HOUSTON -- With the Falcons training at Rice University this week in preparation for Super Bowl LI, professional football returns to the scene of one of the most influential games in NFL history.
No one on Atlanta's roster is old enough to remember Houston's first Super Bowl in 1974. But while 43 years have passed since Super Bowl VIII at Rice Stadium, its far-reaching effects can still be seen today.
"It was a product of a lot of community efforts in town," said Chuck Pool, assistant athletic director for athletic communications at Rice. "The process was far less grandiose than it is now."
NFL owners made Houston the first city outside of Miami, Los Angeles and New Orleans to host a Super Bowl. Many fans expected the game to be at the Astrodome, home of the Houston Oilers and one of the best sports venues of its time. But its capacity of 50,000 paled to how many people could fit inside Rice Stadium, where the Oilers played for three seasons before moving to the "Eighth Wonder of the World" in 1968.
Rice Stadium was no stranger to grand events. The Owls have played home games there since it opened in 1950, dating back to the prime years of the Southwest Conference rivalries against the University of Texas and SMU. The stadium also hosted one of the seminal moments in American space history when in 1962, President John F. Kennedy delivered his famous "we choose to go to the moon" speech in front of 40,000 people.
Hosting the Super Bowl, however, put a national spotlight on the university that not even Kennedy could create.
"Super Bowl VIII was already becoming a media juggernaut with the eyes on the game and viewership and media exposure," Pool said. "Rice Stadium being mentioned in print and on the broadcast was huge."
Close to 72,000 fans were in attendance to see the Dolphins win their second consecutive championship, a comfortable 24-7 win against Minnesota and its "Purple People Eaters" defense. Each team featured six starters who would become Pro Football Hall of Fame members, including Larry Csonka, who rushed for 145 yards and two touchdowns to claim MVP honors that day.
While the Super Bowl increased visibility for Houston and the university, it didn't provide much of an immediate benefit for the football program. Three coaches combined to lead Rice to a 10-44-1 record during the five years after hosting Super Bowl VIII. In fact, the Owls waited until 1992 to have a winning season.
That's not to say Rice lacked talented players. During that same five-year span after the Super Bowl, 11 Owls became NFL draft picks. This includes College Football Hall of Fame quarterback Tommy Kramer, a first-round pick who threw for 159 touchdowns with the same Vikings team that lost on his home college field after his freshman season.
Rice Stadium has undergone some modern upgrades since Super Bowl VIII. There is now a digital scoreboard, and the turf has been replaced multiple times. The end zone seats are now covered to bring fans closer together to create a more exciting atmosphere as Rice competes in a city filled with other entertainment options.
But the nostalgia remains.
The Owls' home field, much like the Cotton Bowl in Dallas or the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, gives fans a glimpse of a time before social media and 24/7 news coverage. Standing in the stadium, it's not hard to close one's eyes and hear Kennedy persuade the country to send a rocket to the moon or see Csonka drag two Minnesota defenders into the end zone with him.
Those memories, especially from Houston's first Super Bowl, can't be built into a new stadium. Only 23 venues share the title of "Super Bowl host," and five of those have since been demolished. But Rice Stadium is part of a more exclusive club, one of collegiate stadiums hosting the big game. Arizona State's Sun Devil Stadium is the only other place with that claim to fame. And with NFL teams constructing new venues with the latest technology and all the bells and whistles, it's unlikely that club will grow any bigger.
Pool said hosting the Super Bowl will be a part of Rice Stadium's lore for as long as it remains standing.
"It's never going to become a secondary point," Pool said. "It's always gonna be part of a 30-second commercial (for) the most important things about Rice Stadium."