Mad Men's season debut dropped a single, tiny reference to the 1968 Cotton Bowl last night. First, you really should watch the entire insane 1968 Cotton Bowl film to realize just how weird 1968 was, and how much you will NOT see one coach carry another off the field after losing to him in 2013.
Second: this is how Mad Men drops a single half-ounce of reference to the 1968 Cotton Bowl and makes it weigh ten pounds.
- Don is offered tickets to the 1968 Cotton Bowl by Bob Benson, a pushy underling who'll tell anyone about his Wharton degree while Don silently recites "Hobo A&T, Class of '48" in response. Benson says he got them through "low level corruption," and Matthew Weiner clearly understands something about college football.
- That 1968 Cotton Bowl pitted Alabama against Texas A&M, and matched Bear Bryant against his former player and protege Gene Stallings. Stallings was a young upstart at the time, something you would never believe since Gene Stallings looked forty when he was twenty. (He did, however, have a fantastic smug bastard pose.)
- The obvious takeaway here: a mentor is surpassed, if only temporarily, by his student. Like a thousand things on Mad Men, this is both an intentional and oblique reference to the surrounding plot, but it's certainly not an accident. Don is the Bear, and someone's gonna upset Draper on the way towards winning a bowl purse.
- Peggy Olson is the current leader at 5/2, per a sportsbook we just invented.
- The reference also comes at a pivotal moment Mad Men keeps flirting with: integration. The 1967 Alabama team did not have a black player on the starting roster, but it did mark the first year Alabama allowed black walk-on black players on the practice squad. In at least one degree, the 1968 Cotton Bowl team was the first Crimson Tide team to resemble anything close to an integrated squad.
- Texas A&M went further in 1967 by using two black walk-ons, James Reynolds and Samuel Williams. Neither started, but both saw actual playing time.
- The 1968 Cotton Bowl was quietly the first integrated bowl game for both schools. MATT WEINER MAKES NO ACCIDENTS.
- Along with a Super Bowl reference, the Cotton Bowl mention is one of two big football references in the episode. This is another subtle but important pivot: the moment when America as a viewing audience began to turn to football in earnest is somewhere around 1967, the year of the first Super Bowl and the year after ABC acquired the rights to NCAA football. Football ratings took off from that point forward, and baseball's did this.
- The announcer for those NCAA games: the one and only Keith Jackson, of course.
- In summary: in a single reference, Matt Weiner manages to allude to a possible upset for the reigning champion Draper, add an integration angle, and add historical context by quietly noting the ascent of football to the front of the American viewing palate. If you wonder why people on the internet write so much about Mad Men, this is why: you can unfold one casual reference into a full dinette set with ease, and then have a substantial meal on it.