Name change elevated pride, attendance

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Moving game day from Dec. 23 to New Year's Eve, and kickoff from under the lights to under the sun has proved fruitful for Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl attendance.

Just ask any of the 13,204 who braved 17-degree wind chills at kickoff during the 2004 night game between Marshall and Cincinnati. With a recent snowfall still evident in some parts of Cowtown and more below-freezing, nighttime temperatures on tap this week, no thank you.

But, when Air Force and Houston convene at 11 a.m. (CT) Thursday, with a forecast of partly sunny skies and a brisk 47 degrees at Amon G. Carter Stadium on the campus of TCU, more than 40,000 will nearly fill the grand old stadium to capacity for a third consecutive year, with a possible record crowd topping last year's best of 41,127.

That's quite a feat for a lower-tier bowl game featuring two non-BCS conference teams with no local ties. Add the fact that they're playing in a stadium whose permanent tenant, the No. 4-ranked TCU Horned Frogs, traditionally fights an uphill battle to draw 40,000 on Saturdays. TCU managed that just twice during this undefeated season.

"We often compare ourselves to the TCU situation," Armed Forces Bowl executive director Brant Ringler said. "They try to fill their stadium for every game; we try to do it for one."

Date and time help, but really, it's all in the name.

Known as the Fort Worth Bowl from its inception in 2003 through 2005, the game's switch to the Armed Forces Bowl in 2006 and the accompanying title sponsorship by defense contractor Bell Helicopter, headquartered in Fort Worth, has fueled civic pride among residents and sponsors alike, plus a strong tie to Texas and regional military bases of all branches.

The game is televised on ESPN and broadcast to soldiers around the globe via the Armed Forces Network.

That Air Force is conveniently back in the bowl for a third consecutive year only adds to the atmosphere and reinforces why Ringler enjoys the unique dynamic the Armed Forces Bowl has created.

"This is something people put on their calendar now and want to go every year and thank the men and women in uniform," Ringler said. "We've added more sponsors, and those sponsors are required to underwrite tickets for the military. We have 10,000 tickets going to the military."

Soldiers from local bases, plus Fort Hood in Killeen, Fort Sill in Oklahoma and Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, as well as soldiers in the Wounded Warrior Program will also be in attendance.

And talk about military star power. Last year, the bowl welcomed Gen. David H. Petraeus, and at Thursday's game, Adm. Mike Mullen of the U.S. Navy, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will accept the 2009 Great American Patriot Award on behalf of the troops.

Former executive director Tom Starr, who left Fort Worth to head the Dallas Football Classic, a new bowl game planned for the Cotton Bowl next year, lobbied hard for the name change. At the time, the bowl was already in title sponsorship negotiations with Bell Helicopter, but once the name change was approved by bowl owner and operator, ESPN Regional Television, Bell immediately signed on.

Bell's four-year contract expires with this game, but in September it agreed to a two-year extension, which includes an option for two more years, possibly taking it through 2013. Navy, as an independent (and as long as it reaches the bowl-qualifying six wins), has already booked a spot in that 2013 game.

"Being who we are, if we have any chance of having a military team it works out well for us," Ringler said. "Air Force's record the last three years has worked out best in our slotting position, and we know they love being here."

The Falcons (7-5), a TCU foe in the Mountain West Conference, don't mind making a third consecutive trip to Fort Worth. Twenty-three Texans are on the Air Force roster, more than any other state.

"You look the last two years we've been there," Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said, "and the number of players we've been able to bring to the academy from the Metroplex."

The Falcons will be looking for their first win after losing close and exciting games to California in 2007 and to pass-happy Houston last year. This matchup should again be a fun one. Each program has sold about 7,000 tickets to watch Houston (10-3) and the nation's most potent passing attack (450 yards a game), led by heralded junior quarterback Case Keenum, who threw for 5,449 yards and 43 touchdowns, go up against Air Force's No. 1-ranked pass defense (148.7).

"To lose to a great team like Houston like we did last year, you always want a second chance," said Air Force senior offensive lineman Nick Charles, who hails from San Antonio. "You always don't get second or third chances, but we have one."

The Falcons gave Fiesta Bowl-bound TCU its toughest test, a 20-17 Horned Frogs victory that went down to the end on a bitter-cold night in Colorado Springs, Colo.

"What they've done is played tremendously well on defense," second-year Houston coach Kevin Sumlin said. "They've scored five times defensively this year. They're 10th in the country in total defense. There's only been a couple people get over 20 points in a game on them, and one of those teams [Utah] had to go to overtime to do it.

"They held TCU to 20, and they're right there with us. TCU averages 40 points a game just like us."

More than 40,000 will be there to see the matchup, a salute to the success of the Armed Forces Bowl.

Jeff Caplan covers colleges for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.