As the music blares, the hastily- errected trophy stage is taken down and the happy Aggies move the celebration to the locker room, Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas chairman John Huff lingers in a Reliant Stadium end zone.
The bowl view looks good from here. But Huff can see even better, even bigger.
"Houston will be the site of a BCS bowl game in the future," Huff says.
That's the dream of every little bowl in the land, but it's not some farfetched fantasy for Houston's bowl game. Sure on this New Year's Eve Saturday, it's a 6-6 Texas A&M team beating a 6-6 Northwestern squad 33-22 in a game that impacts little besides the two programs involved and some degenerate gamblers. But there are 68,395 people in the stands (the highest attendance of any game so far this bowl season) and a big-time feel in the air that goes far beyond the Stetson hat given to game MVP Ryan Tannehill.
In a few more years, the current bowl contracts will be up and Houston's bowl will be big-game hunting, BCS hunting. Huff is wearing a cowboy hat too. But the Cowboy he is after prefers expensive suits, plastic surgery and Tony Romo. The Jerry Jones-championed Cotton Bowl — with its Cowboys Stadium stage and power team head start — could end up standing between Houston and a BCS bowl.
"Houston will be the site of a BCS bowl game in the future," bowl chairman John Huff says.
Not that Huff — the Rice-reared CEO of Huff International, a capital management company that invests in new energy technology — is intimidated by that.
"Well, I think it is a competition," Huff says. "And Houston is going to be a hell of a competitor."
The competition's already started and this year's Meineke Bowl is one of the hidden battlefields. For Texas A&M played in Jones' baby last bowl season, while Northwestern played in the TicketCity Bowl that's actually held in the old Cotton Bowl Stadium. Forget Aggies vs. Wildcats. In many ways, this week is about Houston vs. Dallas.
"This bowl week doesn't take a backseat to the Cotton Bowl at all," Texas A&M right tackle Jake Matthews says, standing outside the Aggies locker room. "The way the people in Houston treated us, the activities they had for us every night, it's been amazing."
Hear that Jerry?
Love In the Stands Too
Looking around Reliant Stadium, before the horde of Texas A&M maroon rolls in, Lori Goodman feels very much at home. Much more at home than she did at any time during Northwestern's bowl trip to Dallas last year.
"I don't think I have big enough hair for Dallas," Goodman laughs.
Goodman doesn't know it but she's firing a salvo in a high-stakes underground sports rivalry: The bowl battle between Houston and Dallas. Everything's bigger in Texas, but there may be room for only one supersized, future-BCS-worthy bowl city in the Lone Star State and officials in both Dallas and Houston are quietly stalking that possibility.
The Meineke Bowl is getting better every year, filling up Reliant, even as it switches up names. The Cotton Bowl is already near BCS big, nipping at the Fiesta Bowl's heels with its big-time matchups (Kansas State vs. Arkansas this Friday night, LSU vs. Texas A&M last year) and Jerry World wonder. The TicketCity Bowl, which is actually held at the old Cotton Bowl Stadium in Dallas, is trying to establish itself with No. 20 Houston and a No. 24 scandal-shadowed Penn State (turned down by the Meineke Bowl) stuck playing on ESPNU on Monday morning.
And don't forget the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio, which figures to stay nationally relevant as long as it keeps landing stars like Baylor's Robert Griffin III.
"I believe Houston is the most progressive city in Texas," Mitchell says. And where does he call home? Dallas.
That's a lot of bowl games in a relatively small geographic area, all fighting each other to move up in prominence.
Which makes Northwestern's appearance in Houston's bowl game something of an unwitting test case. Its fans got to experience a bowl week in Dallas. Now, they're finishing up a bowl week in Houston.
And you thought Texas A&M 33, Northwestern 22 is the only important score from Reliant Stadium Saturday?
Please. That's minor stuff compared to the Houston-Dallas bowl battle.
