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TCU football has made quite a climb in recent years.
It really wasn’t that long ago when TCU football was barely a topic of discussion around Fort Worth.
For 38 years — from 1960 to 1997 — the Horned Frogs had seven winning seasons and three bowl appearances. Oh, sure, there were a few moments of glory. The ’65 team went 6–5 and earned a Sun Bowl berth. The ’67 team won at Texas. In 1984, after 12 consecutive losing seasons, TCU finished 8–4 and earned a trip to the Bluebonnet Bowl under coach Jim Wacker. But for every high point, there were 20 lows. For a 10-year stretch — from 1974 to 1983 — a third of the Frogs’ wins (five of 15) came against Rice, the Southwest Conference doormat. Otherwise, TCU was the doormat. The Frogs went 1–20–3 in road games from 1979 to 1983.
When Dennis Franchione left New Mexico to take over TCU in 1998, he inherited a 1–10 team. The lone win was Pat Sullivan’s last at TCU, a regular-season finale against SMU in front of 19,000 indifferent fans in a “rivalry” game.
From Albuquerque, Franchione brought with him a little-known defensive coordinator. Three years later, when Franchione bolted for the job at Alabama in December 2000, that coordinator, Gary Patterson, was named TCU’s coach before the Frogs played Southern Miss in the Mobile Alabama Bowl.
Patterson wasn’t a unanimous choice, either. Although his defense led the nation in 2000, he was unpolished, and some at TCU weren’t sure if he was ready for a head coaching job after a less-than-stellar interview. Finally, one major donor spoke up and declared that TCU didn’t need somebody who interviewed well, but someone who knew how to coach. Patterson, then a 40-year-old who had coached at 10 other places before arriving at TCU, was their man.
Now, with 109 wins and 10 bowl appearances since he was hired on a full-time basis, Patterson has become something of a mythical figure in the eyes of Frog fans, who have watched their team go from upstart, to conference juggernaut, to legitimate BCS contender in 12 years. Young fans weren’t even alive when TCU was left for dead when the Southwest Conference broke up in 1995 to form the Big 12.
“The omission, sort of being left out of the club, was a kick in the pants,” says former player and longtime TCU radio analyst John Denton. “It got people’s attention. The alums and the school realized we weren’t as well positioned, nor did we know what was going on. Our reputation and how people looked at us from the outside in was poor, and it wasn’t just football. The entire program needed to be looked at.”
So the school set out on a 12-year conference affiliation odyssey, beginning with the Western Athletic Conference in 1996. TCU joined Conference USA in 2001 and then the Mountain West in 2005. After undefeated regular seasons in 2009 and 2010, TCU accepted an invitation to the Big East, an awkward geographic fit, but no more so than trips to San Diego State and UNLV in the MWC.
When conference realignment started up again in the summer of 2011, an invitation to the Big 12 came to fruition and TCU, finally, was asked back into the club with Texas, Texas Tech and Baylor.
“I’d like to welcome you home,” Big 12 interim commissioner Chuck Neinas told a packed ballroom full of TCU administrators, donors and alumni on Oct. 10.
The return “home” wasn’t just a result of winning, although that undoubtedly had a positive effect. It was also a culmination of a rededication to the football program, including facilities and coaching salaries, that began with the hiring of Franchione.
Until then, TCU football was given little consideration.
“The entire athletic department was a backburner operation,” Denton says of the ’70s and ’80s. “It was part of the university, but it wasn’t invested in.”
About the time Texas’ Darrell Royal and Arkansas’ Frank Broyles began to ratchet up the importance of their programs in the early 1960s, TCU began to slowly fade to the background, only occasionally fielding a competitive team. In one brutal stretch from 1974-76, the Frogs won two games.
“The leaders of the university just decided they weren’t going to get caught up in the arms race,” Denton says. “Texas and Arkansas kind of took the Southwest Conference to a new level and kind of left TCU, SMU and Baylor behind. They ruled the roost for the better part of 20-25 years starting in the early ’60s.”
A turning point came in Franchione’s first year in 1998. After a 1–10 season the year before, TCU won its last two regular-season games, both on the road, to earn a trip to the Sun Bowl against USC. The Frogs upset the Trojans 28–19 for their first bowl win since the 1957 Cotton Bowl.
In the next two years, TCU continued to improve, winning a share of the WAC title and earning a bowl bid each season. Since taking over, Patterson has led his team to a bowl in 10 of 11 seasons, including two BCS bowls — the Fiesta Bowl after the 2009 season, and the Rose Bowl after the 2010 season. TCU defeated Wisconsin in the Rose to cap a 13–0 season, its first undefeated campaign since 1938.
People are talking TCU football now. The school will unveil its $164 million renovations to Amon G. Carter Stadium during the season opener Sept. 8 against Grambling State. A brand new locker room, training room, and equipment room are set to open in July. A state of the art weight room opened last fall.
The Frogs are the talk of the town again. They sold a record 22,000 season tickets in 2011 and hope to reach 30,000 in 2012. Pretty impressive for a school with an enrollment of about 9,500.
Only two programs — Alabama and Oregon — rank ahead of TCU in average final Associated Press ranking since 2008. Patterson’s next win will make him the all-time leader in TCU history, surpassing Frog legend Dutch Meyer, who went 109–79–13 from 1934-52. Patterson has lost only 30 times and has shepherded a defense that has led the nation five times since 2000.
The move from the Mountain West to the Big 12 will test TCU’s depth and athletic ability at nearly every position. But compared to the travels the team has been on since 1995, the move back “home” feels right.
Patterson often spoke during spring practice of the challenge the Big 12 would pose for his team. After the team’s last practice in April, his encapsulation of his team’s progress stood also as a metaphor for his program.
“We grew the team up,” Patterson said. “We still have a long way to go to be what we want to be, but we’re not where we were.”
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