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Texas Christian has a different breed of mascot

The question has been percolating around the Rose Bowl for weeks, Granddaddy muttering under his breath, locals rolling their eyes, the arrival of party-crashing Texas Christian University reminding everyone of college football’s greatest ongoing controversy.

Why in blasted tarnation would anybody call themselves a Horned Frog?

The actual TCU football players are welcome here, glad to have them, rooting for the kids to slingshot that stone into the schnoz of giant Wisconsin, blah, blah, bah.

But as Horned Frogs? Really? After building its brand on generations of Trojans and Wolverines, the Rose Bowl has to open the doors to … what, exactly?

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It’s the ugliest creature to grace this game since Woody Hayes’ offense. It’s the quirkiest beast to roam these parts since Joe Paterno’s socks. It makes as much sense as Pete Carroll’s hair.

“God knows why they ever chose it,” said Dan Jenkins, celebrated author and TCU alumnus. “I mean, they could have taken a lot of things, right? Squirrels, rabbits, all kinds of animals. But Horned Frogs? I have no idea.”

The nutty folks from Fort Worth not only employ the mascot, they embrace it.

TCU is one of the few teams to have its nickname plastered on the front of its jerseys. It has several sets of helmets that feature the mascot’s thorny image. It even has a horned frog costume that is worn by a student during games, forever dispelling the notion that human mascots have to be warm and cuddly.

“If you don’t think our mascot is tough, then you’ve never seen SuperFrog,” said quarterback Andy Dalton.

Um, yeah, it’s name is SuperFrog, but it looks like Teenage Mutant Ninja Frog, an obnoxious amphibian that only somebody from a small school fighting big odds could love.

“They might actually give a scholarship to the kid who wears that frog outfit,” Jenkins said. “I certainly hope so, if only because of the humility involved.”

T.J. Howard, one of those mascots, just laughs.

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“Anytime somebody does matchups between us and our opponent, we never win the mascot portion of the matchup because everyone thinks SuperFrog looks so weird,” he said. “But it’s about the tradition of being the small guy with all the fight, and we love it.”

The story goes that at TCU’s first football practice in 1896 — the school was called AddRan College back then — the players discovered a pack of horny toads scattering around their makeshift field. A year later, a student plastered a photo of one of the creatures on the yearbook cover. It might have been a joke, but it turned into one of college football’s oddest — and biologically incorrect — traditions.

This is a little awkward but, um, er, as currently constituted, in photos and drawings and legend, the Horned Frogs are not really horned frogs.

“Comparing their mascot to a horned frog is like comparing a cow to a monkey,” said Ian Recchio, curator of reptiles and amphibians at the Los Angeles Zoo. “I love that they would use something different as their mascot, but they keep calling it the wrong name.”

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As Recchio explained, those reptiles discovered on the practice field 114 years ago were not horned frogs, but horned lizards. It is a horned lizard that is found in Texas. In a story that every football player can recite, it is a horned lizard that shoots blood out of his eye when threatened.

Horned frogs? They hang out in places like Argentina and southeast Asia, acting like anything but a self-respecting Bowl Championship Series mascot.

“A horned frog just hangs out all day on a lily pad, doing nothing,” Recchio said. “He doesn’t look or act anything like the horned lizard that is used by TCU.”

A horned frog is an amphibian. A horned lizard is a reptile. TCU is mighty confused. Or is it?

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“Ah, we know it’s a horned lizard,” said center Jake Kirkpatrick with a smile and a shrug. “But Horned Frogs just sounds better.”

There you have it. TCU knows its mascot makes no sense, but it just doesn’t care because, really, since when does any part of college football’s passion have to make sense?

Perhaps there’s a certain uncompromising strength in this attitude, maybe the same strength that allows a private school of about 9,000 students to force its way onto one of football’s grandest stages against one of its traditional powers.

Only a Horned Frog, it seems, can laugh at himself in ways that players from larger schools would never dare. Kirkpatrick, for example, owns a tin replica of the mascot, but he knows where it belongs.

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“We keep it way back in our guest room,” Kirkpatrick said. “There’s no way we’re keeping that thing in our bedroom.”

Only a Horned Frog, it seems, can revel in a symbol that fits in the palm of your hand.

“We like being the tough little creature,” tackle Marcus Cannon said. “You can be the biggest mascot around, but if you’re getting blood squirted on you, you’re not doing so well, are you?”

I began this story hating on the Horned Frog, but by the end of my research, you know, I sort of understand the appeal of the odd little fella, and I mentioned this to quarterback Dalton.

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“Now think about this,” Dalton said. “We’re not only the Horned Frogs, but we’re also purple. How is that for a great combination?”

Dude, quit while you’re ahead.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke


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