Ben Trubach ('18) and Mitch Bleser ('15) discuss what it was like going to the Cotton Bowl to watch the #4 Bearcats take on the #1 Crimson Tide in the College Football Playoffs.
Ben: Care to introduce yourself for the folks who weren’t in band with us?
Mitch: Hey there! Yeah–I’ll introduce myself a bit. My name is Mitchell Bleser. I was in the Bearcat Bands from 2010 - 2015, playing alto saxophone my first four years and was Drum Major my senior year.
Ben: What bowl games did you get to attend while you were a member of the band? Have you been to any others as a fan before?
Mitch: As a UC Band member, I traveled with the band to: the Autozone Liberty Bowl in Memphis, TN (2011), the Belk Bowl in Charlotte, NC (2012, 2013) and the Military Bowl in Annapolis, MD (2014).
As a fan, I haven’t been to other UC bowl games, but did attend a couple of Toledo’s bowl games (since my sister played piccolo in the Rocket Marching Band): the GoDaddy Bowl in Mobile, AL (2015) and the Boca Raton Bowl in Boca Raton, FL (2015).
The 2021 Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic was my first UC bowl game I attended outside of band.
Ben: So you’re a big football fan and follow the team pretty closely—at the beginning of the season what bowl game did you think the cats would be in? Were you planning on attending if it was that one?
Mitch: I was fairly confident this team was going to make a New Year’s Six bowl game (maybe not a CFP Semifinal) from the beginning of the season. I knew we would have the resume needed for a CFP Semifinal spot if we went 13-0 (and we did), but we also needed some other teams to take themselves out of the running. I was dead set on attending the CFP Semifinal bowl game. I was 50/50 on attending if it was one of the other NY6 games based on travel prices and timing.
Ben: When did you know you were going to the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic?
Mitch: After our Black Friday win against ECU and the subsequent CFP rankings, I was 95% confident we were going to be in the Top 4 with a win. I figured given Georgia trending towards the 1st seed that we would likely be playing in the Capital One Orange Bowl in Miami, FL, but knew that the Cotton Bowl in Arlington, TX was the other Semifinal option. I had originally booked hotel rooms in Miami, Dallas, & Glendale the day after the Notre Dame game in early October (obviously with free cancellation up to 48 hours before check-in for the ones we didn’t end up needing).
Ben: When/ how did you get your tickets? Were they hard to get?
Mitch: A group of 8 alumni UC Band members all were in a group chat leading up to the CFP announcement on December 5th. Within an hour of us knowing for sure it was the Cotton Bowl, we had easily secured tickets through the secondary market. In hindsight, we overpaid and should have waited a couple days as secondary prices drastically decreased or tried going through UC’s allotment for face value tickets. However, we didn’t want to risk waiting 2 weeks to hear if we got them through UC since none of us were high on the donor/ticket holder priority list and with the uncertainty of how secondary market prices would change, we just wanted to lock-in our opportunity. Most of us already had other travel arrangements booked and we didn’t want to get to Dallas and not have a game ticket.
Ben: Much ado was made online about the lack of flights (or at least reasonably priced ones from CVG to Dallas) and as we know the undergrad marching band took buses from Cincy—what was your approach to travel? Did you consider making the drive from Northern Indiana?
Mitch: Looking at flights prior to the game being announced, we were planning to travel out of Indianapolis International for the Orange Bowl in Miami and Chicago’s Midway Airport if we were going to Dallas just based on prices—both are a little over 2 hours from my house. At no point did we seriously consider driving after seeing flights were under $500 a person for Miami or Dallas.
Ben: Who all traveled with you? Had your entire group been planning on going from the beginning?
Mitch: I traveled with UCBAA Governor Brian and his wife/fellow band alum Lauren Pack (née. Barrett). Brian and I originally started talking all of this through when he stayed at my house for the Cincinnati-Notre Dame game. Obviously as time went on, we started to really get into planning mode and looked into flight options, travel dates, etc. probably 10 days prior to the bowl announcement. Many of my other friends had discussed going, but were traveling from their respective towns separately.
