Former TCU coach Dennis Franchione in happier times: Getting soaked after the 1998 Sun Bowl victory over USC.
The day is drawing ever nearer that TCU will be joining the Big 12, what is expected to be the final lily pad in the Frogs Conference hopping days. Now that a college football playoff is all but finalized it also seems likely that the big five conferences (Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, ACC and Pac 12) will have little impetus to continue expansion into the superconference realm at the expense of any of those other five conferences (the Big East still is imminently poachable if the Big 12 decides it wants to live up to its name), and the remaining Big 12 members all seem pretty happy to stay the course together- meaning that for the first time since Arkansas departed the SWC, TCU is in a stable conference (that it wants to be a part of). At the same time as TCU is at it's highest point the WAC, TCU's first conference home after the SWC breakup, is on it's deathbed it seems a good time to look back at just how TCU got to the point it is now, and how we avoided the fate that now seems to await Idaho and New Mexico State. Join me after the jump as we look back at what brought TCU into the WAC, TCU's first three seasons in the WAC and the eventual jump to CUSA which followed.
The year is 1996 and TCU football is dead, despite coming off of back to back winning seasons for the first time since 1958-1959. Due to significantly shady dealings in behalf of Tech and Baylor in the endtimes of the SWC, the Frogs were cast into the cold along with SMU, Rice and Houston and the TCU football team finds itself without over half of their traditional rivals- and wouldn't you know it that the teams that won't be coming to Amon Carter Stadium anymore are the ones that tend to fill it up (Rice is not well known for its travelling fanbase). TCU pulls off one of the true feats of NCAA history by beating Oklahoma in Norman (by double digits) and getting blown out by Kansas in back to back weeks. Without the traditional games against Texas Tech, Texas, Texas A&M and Baylor to fire up the fanbase, attendance plummets and TCU loses to both future rivals Utah and BYU, as well as their traditional foes SMU and Rice, putting together a 4-7 record and tying for fifth in the mountain division of the WAC. The next year fans continue to stay away in droves as TCU coach Pat Sullivan lead the frogs to ten consecutive defeats, which combined with the back to back losses to Rice and SMU in the '96 season give the frogs their third longest losing streak in school history. The streak is broken on the twentieth of November, 1997 as TCU upsets SMU in the final game of the season to keep the ponies from reaching their first post death-penalty bowl game, reclaiming our skillet and giving the few thousand fans in attendance something to really cheer for, as the goal posts came tumbling down in celebration. With a new athletic director coming in, coach Sullivan decided to resign rather than be fired, but he left the Frogs with two things that would serve them well for the seasons to come: The Iron Skillet, and a recruit named Ladainian Tomlinson. Then came operation LeapFrog- the university decision to ramp up spending on athletics to increase the profile of the university, and along with that came Dennis Franchione from New Mexico (one of our WAC-Mountain division mates) and a firebreathing defensive coordinator named Gary Patterson.
The 1998 season started off with a kick in the pants, as Air Force, BYU, Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming, UNLV and Colorado State announced their decision to leave the WAC and form the Mountain West Conference, and it was easy for Frog fans to feel that they were being left behind by the top tier of their league once again, but the football season started with a road win over Iowa State and a heartbreaking 10-9 loss to Oklahoma at home that TCU had led 9-0 through three quarters of play (There's video of this one, but it's hard to watch knowing what's going to happen at the end). Then along came Air Force who was not only coming off of a 10 win season, but was kicking off what would be the most successful season in school history and the feeling around the program was not a good one. Who would have guessed that the one loss that Air Force would suffer that year would come at the hands of TCU, as TCU edged Air Force 35-34 and put an undefeated season and national title outside of the falcons reach. The Frogs would rack up two more wins in the following weeks, beating a typically bad Vanderbilt team and an average Fresno State team at home, only to stumble at SMU (10-6), be blown out at Colorado State (42-21), be edged out by Wyoming at home (34-27) and dropping another heartbreaker to Rice in Houston (14-12). The frogs were 4-5 but had two manageable opponents to follow, as coach Patterson's defense put the screws into Tulsa on the road (17-7 frogs) and the "Option to the short side of the field" attack had great success in running over hapless UNLV 41-18, clinching a winning record for the Frogs and a surprise Sun Bowl bid against one of the blue bloods of the college football world, USC. 6-5 TCU had been chosen over 8-3 Wyoming, 7-4 Utah, and 8-4 Colorado State in the hope that proximity and the winning season would drive TCU fans to the game even if the Frogs weren't expected to be competitive against the Carson Palmer led USC Trojans. There was one thing that the Frogs had going for them as bowl season approached though: more practices to get acquainted with just how much of a run stopping force coach Patterson's 4-2-5 could be. New Year's Eve came, and TCU hit the ground running jumping out to an early 14-0 lead, then extending it to a 28-3 lead in the third quarter as TCU's option game pounded the Trojans on the ground while TCU's defense held "Tailback U" to the lowest rushing total in USC history: -23 yards. Though USC threatened to come back late, London Dunlap and the TCU defense held strong one more time and gave the frogs their first bowl victory since the 1957 Cotton Bowl. In one year, Coach Fran had seemingly turned the history of TCU football on its head, and Fort Worth started to take notice of TCU once more. It seemed that if TCU could hang on to the promising silver haired Franchione that big things could be ahead for the Frogs.
Next time we'll look at the back to back WAC champions, the move to CUSA, the departure of program savior Coach Fran, and the interesting results of the first few Gary Patterson years.