Cover Story

Rick Baker ’77: Chance Encounters Change Lives

It’s always a good year for the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic, thanks to this alumnus.

Rick Baker ’77 (Photo Courtesy Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic)
Rick Baker ’77 (Photo Courtesy Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic)

Rick Baker ’77, then a young baseball player from Millerton, stepped onto the Scranton campus in the summer of 1973. He went from a Scranton student-athlete to a minor league baseball player to, eventually, a college sports executive.

Since 1991, Baker has served as the president and CEO of the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic in Dallas, Texas, joining the staff in 1988 as a marketing director after a term at Southern Methodist University (SMU) and the now-defunct Southwest Conference.

The dean of college bowl executives, Baker is one of the most innovative leaders in his field, directing a staff of 14 (nine full-time and five part-time) that work the entire year to ultimately welcome two of the top teams in college football for one week each and every year to North Texas.

Coming to The University of Scranton “changed my life, and it was certainly one of the best decisions I’ve ever made and one of the luckiest things to ever happen to me,” he said. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if it hadn’t been for the great education that I received at The University of Scranton.”

But it almost never came to be.

A Change of Heart

“I was all set to go to another school,” Baker said. “I already turned in my deposit. I had already attended the freshman orientation. And, in July of that year, I was at a baseball camp in Wilkes-Barre. The athletic director and head baseball coach at the time at Scranton, Dave Ocorr, saw me play. I had no idea he was even there.”

Ocorr was impressed, and, two days later, he called Baker at his home to promise him a roster spot. He wanted Baker to visit the campus, a campus (and area for that matter) that Baker had no idea existed until Ocorr called his home.

In July, on a day that would change his life forever, Baker and his parents headed to the Scranton campus only six weeks before the semester began.

It was a fast-forward kind of process, but it changed my life."

“We met Coach Ocorr, we met with Father (Bernard) McIlhenny, S.J., about financial aid and how to get into school,” said Baker. “And I just fell in love with the school. Really, Dave Ocorr, who was an incredible man, coach and athletic director, and Fr. McIlhenny are the reasons I came to Scranton.

“It was a fast-forward kind of process, but it changed my life. It had to have been fate. … It was one of those things that you look back and wonder how it happened. But it was truly one of the best things that have ever happened to me.”

Finding a Passion

Baker has vivid memories of his baseball career at Scranton, where to this day he is still 18th all-time in program history for stolen bases (11) in a season (1976). A three-year letter winner, Baker remembers playing game after game at historic Schautz Stadium in Dunmore.

Of course, his memories include playing games in typical Northeastern Pennsylvania early spring weather, which often means frigid conditions and snow.

Baker lived in Casey Hall, across from the Long Center, where he took part in the University’s extensive intramural program. Over time, he started noticing something else in the building.

“I was always in the Long Center, and I saw how two athletic directors – Dave Ocorr and Gary Wodder – worked with student-athletes since their offices were in the lobby,” Baker said. “I realized then, even at Division III, that college athletics was a business. So I really got interested in it, especially when Dr. Wodder came in.”

Wodder, who took over at Scranton at the age of 29 in Baker’s sophomore year, became not only one of Baker’s biggest mentors but one of his lifelong friends. Immediately, Baker began to ask the young AD questions, so much so that Wodder motivated Baker to start a career in college athletics.

Humble Beginnings

After graduating in 1977 with a bachelor’s degree in business – he began his academic career as a pre-med major – Baker played minor league baseball in the Pittsburgh Pirates system for two years.

After his baseball career ended, it was Wodder who helped him decide what was next: a graduate program at Ohio University in education with an emphasis on sports administration.

“I wanted to do something work-wise that was inspiring and where I could help people, right in line with what we’re taught at The University of Scranton about doing for others,” Baker said. “Obviously, we all know college athletics is special. You are seeing young people when they are really maturing into adults. And you can really make an impression and really do some special things, and I wanted to be a part of that.”

An internship with Southern Methodist University (SMU) took Baker and his wife, Patti, to Dallas, Texas. They never left.

From SMU to the Final Four to the Cotton Bowl

After holding several leadership positions at both SMU and the Southwest Conference, Baker had the biggest break of his career when he served as the tournament director for the 1986 NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Final Four held at Reunion Arena in Dallas.

Two years later, he was hired by the Cotton Bowl as the organization’s first marketing director, a role in which he was responsible for making sure the game fulfilled all contractual obligations to its first title sponsor – Mobil Oil. In 1991, Baker was elevated to the executive director position at the Cotton Bowl, a job he has held ever since.

"A lot of people think we’re in the football business, but really we’re in the event business."

He has worked with four TV networks on contracts to televise the game each year (CBS, NBC, FOX and ESPN), he has negotiated sponsorship contracts with three partners (Mobil, AT&T, and Goodyear), and, in 2014, he solidified the Cotton Bowl’s spot in the rotation for the annual College Football Playoff, which it hosted for the first time in 2015.

Baker and his staff work tirelessly all year to host two teams in Dallas for one week each year, creating and planning over 30 events for “two very well-deserving teams that expect a just reward for a very successful season,” he said.

“We have all kinds of events for the players, the coaches and their families. So a lot of people think we’re in the football business, but really we’re in the event business.

“It’s a fun job. We always say that we’re a part of the ‘toy department of life’ working here, and we get to enjoy it. But, to do it right, it’s a lot of work and planning. But it’s very enjoyable, to say the least.”

Two Major Bowl Games in the Face of a Pandemic

This year’s Cotton Bowl was like none ever played in its history.

Baker admits that during the summer he believed there would not be a Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic in 2020.

But he and his staff adjusted to the ever-changing COVID-19 landscape and were able not only to put on one bowl game but another. The 2021 Rose Bowl was moved to Dallas after COVID-19 restrictions did not allow it to be played at its normal site in Pasadena, California.

“We kept saying that we’re the last chapter of a book that hasn’t been written yet, and the book is going to be written in September, October, November and December as the season goes on,” Baker said. “The real work was done by the universities to get through the season. That was really a benefit to us; we were on the back end, not the front end, which helped us.”

Adopting a policy seen in the NHL and NBA during the pandemic, Baker and his staff bubbled both teams selected for the game – Oklahoma & Florida – into one hotel that the Cotton Bowl bought out and took over.

Oklahoma was put in one part of the 1400-room hotel and Florida in the other, and in between a barrier was created so the teams would not mix. Security was at all entrances at all times, only allowing properly credentialed individuals into the hotel. Hotel and bowl staff were tested daily before interacting with both teams.

The plan worked.

The 2020 Goodyear Cotton Bowl was played on Dec. 30, 2020, with Oklahoma blowing out Florida, 55-20. As both teams left their hotel, the two Rose Bowl participants - Notre Dame and Alabama - came in the back door of the hotel and stayed there for two nights.

On New Year’s Day, Baker’s Cotton Bowl became the first bowl to host two major games in a span of 72 hours, as Alabama knocked off Notre Dame, 31-14, in the first Rose Bowl not played in Pasadena since 1942. Looking back, Baker acknowledges what it took to pull it all off.

“I think that was the thing that we were most proud of, we got through it,” Baker said. “We felt energized because we felt we were a part of history: putting on two major college football games in the span of 72 hours during a pandemic. We got through it; everyone was safe. And I think, without a doubt, that was the thing we were most proud of.”

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