Ben: So the packing list for a band member is pretty easy—uniform, music, instrument, black socks, etc… What about for an alumni? Anything specific or interesting you made sure to pack?
Mitch: Clothes wise—Nothing specific other than some warm weather Bearcats apparel, and my infamous UC red pants may have made an appearance! I also packed the typical essentials—toiletries, phone chargers, etc. I happened to have some unused red & black boom sticks from the Homecoming game that I threw in my suitcase as well to bring to the game. Also, now that I am no longer in my tip top drinking shape, I did pack (and wisely consumed) some Liquid IV powder packets to help get me through game day and New Years Eve. I wish I also would have packed something warmer than jeans and a sweatshirt (again, more on that later).
Ben: Once you landed - where was your first stop?
Mitch: So our flight landed at noon CST on Wednesday, December 29th. We were hungry, so we picked up our rental car and went straight to the In-N-Out Burger not even a mile from the airport and slammed some animal style burgers and fries. After that we headed to the George W. Bush Presidential Library & Museum on SMU’s campus and toured that exhibit before we checked into our hotel. Afterwards, we went to Hutchins BBQ in Frisco for dinner and let me say we didn’t leave disappointed!
Ben: So the day before the game - what all events were there for you to check out?
Mitch: We ended up heading up to the Gaylord Texan Resort in the morning. The atrium of the hotel was almost like it’s own little town and still decorated for Christmas, but they had a UC team shop there with Cotton Bowl and other UC apparel for sale. There was also a UCAA booth that had a banner the fans could sign and gave out pom poms and other freebie spirit items. After that we got lunch at Pappasito’s Cantina and headed to AT&T Stadium’s West Plaza for the Battle of the Bands.
Ben: How’d the band sound? Who won (both unofficially and officially)?
Mitch: Both Bands sounded great and it was a great pep rally/tailgate (they even served drinks and food there)! Alabama’s Million Dollar Band played a lot of the same pieces that they performed a month before in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade in New York City. I wasn’t a fan of it, but they had a Clarinet professor as the soloist for most of those pieces—I would have rather seen it be a student soloist. You could tell Alabama treated this event as essentially a warm-up for the game—they weren’t very interested in being there. They played in their equivalent of summer uniform. Frankly, the best sounding piece was their warm up, and at first, I was VERY worried they were just going to sweep the Bearcat Marching Band under the rug after that warm up sound. However, the UC Bearcat Bands knocked it out of the park—both in song selections, energy, and look (they were in full uniform)! While there was no official winner per se, I’m a little biased and believe “Swing, Swing, Swing” was a great closer that basically all but sealed the informal victory for the Bearcat Bands. The fans definitely were on the Bearcat Bands’ side!
Ben: After all that, was there any sleep the night before the game or were you like a kid waiting for Santa Claus and up all night?
Mitch: To be frank, I struggled to sleep the night before we flew out and we had to leave my house at 5:30am to get to the airport. I also struggled to sleep the night before the game in excitement for what the next day entailed!
Ben: GAMEDAY. Let's start with pregame activities. What was the plan? How early were you up? What tailgating/ pregame options did you have?
Mitch: So we had planned a few things before the game. We left the hotel around 9:30am that morning to head towards the stadium. Texas Live!, the entertainment district next to the stadium, had a $25 wristband that got you access to their bars and restaurants the entire day including New Years Eve celebrations after the game. We ended up tailgating with some fellow band alumni in the parking lot (thanks to tuba section alumni Marcus Pierce and Sheldon Swartz for hosting)! At noon, we reserved tickets to the UC Alumni Assocition’s tailgate event, which was in the Dr. Pepper plaza inside the stadium and included an impressive menu of lunch & drinks.
Ben: Before kickoff - what was the pregame show? Did it have both bands on the field together?
