Sun Bowls don’t determine national championships, or even showcase top-10 teams. But few, if any, cities take as much pride in their postseason game as this west Texas outpost hard by the borders of Mexico and New Mexico.
From the moment American Flight 1116 touched down here Sunday morning, I’ve been showered with hospitality, and not just when I was wearing a press pass. Folks here love their Sun Bowl and, most important, the city they call home.
Tuesday’s clash between Virginia Tech and UCLA is the 80th Sun Bowl, longevity topped only by the Rose Bowl, and this far more modest game – the Rose has its nationally televised parade, marquee teams and the U.S.’s No. 2 media market in Los Angeles -- owes much of its longevity to the thousands of citizens who not only volunteer before kickoff but also attend the game.
Javier is a high school principal here, a former football, basketball and track coach. As he drove Comrade Wood and me downtown Monday for a pregame news conference, he recounted some of El Paso’s sports history and recited the city’s assets more enthusiastically than any Chamber of Commerce suit possibly could.
For instance, while troubles clearly lurk across the Mexican border, El Paso boasts the lowest crime rate among the 33 U.S. cities with a population of at least 500,000 – El Paso’s population is approximately 675,000.
Also, El Paso is home to Fort Bliss, the west's largest Air Defense Center. Players from both teams spent several hours with Army personnel there.
While hardly booming, downtown is active, especially near the Convention Center. Adjacent to it, construction progresses on a new stadium that will house the San Diego Padres’ new AAA farm team, the El Paso Chihuahuas.
Sun Bowl Stadium is nestled among the beautiful Franklin Mountains on the campus of the University of Texas-El Paso. Formerly called Texas Western, the Miners of coach Don Haskins famously won the 1966 NCAA basketball championship -- the first all-African American starting five to do so – over Kentucky.
El Paso native Nolan Richardson played and coached at UTEP and later guided Arkansas to the 1994 national championship. His Razorbacks came within a game of repeating, falling in the ’95 title contest to UCLA.
UTEP now competes in Conference USA, Old Dominion’s new league home. In fact, Conference USA will stage its basketball tournaments here in March.
The hometown Miners remain popular here, along with the Dallas Cowboys and Texas Longhorns. Volunteers staffing the media work and hospitality rooms were crestfallen Sunday night when the Cowboys lost to the Philadelphia Eagles, and again Monday night when Oregon rolled Texas in the Alamo Bowl.
Those were about the only frowns I’ve seen in El Paso. From the waiters at L&J Café (chicken enchiladas with green sauce) and Cattleman’s Steakhouse (filet, medium and a dusty Cab) to the bowl staff, folks can’t do enough for you.
A long and pricey trip, the Sun is an outlier among the bowls that partner with the ACC. But fans and teams fortunate enough to travel here universally praise the experience.
“There’s not a friendlier place anywhere, more caring, more helpful,” Tech coach Frank Beamer said. “We absolutely could not have been treated any better. The hospitality has been exceptional.”
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