"The people seem to be so much more real in Houston," Lori Goodman says. "People have been so nice to us in Houston."
Goodman and her husband Adam — the director of Northwestern's Center for Leadership — arrived in town around 2 a.m. Thursday morning. Their daughter is on the Wildcats cheer squad and they're all about representing Northwestern. Since getting into town, they've hit Kenny & Ziggy's (twice) and Pappasito's, finding that they love H-Town's food — and its stadium.
"This is so much nicer than the old Cotton Bowl," Lori Goodman says, noting how close Reliant's seats are to the action.
Reliant is the Meineke Bowl's ace — a state-of-the-art NFL palace that seems to scream for a bigger game. Cowboys Stadium overshadows it in press clippings, but as the NCAA found out with the Final Four, Reliant's second class to no arena.
That's not what the fans are going to remember most from bowl week though. Executive director Heather Houston, Lone Star Sports & Entertainment president Jamey Rootes, media relations director Zac Emmons and the rest of the Meineke Bowl staff do a great job of building up the events around the game — from team luncheons that turn the Galleria into a sea of purple on Friday, to the pregame tailgating festivities that bring the early to partying with the 11 a.m. kickoff — but it turns out that the bowl's greatest asset is Houston itself.
Texas A&M tailback Ben Malena (a surprise two-touchdown-producing injury replacement) unexpectedly falls in love with teams' bowl week rodeo experience at George Ranch.
"It sounds funny because I'm from Texas," Malena, who grew up just outside of Dallas, says, "but I'd never been to a rodeo before. That's something I'll never forget."
The coaches wives (and never discount the impact of coaches wives in building a bowl's reputation nationally) love that they're on the water with the kids in Kemah one beautiful, sunny December afternoon and then at a world-class zoo with them the next sunny day. Most of the Northwestern fans stay in the Galleria area, but it doesn't take them long to discover Washington Avenue's party scene.
Northwestern's 63-year drought without a bowl win lives on. Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald kicking the monkey stuffed animal he kept on the sidelines cannot change that.
"I have my friend in from New York in and he was saying how much of a city (Houston) really was," Northwestern fan Jonathan Mitchell says. "This is how a major metropolitan city should operate.
"I believe Houston is the most progressive city in Texas."
And where does Mitchell call home? Dallas.
His old college roommate Aquil Stinson — who played running back at Georgetown in the late '90s — came to cheer for his little brother, redshirt freshman Northwestern safety Ibraheim Campbell. Like for most family members of players, watching a game for Stinson is an anxious endeavour.
"It's great," Stinson says. "But it's nerve racking."
After a promising first quarter, when the Wildcats hold the powerful SEC-bound Aggies offense to a field goal, it's not an enjoyable afternoon for Campbell and his teammates. By halftime, it's 20-7 Texas A&M and things only grow more lopsided before a 15-point Northwestern fourth-quarter blitz brings those season-long collapse worries rushing back at the Aggies.
Northwestern's 63-year drought without a bowl win is going to run to at least 64 years though. Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald kicking the monkey stuffed animal he kept on the sideline — to represent the bowl monkey on his program's back — in the midst of that fourth quarter surge cannot change that. Stinson still couldn't help but love Houston though.
"It surprised me," he says.
Houston's been doing that to visitors for generations. And Huff doesn't see any reason why H-Town cannot deliver one more unexpected surprise. One that's liable to hit Jerry Jones right in the solar plex.
"We've got great people, an unbelievable stadium and the support of one of the biggest cities in the country behind (this bowl)," Huff says. "What's not to like?"
Houston loves to one up Dallas and vice versa.
A&M junior receiver Ryan Swope pushing a pile of Northwestern defenders forward to finish off a 37-yard catch-and-run at the 1-yard-line early in the second quarter? That's nothing compared to the pounding these two bowl rival mega cities would love to deliver to each other.
Game on. Jerry Jones gets to counter on Friday. May the best city win.
Of course, we all know which city that is.