Scorned Frogs Era Has Passed for TCU
FORT WORTH - TCU's most recent trip to a major bowl was so long ago, Texas was still the largest state in the union.
Royce Vick attended that 1959 Cotton Bowl, when the Horned Frogs and Air Force wrestled to a scoreless tie, only months after his graduation from TCU. And he'll be in Arizona when Gary Patterson's third-ranked Frogs (12-0) make their debut in a Bowl Championship Series game Monday against No. 6 Boise State (13-0) in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl (8 p.m ET, Fox).
During the intervening half-century, Vick worried not only if TCU football would return to national prominence but also whether it would even exist.
"I wondered if they were going to keep a football team," said Vick, 74, who lives a few blocks from campus.
TCU never considered dropping football. Though the program often struggled from the 1960s into the '90s as a member of the old Southwest Conference, its first full decade outside of major college football's highest level has been highly successful.
The Horned Frogs have collected double-digit victories in seven seasons starting in 2000 as a member of three non-BCS leagues. The No. 3 ranking is TCU's highest since it was recognized as the Associated Press' third national college football champion in 1938.
That's why the success of recent years, capped by the current unbeaten season, means so much. TCU and Boise State will meet in the only game other than the BCS championship game that will match unbeaten teams.
"Our thing (going into the Fiesta Bowl) is to try to be No. 1 or No. 2," said Patterson, whose team left for Glendale, Ariz., on Tuesday. "Kids are now coming here to help TCU win a national championship."
The Horned Frogs spent most of the 1970s and early '80s at or near the bottom of the Southwest Conference. Texas coach Darrell Royal once compared them to cockroaches. One coach died seven games into his tenure, right on the sideline. A year and a half after ending a 19-year bowl drought in 1984, the Horned Frogs landed on NCAA probation, which included a one-year postseason ban in 1986.
Things appeared to go from bad to worse when TCU was orphaned by the breakup of the SWC in the mid-1990s. But TCU dug in outside what became known as the BCS conferences and sought to dominate the neighborhood, wherever that might be. It won co-championships in the Western Athletic Conference and Conference USA and has become a power in the Mountain West.
Becoming bigger Frogs in a smaller pond appears to have worked to the football team's advantage after all.
"It allowed us to build our program," said Patterson, who just completed his ninth season and is signed through 2016. "It allowed us to do things the way we needed to do them and be able to win while you did it."
Success pays dividends
Win they have. The Horned Frogs have won or shared five conference titles in the last 11 seasons under Patterson and his predecessor and former boss, Dennis Franchione.
The best home crowds at 44,000-seat Amon G. Carter Stadium during the SWC days usually featured significant representation from the visitors. Now the stadium is filling with Frogs faithful, and they're writing checks to fund expansion and improvement in athletics facilities.
"It has been just a whole attitude that, 'Enough is enough,' " said Jack Hesselbrock, a TCU graduate who has served 22 years in the athletic department. "We're not going to get left behind again."
And there are other dividends for the school. The dean of admissions, Raymond Brown, said applications have been increasing over the last 10 years, and he believes there's a connection to football team's success.
It also has allowed Patterson to recruit more players also courted by traditional heavyweights in the region such as Texas, Oklahoma and Texas A&M. Junior Jeremy Kerley, a wide receiver and punt returner, turned down a scholarship offer from OU.
"It was kind of difficult," said Kerley, who admitted to being something of a Sooners fan growing up in Hutto, Texas. "As soon as I came to TCU and made a visit, it had that home feeling. When you get that, you kind of just want to stick with that."
TCU is a private school with an enrollment of 8,487, one of the smallest of the Bowl Subdivision's 120 schools. Texas and Texas A&M might have freshman classes about that size.
Many Horned Frogs were angered that Baylor was the one private school from the SWC invited into the Big 12 along with Texas, Texas A&M and Texas Tech. While Baylor benefits financially from Big 12 membership, its first 14 seasons of Big 12 football have produced 13 finishes of last or tied for last in its division.
While TCU has joined Utah and Brigham Young among the elite in the Mountain West, it also has thrived against opponents from the six conferences with automatic bids to BCS games. This year's wins at Virginia and Clemson improved Patterson's record against that group to 13-4.
Patterson said he hears critics question whether TCU could succeed against a Big 12 schedule. His response: Recruiting as a Big 12 program would allow him to land more top talent.
"I wouldn't recruit any different players; I like the players that I have," Patterson said. "The thing is, I'd have more depth."
TCU under Patterson and, before him, Franchione and Pat Sullivan has emphasized speed in recruiting. "They'll take a player that is two inches shorter and 25 pounds lighter if he's faster," said Bobby Burton, the former chief recruiting evaluator for Rivals.com. "They've done a great job of finding Texas high school players that fit their system."
Still, Rivals.com ranked TCU's last four recruiting classes 61st, 80th, tied for 96th and 46th. The 2010 class is ranked 40th.
TCU's football budget of $16.6 million is the largest in the nine-school Mountain West but dwarfed by most of its Big 12 South neighbors. Patterson and his staff have gotten creative.
Senior All-American defensive end Jerry Hughes was a running back in high school. Kerley played quarterback as a senior at Hutto. Junior center Jake Kirkpatrick didn't start playing football until his senior year in high school.
"Not too many people knew about me," Kirkpatrick said.
Junior Andy Dalton will leave TCU with most of the school's passing records. He guided Katy (Texas) to the Class 5A state final as a senior but wasn't sought by the Big 12 South schools.
"That was fine," he said with a shrug. "I was sold on TCU from the start."
Defense has been TCU's calling card with Patterson as head coach or defensive coordinator. This season, the Horned Frogs lead the nation in total defense, which they've done three times previously in the decade.
But the offense isn't simply along for the ride; it ranks fourth nationally. TCU is the only major college ranked in the top 10 in both categories.
Patterson, named the Associated Press coach of the year, has nine of the Mountain West's 25 first-team players, including Hughes (top defensive player), Dalton (top offensive player) and Kerley (top special-teams player).
And the Horned Frogs have done it with six senior starters and 13 seniors overall.
The major college with the fewest seniors?
That would be Boise State, with four.
'Extra mile' for Tomlinson
The face of TCU's resurgence is 2000 Heisman Trophy finalist LaDainian Tomlinson, though his signing wasn't considered big news. He was 5-10 and 195 pounds, and the only Big 12 school to offer him a scholarship was Baylor, late in the process after a coaching change.
TCU assistant Steve Brickey said seeing Tomlinson's quickness in basketball practice persuaded him to offer a scholarship. Tomlinson had yet to post a test score that would allow him to play as an incoming freshman by signing day.
"I felt TCU was loyal to me," Tomlinson said recently when his San Diego Chargers visited the Dallas Cowboys. "They really went the extra mile."
Donations to the athletic department have tripled over the last 10 years according to Davis Babb, associate athletics director for development. He said membership in the Frog Club has increased by about 20(PERCENT) during the last five years, and they expect an enrollment of 4,600-4,800 by the end of the school year.
That has allowed Patterson to sell an athletic-facilities plan that has been upgraded dramatically. An indoor football practice facility opened in 2007. A new athletic complex that includes suites in the stadium's south end zone opened in 2008.
The next goal is renovation of the stadium's home stands, to be completed by 2012.
If fans can't get to the stadium, seeing TCU on TV can be challenging because the Mountain West cut loose from ESPN in 2006 to eliminate mid-week dates. Its telecast partners are Versus, CBS College Sports Network and the league's network.
That doesn't bother Vick. He likes what he sees.
"I believe Coach Patterson really believed he could accomplish what he has," Vick said. "He has it figured out."