This column runs in the Winter 2020/2021 issue of Heart Beat of the Texas Hill Country
As I write this column, the first week of the College Football Playoff rankings are on TV. The committee convenes weekly through mid-December in Grapevine, Texas to chose the top 25 football teams and also assign those teams to the major bowl events including four teams who duke it out for the National Championship in January. I smiled as I thought about the bowl games I have attended.
It was New Year’s Eve Day in 1969. I was a sophomore at the University of Houston. I worked part-time as a desk clerk and switchboard operator at the Holiday Inn on the Gulf Freeway at Wayside Drive. The hotel was booked full of Auburn fans as well as their cheerleaders who were in town to attend the Bluebonnet Bowl at the Astrodome. Now this wasn’t just any bowl game; it was my #17 Houston Cougars playing #12 Auburn.
While checking in one group, one guy inquired, “Do you allow pets?” I assumed he meant a dog so I replied, “As long as we know they are in there and as long as you clean up after your pet.” While I retrieved a dog marker for the room card, another guy said, “Thanks for letting us have War Eagle in the room. Would you like a free ticket to the game?” It turned out that I had just checked in the Auburn mascot! Yes, I had just checked in an eagle – a real, live eagle!! And, more importantly, I was getting to go to the Bluebonnet Bowl – free!
My seat was on the 50-yard line on the mezzanine level. There I was, decked out in my scarlet red and white, amidst a sea of orange and blue clothed fans screaming their battle cry, “War Eagle!!” Houston, which was an Independent, was considered very much the underdog to the SEC opponent. Because my dorm was across the street from Baldwin House which housed the athletes and through classes, I had friends on the team – Gary Mullins, Robert Newhouse, Elmo Wright, Earl Thomas, Riley Odoms, Leroy Fisher and Butch Brezina. That night, the Houston Cougars shocked the nay-sayers and upset the Auburn Tigers 36 – 7! It was thrilling to see Coach Bill Yeoman carried off the field by Butch and Ken Bailey as Cougar faithful sang the fight song!
Ten years later, a friend who taught ROTC at the University of Houston gave me his tickets to the Cotton Bowl where the #9 Cougars, that season’s Southwest Conference Champions, were playing #10 Notre Dame. At the time, I was still on reserve as a flight attendant for Delta and after finding it impossible to get New Year’s Day off, I gave the tickets to my brother. I was called by IAH operations for a 1:40 AM sign-in New Year’s morning. It was a turnaround to Atlanta and back. I was elated! I would be back in time to at least watch the game. It turned out to be a blessing that I didn’t get to go. Dallas had an ice storm on December 31st and my brother ended up watching the game from his hotel room. At the game, temperatures were in the mid-twenties! Notre Dame quarterback Joe Montana was sick with the flu. Despite this, he rallied Notre Dame in the final minutes and they beat Houston 35 – 34.
There would be two other bowl games for me. In 2012, we drove to Dallas to watch the Cougars face Penn State in the Ticket City Bowl. That day was cold and saw me adding my long underwear after we parked the car. We saw Case Keenam explode with 532 passing yards and lead Houston to a 30 – 14 win.
The other game was sheer torture to be at and it wasn’t because of weather. In 2018, Army routed the Cougars 70 – 14 at the Armed Forces Bowl in Ft. Worth. Each time Army scored; the cadets would do pushups in the end zone near us. Needless to say, we saw a lot of calisthenics!