TCU has grown by leaps and bounds
Texas Christian Coach Gary Patterson answered the question -- “What sparked this revival?” -- by pointing to the picture hanging in his office.
“That changed things,” he said. “That wall is where we started.”
The photo commemorated Texas Christian’s victory over USC in the 1998 Sun Bowl, the underdog Horned Frogs walking out of El Paso with a win.
Patterson was the team’s defensive coordinator, taking over as coach in 2000 when Dennis Franchione left for Alabama.
In the decade since, Patterson has transformed what had been a grainy, newsreel program into a modern power, something only the elderly remember in Fort Worth.
Call it the Great Purple Leap Forward.
Dan Jenkins, the great sportswriter, Texas Christian graduate and unofficial keeper of Fort Worth’s flame, has typed long enough to see the bookends of dominance and the doughnut hole in between.
“It’s been a long wait for this decade, which has, at least in part, belonged to TCU,” Jenkins wrote in an e-mail. “It’s taken me back to the glory days of the 1930s, to Sam Baugh and Davey O’Brien and others, when such success was expected of the Horned Frogs. Lot of purple around these days, replacing the black and blue.”
Texas Christian and Boise State are playing today in the Fiesta Bowl, the first Bowl Championship Series game matchup of undefeated teams outside of the title game.
Patterson and Jenkins, who attended his first Texas Christian game in 1935, were once Fort Worth neighbors -- their backyards butting against each other.
Jenkins never leaned over the fence to offer advice, but Patterson says, “I could feel him when we weren’t playing well.”
That would have been the 5-6 season in 2004.
Patterson has posted six 10-win seasons in nine years and steered this team to its first undefeated regular season since the national title team of 1938, quarterbacked by O’Brien, the school’s only Heisman Trophy winner.
Patterson has done it steadily, in the shadow of the University of Texas, and without much complaint about being robbed by the BCS.
“I don’t even talk about the system,” he said. “I just want to be able to control what TCU can control.”
Patterson built his foundation on speed, taking a guy like Jerry Hughes, a running back in high school, and turning him into an All-American defensive end/missile.
Some think this Fiesta Bowl pairing relegates the schools to the BCS kids’ table, but you won’t hear Patterson say that.
“I don’t consider us non-BCS,” Patterson said. “Twelve and zero is something to be proud of. . . . Let’s just be proud we got to the point we’re at. Let’s go play the best ballgame we possibly can, see if we can win it, to prove to people we can be here, and then let’s keep it going.”
Patterson sees a big picture and the sliver of hope: that his team, with a big win against Boise State, might snag the Associated Press share of the national title.
With Cincinnati no longer undefeated, Texas Christian could make its case if the Texas-Alabama game is a turkey, especially if it’s Texas gobbling up the prize.
“It’s something I talk to the team about,” Patterson said. “Then I say, ‘Now I want you to quit thinking about that.’ The most important thing is you have to go win this game.”
The likelihood of Texas Christian dislodging the Alabama-Texas winner from the AP title is probably as strong as the title of one of Jenkins’ most recent golf novels: “Slim and None.”
It’s different from 2003, when the AP voted USC its championship share because the Trojans were No. 1 in the AP poll but denied a title-game shot because they finished third in the BCS standings.
The winner of Thursday’s game at the Rose Bowl will receive the BCS trophy. The AP can crown a different champion, but Texas Christian is No. 3 in the AP behind Alabama and Texas.
“I’d probably think about it more than I would have expected two weeks ago,” said Jon Wilner, an AP voter and college football columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. “Partly because of the postseason performance of the Mountain West, which to me has elevated the quality of TCU’s season.”
Brigham Young and Utah of the Mountain West Conference defeated quality Pacific 10 Conference teams, Oregon State and California, in bowl games.
Wilner, though, said it would be “hard for me to envision” moving Texas Christian, if it defeated Boise State, ahead of the Texas-Alabama winner.
However, the Fiesta Bowl does offer a preview for next season’s national-title race -- both schools return their core starters.
“We’re hoping we can come out and play well and impress some people and hopefully get a shot at the AP national championship,” Texas Christian quarterback Andy Dalton said. “I think it will help set us up for next year.”
Given the depths of despair, Texas Christian has plenty to celebrate.
“I think we’ve already won,” Patterson said.
Texas Christian enjoyed marquee success in a bygone era before disappearing into college football’s abyss.
The Horned Frogs won the Southwest Conference in 1959 and did not win it again until 1994. From 1974 to 1983, the program never won more than two games in a season.
John Denton, a kicker for Texas Christian in the 1980s, pinpoints the endgame to the 1960 graduation of All-American Bob Lilly. Denton says Texas Christian, a school with fewer than 10,000 students, was swallowed up by SWC powers Texas and Arkansas.
Texas Christian also got hammered by the NCAA in 1986 as part of the widespread sanctions crackdown that ultimately led to the conference’s breakup.
Southern Methodist is the only school to receive the NCAA’s death penalty, which required a temporary program shutdown.
Texas Christian, Denton said, received “the living death penalty.”
After the SWC disbanded in the 1990s, Texas Christian was parceled to the 16-team Western Athletic Conference, described by Denton as “the land of misfit toys.” The Horned Frogs left the WAC for Conference USA in 2001 and spent four years there before finding stability in the Mountain West.
The arrival of superstar running back LaDainian Tomlinson in the late 1990s put Texas Christian back on the national radar. Tomlinson’s brilliant career with the San Diego Chargers has also given Texas Christian a foothold into the California recruiting market.
Patterson isn’t worried about being robbed by the BCS. He loves the bowl system and wonders whether a playoff might actually hurt Texas Christian’s chances of competing for a national title.
Texas Christian is close enough as it is.
“We want to be the Miami and USC of Texas,” he said.
Patterson posts his own “pyramid of success” in the Texas Christian team meeting room.
Every achieved goal is painted in purple pen, and there’s only one unmarked quadrant, at the pyramid’s top, to be filled in: