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Magician kept UT-OU at Cotton Bowl

11:45 PM CDT on Friday, April 20, 2007

In the four years since he first heard Texas would vacate its half of the Cotton Bowl, Pete Schenkel has been charged with defending the landmark's honor.

From a historical perspective, only William Barret Travis had a tougher gig, and the Alamo probably had better restrooms.

Of course, that brings us to a story. The wife of a high-ranking Texas official attempted to make use of the Cotton Bowl's facilities at a Texas-OU game a few years ago, unfortunately, and perhaps inevitably, to no avail. Her only alternative: a port-a-potty, which was indignity enough.

So just imagine the poor woman's state when a well-oiled customer started rocking the joint while she was still a passenger.

Considering the odds, maybe now you can appreciate the scope of what Schenkel has pulled off.

Texas-OU will remain at the Cotton Bowl at least through 2015, and all parties are pretty much unanimous as to how in the world this happened.

"The magic of Pete Schenkel," is how John Scovell put it.

The magician doesn't look like one. Soft-spoken, self-deprecating, as slick as your grandmother's quilt, the habitual recipient of humanitarian and civic service awards, he's as unassuming as he probably was when he started out as a milkman.

But you don't rise like cream to the top of Schepps Dairy – or attract multi-million dollar consultant's fees after selling out – on humility alone.

Schenkel ingratiated himself to the athletic directors at Texas and Oklahoma, DeLoss Dodds and Joe Castiglione. The courtship was easy but persistent. Maybe he wouldn't call for a week or two. Maybe he'd call three times a day.

Whatever it took, he'd do it. He sent pictures of the light rail station going in at the west entrance of Fair Park, due to be completed in time for the 2008 game. He sent stories on other improvements, too, like the cramped, claustrophobic seats coming out and benches going in, and the $5 million scoreboard, and seating capacity increasing to 90,000-plus.

He didn't realize Dodds reads the Dallas paper, too.

"You send all the good stories," Dodds told him, "but you don't send the bad ones."

Stories of how $50 million wouldn't be enough to fix the Cotton Bowl. Stories of uncomplimentary comparisons to Miami's decrepit Orange Bowl.

Stories of how nearly half of a Dallas survey's respondents thought any money spent on the Cotton Bowl would be a waste.

Undaunted, or unrealistic, Schenkel plugged away at his mission. He invited Castiglione and Dodds to the Cotton Bowl, each one for a private walk-through.

He pulled out a legal pad and made the same request of each:

"Tell me what we need to do."

They told him, all right.

"It was a long list," he said.

Even if Schenkel could deliver, it didn't look good. Texas has reasons for wanting to go home-and-home, and some have nothing to do with the Cotton Bowl's state. Capacity at Royal-Memorial Stadium eventually will reach 112,000. Hosting Oklahoma every other year would be a guaranteed sellout, even with Texas' laid-back fans.

Texas officials were fed up, too. Schenkel won't tell you this, but Dodds would hardly talk to anyone from Dallas anymore.

Unless he was with Schenkel. On March 26, Schenkel flew to Austin with Dallas Morning News publisher Jim Moroney, who helped set up a meeting with Dodds, Mack Brown and Texas president Bill Powers.

Moroney made his impassioned case for the city of Dallas. Powers, a bigger football fan than his predecessor, Larry Faulkner, listened.

A couple of weeks passed. Schenkel called Dodds, and he could tell a difference. Maybe it was because Dallas was finally living up to its promises. Maybe Powers, an altruistic sort, didn't like the prospect of negative press if Texas deserted Dallas. Maybe Dodds didn't want to be remembered as the man who trashed a great tradition.

Probably didn't hurt that the city agreed to give Texas and Oklahoma most of the $700,000 guarantee that once went to the Cotton Bowl Classic.

If you ask Schenkel what turned the tide, he credits Moroney and parties on both sides of the Red River.

"I know their hearts were here," Schenkel said, standing at the 50-yard line of the Cotton Bowl. "We just had to find the right combination of things to make it happen."

Even with the agreement, it's not necessarily a happily-ever-after kind of story. The city still faces obstacles. Laura Miller and State Fair officials are trying to schedule other games to anchor the Fair and justify the upgrades. They're finding it difficult, and that's not even considering what it will take to do it year after year.

Suggestion: Put Pete Schenkel on the job. He's handled tougher assignments. Come to think of it, let's make him mayor. Maybe president. Name another candidate with a miracle on his résumé.

 
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