl Classic championship and set a new AT&T Stadium record with 24 points in the fourth quarter.