It seems unnatural, if not downright un-Texan.
Organizers of the Goodyear Cotton Bowl, which for the better part of eight decades has set the bar for college football hospitality, felt obliged this week to show restraint while entertaining Clemson and Notre Dame?
As late, great, longtime Cotton Bowl Athletic Association executive director Jim Brock might have said, “That just ain’t right, Hoss.”
The reality, Hoss, is that Notre Dame vs. Clemson on Saturday at AT&T Stadium isn’t simply the 83rd Cotton Bowl Classic. It’s also a College Football Playoff semifinal.
Considerably raised stakes doesn’t mean less game-week steaks for the teams, but, from a practical standpoint, there should be fewer frills and social obligations.
“You realize that you have to make adjustments based on the new normal,” Cotton Bowl president and CEO Rick Baker said. “A semifinal is a Cotton Bowl on steroids, so you have to adjust to that.”
This isn’t to say the No. 2 Tigers (13-0) and No. 3 Fighting Irish (12-0) have been treated shabbily. In fact, players and coaches to a person have raved about their accommodations and treatment in North Texas.
The Cotton Bowl’s idea of moderation probably still exceeds most bowl games’ offerings, but Baker, who has been the bowl’s president since 1992, said organizers saw how different the game-week tenor was the last time the Cotton Bowl doubled as a CFP semifinal in 2015.
Alabama that year beat Michigan State, 38-0. One change from that week and the past 50-or-so Cotton Bowls was evident during Friday’s Goodyear Big Play Luncheon at the Hilton Anatole.
Friday’s luncheon marked the first time in the event’s history that both teams didn’t attend. The schools’ only representatives were coaches Brian Kelly of Notre Dame and Dabo Swinney of Clemson.
“It’s the day before the game, when teams don’t necessarily like being together in the same building,” Baker said. “They’re getting their game face on. They’re getting more intense; they’re getting more focused.
“Believe me,” he said of scaling back, “it’s been hard. Because it’s one of those things that we’ve done for 50 years.”
Before the luncheon, Swinney and Kelly co-held their final pregame news conference, at the Dallas Omni. Swinney remarked that because of a police escort, he was whisked from Clemson’s hotel to the Omni in less than five minutes.
“Dabo and I were just talking about the treatment that each team’s staff and family receives here,” Kelly said. “It’s been second to none. … at the same time, not putting us in a position where we can’t focus on what’s important, and that is the preparation leading up to this playoff game.”
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Cotton Bowl without some pampering of players and coaches.
It starts at the team hotels, which in Notre Dame’s case has been Grapevine’s Gaylord Texan; in Clemson’s case, the Dallas Hilton Anatole.
Each team has in its hotel a designated hospitality room, filled with video and arcade games, large TVs, 10 massage chairs, poker tables, couches and hammocks.
In past years, both Cotton Bowl teams have been treated to an excursion at Main Event, but Baker said that was scrapped this year so that players could have one less outing and more free time to spend at the hotel. Dollars that were spent on the Main Event outings were instead designated to add hospitality suite amenities.
“It’s amazing,” Clemson junior safety K’Von Wallace said. “We’ve got every game known to man. Arcade games, ping-pong, basketball, you name it. We’ve got a theater.”
“Not an actual theater, but we’ve got massage chairs and a 100-something-inch TV. It’s huge. And we just got our haircuts [Wednesday].”
It’s equal treatment for the Fighting Irish, although the Gaylord might have one-upped the Anatole by placing tiles throughout its main lobby floor with the names and jersey numbers of each Notre Dame player.
Irish linebacker Drue Tranquill said he is most appreciative that he and his teammates have a fun place to hang out together that’s non-structured, although defensive coordinator Clark Lea noticed the red-carpet treatment his players were getting and decided a little talk was in order.
“A lot of times you’ll get in these atmospheres where you have such hospitable people and people looking to take care of you at almost every turn, almost like carry you on their backs around the hotel,” Tranquill said. “Coach Lea was like, ‘Don’t let the accommodations soften you.'”
Tranquill said that when the Fighting Irish are served meals and snacks in their hospitality suit, players make sure to express appreciation and carry away and stack their dirty plates.
Likewise, players on both teams say they don’t take for granted the gift packages each player received: They include a duffel bag, a personalized sweatsuit, an Apple Watch Series 4 and a wallet.
Spoils fit for national semifinalist football teams — in moderation, of course, or rather the Cotton Bowl’s version of restraint.
“I think that’s why it’s such a nice bowl,” Clemson wide receiver Hunter Renfrow said. “They try to spoil you, but they expect you to put on a good product when it comes to Saturday.
“So we’ve got to return the favor, for sure.”
Swinney not surprised: Clemson’s Swinney said Friday that the school wasn’t surprised Thursday evening to learn that the suspensions of star defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, reserve offensive tackle Zach Giella and backup tight end Braden Galloway were upheld.
The three players had hoped that B-sample testing would clear them of using the supplement ostarine.
“All three of those guys were disappointed, but not surprised,” Swinney said. “I mean, it’s not like it was a different test. It was the same urine . . . Different tube, same urine.”
All three players are appealing, but no appeal could occur in time for them to play Saturday – and the Jan. 7 national title game, if Clemson makes it, seems iffy, Swinney said.
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