Mitch: Each band did their own standard pre-game performance (both were shortened a little due to time allotments). UC’s was the “charge onto the field”, Red & Black, Cheer Cincinnati, Down the Drive, & Give a Cheer. Alabama did they’re typical script Alabama and dancing elephant routines. Unfortunately, neither band was on the field simultaneously playing together as one. The National Anthem was performed by a singer with the full-field American flag.
Ben: For sake of brevity and not reopening old wounds we probably don’t want to comment on the football team’s performance, right?
Mitch: Yeah let’s not talk about the game–we know how that went. All I can say is that the scoreboard definitely fits the Texas mantra–everything is bigger in Texas!
Ben: And Halftime? Both bands got to perform, right? How were the shows from your perspective and how did the crowds seem to react?
Mitch: Both bands did perform! Crowds seemed to enjoy both performances as your typical football crowd would. Alabama’s band played their New York City Thanksgiving show. Cincinnati played “Sorry Not Sorry”, & “Swing, Swing Swing." Unfortunately, I was on the back of the performing side, so sound wasn’t the best, but still great to see the formations from way up high!
Ben: So post game I (like many other fans watching from home) turned off my TV and got back to New Years Eve partying. What was the mood like in the stadium? What did most of the Cincy fans do? Shuffle back to their hotels for a quiet night in, or was there an afterparty?
Mitch: Obviously, UC fans were a little bummed with the game result, but we were proud of our school representing well on the big stage! At that point, most fans I feel moved on from the game and went into celebrating New Years. Surprisingly Ubers/Lyfts after the game were $150+ for a 10 mile drive, so we hung around Texas Live! through New Years until about 1am. They had plenty of food and drink options and most of the TVs were on the other semifinal until midnight, but it was a good time overall!
Ben: And how about the trip back - smooth and uneventful flights home, right?
Mitch: Honestly, everything with the trip went smoothly (outside the game) the entire time, so something had to give, right? Well, 1am on New Years Day Saturday, I got the notification while Ubering back to our hotel that Southwest canceled all flights in and out of Chicago airports for 36 hours due to a winter storm going through the area (I know some other band alumni who also had some flights through Chicago get messed up). I tried to rebook us on the next available flight, but the next best option was late Monday evening (almost 48 hours later). So we ended up getting flight credits refunded to us since we paid mostly with gift cards, they couldn’t refund cash. We then picked up a rental car from the DFW airport and started the northward trek at 11:30am. We traveled north of Dallas into Oklahoma before catching I-44 eastward towards St. Louis (and boy, that is a boring drive). We were sort of riding the edge of the storm front, so we quickly saw the temperatures drop from the 60s into the teens (and we thought we were okay leaving all our winter coats in my car at the Chicago airport–guess we were wrong there). Since the rental car was based in a location where freezing weather is a rarity, it had summer windshield washer fluid, which quickly froze as we trekked north. Thankfully we were able to clean the windshield as needed, but I’m sure the rental car agent was wondering how I was able to see when we returned it at Midway airport the next morning. The 14 hour drive from Dallas to Chicago took us about 23 hours (including stops and a well-deserved 6 1/2-hour hotel stay).
Ben: So all in all, is making the trip to a bowl game worth it as an alumni? Besides traveling across the country to cheer on the band (and the football team) are there other ways you support the Bearcats?
Mitch: It was a great experience! I heard that the Cotton Bowl is one of the better organized bowl games, and it definitely didn’t disappoint! I highly recommend attending a bowl game as a fan if the timing and costs work for you! This was my 3rd or 4th UC Alumni Association sponsored tailgate event at away sporting events and they’re worth the registration fee alone in entertainment, free swag, food & drinks. When not cheering on the Bearcats, I donate to the Bearcat Bands both monetarily & in time and spirit through my involvement on the board for the Drum Major Society.
To learn more about how you can give to the Bearcat Bands program:
And I always make sure to re-up my membership in the UC Band Alumni Association annually:
Ben: And finally, we’ll see you at Homecoming 2022, right?
Mitch: Barring another crazy travel story involving a winter storm that impedes my ability to travel to Cincinnati, I’ll be there and hope to see you there too!