50 years of Red Carpet BowlsVance stepping down as RCB chairman after golden anniversary games in August

Published 11:30 pm Saturday, May 19, 2012

On a chilly December night in 1962, football teams from Vicksburg’s Cooper High School and Columbus’ Lee High School met at Memorial Stadium for the first Red Carpet Bowl.

It was the start of a Vicksburg institution that has endured for half a century. For one player on Cooper’s squad it was the beginning of a different sort of tradition.

Travis Wayne Vance would mark many of life’s milestones alongside the Red Carpet Bowl. As a 15-year-old sophomore end, he helped the Greenies to a 13-6 victory in that inaugural game. Seventeen years later, he joined his father on the game’s organizing committee — just a few months before Travis T. Vance Sr., a former Vicksburg mayor, died.

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As he grew older, Vance assumed a leadership role with the game’s organizing committee. He spent a decade, from 1986 to 1996, as its chairman, then assumed the role again in 2010.

Now approaching retirement at age 65, having shepherded the Red Carpet Bowl through scores of changes and trying times, Vance is ready to pass the torch. He’ll step down as RCB chairman after this year’s event Aug. 17 at Warren Central.

“He has really taken a major part in sustaining the Red Carpet Bowl,” said Gene Allen, one of the original RCB committee members and the coach at Cooper when Vance played. “Travis has been, in my estimation, the backbone of what has transpired.”

Vance said his retirement stems from a desire to pass the torch.

“It’s not that I don’t want to do it. I love this. It’s my heart,” Vance said. “We have young folks that have come on the Red Carpet Bowl committee, and they need an opportunity to make it a success.”

Vance’s father, Allen, Harold Baldwin, Billy Ray and Ray Roberts formed the original committee that threw together a game in a few weeks in 1962. The group traveled to Biloxi to meet with organizers of the Shrimp Bowl for tips on how to stage a bowl game.

Travis Wayne Vance started the game at defensive end, a replacement for an older player who was injured, and also played on offense. Vance’s biggest contribution, he said, was throwing a key block on a touchdown run by Cooper running back Wayne Roberts.

Vance went on to become a second-team All-Big 8 selection his senior year. As an undersized linebacker, however, he realized football was not in his future.

“At 132 pounds soaking wet, I decided not to continue my football career,” he said with a hint of sarcasm.

Instead, Vance went to Hinds Community College and then Mississippi State and received an engineering degree before returning to Vicksburg in 1969. A decade later he was invited to join the RCB committee, which by then consisted of 10 members.

Not long after his son got the invitation, Travis Vance Sr. passed away.

His father’s death made the Red Carpet Bowl more than just a civic exercise for the younger Vance. It became a way to honor his father’s memory.

The game was first established to benefit Leo Puckett, a Jett High School football player who was paralyzed during a game in 1953.

After Puckett died, the mission shifted to helping the community. Today, the RCB uses proceeds for scholarships for seniors at all four of Warren County’s high schools.

“We’re here to help people. People helping people, that’s what we’re here for,” Vance said.

Vance’s first stint as chairman came during difficult times for the RCB. For its first two decades the game was played after the season, like a college bowl game. With the advent of the Mississippi High School Activities Association playoffs in the early 1980s, changes became necessary.

The RCB became a first-round playoff game for a few years, then was established as the first-round playoff game for either Vicksburg or Warren Central. That also caused problems in 1986, when both county teams lost their playoff openers on the road. No other teams wanted to travel to Vicksburg the following week, and the game was put on hiatus.

That snafu was emblematic of the RCB’s primary dilemma in the 1980s. When teams would rather host a playoff game than travel to a neutral site, how could it stay relevant? How could the RCB survive when every other once-prestigious postseason bowl game had faded into history?

“If it hadn’t been for changing with the times, we would have lost the Red Carpet Bowl,” Allen said. “Travis and the others had the foresight to make friends with the High School Activities Association.”

An arrangement was made to allow the RCB to be played at the beginning of the season instead of the end.

The first preseason Red Carpet Bowl was in 1992, a tripleheader with St. Aloysius, Warren Central and Vicksburg High each facing a non-division opponent.

St. Al, which was always shuttled to a hot, late-afternoon or Thursday evening timeslot, dropped out of the game in 1996. Then the bowl became a doubleheader with Vicksburg and Warren Central rotating as hosts.

“Travis has always wined and dined the High School Activities Association people that have come over,” said Charlie McKinnie, a committee member for 15 years and its chairman from 2001-04. “I would give Travis 85 percent of the credit for maintaining the Red Carpet Bowl. When all these changes came in, it took a lot of phone calls and making inroads and those sorts of things.”

Vance’s ability to foster good will in the community and get things done was on full display in 1992. Heavy rains turned the turf at Memorial Stadium into a mudpit.

Vance got the idea to dry the turf by having a helicopter hover over the field, but a half-dozen phone calls to Warren County businesses that owned helicopters proved fruitless. All were tied up.

Even so, there were offers to help.

“One of them was going to rent a helicopter for a day to come dry the field out,” Vance said.

Ultimately, a call to the Vicksburg Municipal Airport bore fruit. The airport had a medical-evacuation unit but couldn’t send it out just to dry the field.

“He said, ‘I can’t do that. But if you were to hang up the phone and call me back in a minute and ask if we could use the helicopter for an ROTC exercise, that would be acceptable,’” Vance said and laughed. “So I hung up the phone and called him right back. We had close to 10,000 people for that game because they wanted to come out and watch the helicopter.”

It was not Vance’s last experiment with a helicopter for the game. As part of this year’s 50th, plans are to have Allen and Billy Brewer — the former Ole Miss coach who led Columbus Lee in 1962 — flown onto the field for the pregame coin toss for the game between Vicksburg High and Brandon.

He’s also planning a banquet the night before.

“We’re inviting every player, coach, cheerleader and administrator from 1962,” Vance said.

When the party dies down, Vance will turn the reins over to new Red Carpet Bowl chairman Adam Cook, who will have 30 people on his organizing committee. Vance said he’ll offer any assistance Cook needs, but not take an active role.

“You need a change of face. You need a change of leadership every once in a while,” Vance said.