When The Dallas Cowboys Called Austin Their Summer Home

Jul 25, 2018

The Dallas Cowboys are back in Oxnard, Calif., for their monthlong training camp. The Golden State has long been a base of operations for the Cowboys – California Lutheran College in Thousand Oaks served as the team’s longest-serving venue for camp from 1963 until 1989, and the state’s hosted camps since 2001.

But, before the Cowboys migrated back to California for camp, the team spent its most productive (and controversial) summers right here in Austin, when the team annually descended upon St. Edward’s University during their Super Bowl runs of the 1990s.

The Austin City Council approved the decision to accommodate the fledgling Cowboys in November 1989, voting 6-1 to transfer $100,000 in Parks and Recreation pool funds, along with an additional $91,000 in maintenance, labor and materials, for the construction of practice fields. In return, St. Edward’s provided, in some cases, year-round access to campus facilities to the Parks and Recreation department.

Then-rookie receiver Ken Harris studies his playbook in a St. Edward's dorm at the Cowboys training camp.
Credit Erich Schlegel/The Dallas Morning News

From the Cowboys’ perspective, the summertime sojourn to Austin was a two-fold decision – part publicity, part pragmatism. Owner-G.M. Jerry Jones thought using the small Catholic university as a base would energize the Central Texas fanbase, and then-coach Jimmy Johnson liked the idea of having Texas’ team practice in the Texas heat.

“Jimmy believed in a lot of contact, being physical and practicing in the heat. It was about 100 degrees [in Austin], the humidity was 90 percent,” quarterback Troy Aikman told NFL.com. “We were a young football team, and I think that maybe at that time, it was good for us. You certainly can’t argue with the results we got.”

During the stretch of camps at St. Edward’s, the team won three Super Bowls, but the team’s infamous off-the-field behavior came to a head in the mid-‘90s. Five players were suspended for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy between 1995 and 1996, and wide receiver Michael Irvin – a key cog in the trio of offensive stars known as “the triplets” – was arrested for cocaine possession.

Though the team went on to win Super Bowl XXX in 1996, the team finished the next season at 10-6.  Jones decided to clean up the team’s reputation as “America’s (Most Wanted) Team” ahead of the 1997 season – banning players from going out in Austin and even installing security cameras in dorms at St. Edward’s before training camp started.

However, upon returning to training camp in 1997, then-coach Barry Switzer was arrested with a .38-caliber revolver in his luggage at DFW International Airport – not a great first step to Jones’ planned fresh start for the team. To be fair, Switzer, a former Hall of Fame coach for the Oklahoma Sooners, may or may not have felt it was necessary to be packing in the heart of Longhorn Country.

About two weeks later, as camp was coming to a close, players trashed a St. Edward’s dorm and ripped out the cameras.

"What we normally see is what you see on a college campus when a group of students exit," John Lucas, who was the schools vice president for student affairs and represented the school during negotiations to bring the team to the school, told The Associated Press. "This year, we saw more damage. The cameras were forcibly taken out. There was water, pretty heavily soaked into the carpet, and in one area of the hall, there was an obvious stench of urine."

Cowboys defensive lineman and future Hall of Famer Charles Haley signs an autograph for 11-year-old fan Jimmie Rogers in 1995 at the team's training camp at St. Edward's.
Credit John F. Rhodes/The Dallas Morning News

Less than a month later, the Cowboys announced they were moving training camp from St. Edward’s because of a lack of space. Jones said the damage to the school’s dorm didn’t factor into the decision to pull up stakes.

The team moved on to Wichita Falls and San Antonio before moving to Oxnard. Still, in late 2002, the City of Austin was in negotiations with the Cowboys to bring the team back to Austin for two weeks for training.

The team requested the city build two NFL-regulation practice facilities, a 15,000-square-foot field house and cover the team's housing expenses, which it estimated at about $300,000 to $500,000 over the two-week stretch. Then-Council Member Will Wynn presented the offer to council, noting that the city’s “objective” analysis would bring in about $1 million in revenue every year and that the city would see $80,000 of that revenue at most.

“[I] believe the sort of economic impact analysis is pretty clear to us as a council and the potential investment,” Wynn said. “[I] will forward this on to the cowboys, and show them why we believe at this time it's not economically justifiable…certainly encourage them to reach out to any number of potential partners that frankly won't involve the City of Austin."

Images are courtesy of the Dallas Morning News' photo archive. You can view more photos of previous Dallas Cowboys training camps over the years on the Photography Blog's post "Flashback: Classic Images from Cowboys Training Camps."

This story was originally published on July 29, 2015.