A Constant Amid All The Variables

By Troy Phillips for www.armedforcesbowl.com

Dallas, Texas, December 30 - As the landscape of college football bowls continue to shift like plate tectonics, there’s one constant amid all the variables.

Aligning with service academies obviously works for the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl. If one is available, it’ll be on the bowl’s radar.

Army delivered both fans and excitement on Thursday, marching to a 16-0 halftime lead against SMU and then held on for a 16-14 victory over the Mustangs in the eighth BHAFB at Gerald J. Ford Stadium. SMU’s visitor side and grass seating area behind one end zone were blanketed with Army black and gold, and the BHAFB’s second-to-none tributes to the nation’s military personnel had an intimate feel with this year’s temporary change of venue.

Thursday’s official attendance of 36,742 broke the previous Ford Stadium record of 35,481, set earlier this season when SMU hosted TCU. Bell Helicopter CEO John Garrison, a West Point graduate, couldn’t have looked happier than when he helped present the winner’s trophy to the Black Knights and coach Rich Ellerson.

Long before the Mustangs were paired against Army, SMU had stepped in to lend Ford Stadium as a replacement for under-renovation Amon Carter Stadium at TCU. Ford’s smaller capacity, closer seating proximity to the field and picnic blanket-friendly seating at one end gave the BHAFB an ideal backup plan.

Returning to TCU next year remains on hold pending Amon Carter’s construction schedule, and the BHAFB could return to SMU in 2011.

Meanwhile, the bowl and its owner, ESPN Regional Television, have now forged airtight relationships with all three service academies, all of which were bowl-eligible this season for the first time. ESPN Regional senior VP Pete Derzis said talks with Army about playing in the BHAFB began as early as last spring.

“We were anticipating that there might be an opening,” Derzis said of perhaps the Mountain West Conference lacking enough bowl-eligible teams if TCU made it to a BCS bowl game. “We thought this would be a game Army would want to play in if it could.”

Army won six regular-season games and gave the bowl it’s fourth consecutive matchup involving a service academy after Air Force’s three appearances from 2007 to 2009. Navy has an agreement in place for 2013 to play in the BHAFB pending bowl eligibility. Both independents, Army or Navy could conceivably end up in the bowl as at-large teams if a myriad of factors play out.

It’s possible one could include a change to the BHAFB’s conference partnerships, in light of TCU’s move from the Mountain West Conference to the Big East in 2012. Currently, the bowl is in the first of a four-year agreement with the MWC and Conference USA, with the latter league ceding to Navy in 2013 unless the Midshipmen don’t win six games. 

C-USA assistant commissioner Russ Anderson called the C-USA/BHAFB partnership, which dates to 2003, a “terrific” one that the league “envisions continuing for a long time.” Three teams in C-USA’s West Division with reasonable proximity to Fort Worth – Texas El-Paso, Rice and Tulane – have yet to play in the BHAFB. Southern Mississippi and Memphis were possibilities in previous years. Tulsa played in the bowl in 2006 and has a strong, built-in regional fan base.

Especially in light of its relief appearance as a game venue, C-USA member SMU gave the BHAFB another valued partner going forward.

Ripe with options for potential future matchups, the BHAFB also has this to look forward to: Its 10th anniversary in 2012. Derzis said ESPN Regional will commemorate another 10th anniversary in its bowl stable at next year’s Sheraton Hawaii Bowl, and then it’ll be time to give the BHAFB its due.

“We have endured,” Derzis said. “We’re excited about the potential long-term success of this bowl. Geographically, it’s situated well. The concept has been well-received in the Metroplex. It has gained value in sponsorships, and it has really been an economic driver the last five years. It’s been successful filling a lot of hotel rooms and restaurants.”

This year’s game, with the shift in venue, also moved back a day from its more traditional Dec. 31 morning spot. Derzis said bowl schedules are never set in stone, but returning the game to Fort Worth could go hand-in-hand with playing again on New Year’s Eve day at some point.

Whatever the day, stadium or matchup, the BHAFB is poised to soon enter its second decade with relationships to endure the shifting landscape.

Now a freelance writer based in the Fort Worth area, Troy Phillips covered various teams and beats for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram for 17 years, including Texas Tech, Baylor, TCU, North Texas and small colleges. Among several bowls Troy covered (Rose, Holiday, Cotton, Texas, Galleryfurniture.com) were the last three Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowls. He covered high schools at two smaller papers and the S-T after graduating from TCU in 1990, and covered the debut of Major League Soccer in North Texas when FC Dallas (then the Dallas Burn) arrived on the scene. For more than a decade, Troy was part of coverage teams at the region's two PGA Tour events, the HP Byron Nelson Championship and the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial, and for years was one of the S-T's backup golf writers. In 2009, he was named Sportswriter of the Year by the Lone Star Conference. He has a master's degree (1995) from the University of North Texas.