Basketball season is over for everyone now, though for TCU fans the doors closed quite a while ago. Still, with the recent announcement of the long overdue renovation of Daniel Meyer Coliseum, it's worth looking at what Trent Johnson has achieved in the past to try and determine just when the product on the court will suit the new digs we're building for it.
Trent Johnson inherited a team that had a winning record the year before, had an absolutely appalling record in conference play and lost to all of our chief in-state rivals and the fans and writers are talking about what a great job he did. Welcome to the unique world of TCU basketball, where the fans have been waiting for competitive basketball since 2000- the last time the Horned Frogs had a winning conference record.
Over three generations of TCU student have completed their four years of schooling since the last time TCU could be said to be above average, and as a result the small and (generally) basketball apathetic student and alumni base haven't been turning out to the games since the days of Billy Tubbs. It's easy to criticize the fans from an outsider perspective "How will they ever be any good if their own fans don't turn out to see them?" is a question I often heard from fans of the New Mexico, BYU and Utah fans that rolled through Daniel Meyer through the years, but they didn't really understand how deep the rot is in TCU basketball.
Players labored in a dank stadium in front of a small crowd that desperately wanted something good to happen, only to be disappointed when it didn't. There are plenty of areas that you can blame for the downward trajectory- Texas is a football state so maybe there weren't many basketball fans to begin with, TCU never had a really huge win to build excitement on, D/FW has a ton of great sports teams that were having great success while TCU was being dreadful so it's hard to capture the metroplex's attention or maybe it's just the tried and true "TCU is a small school with a small alumni base" that we heard so often when the football team was piling up ten win seasons in a half empty stadium. All of these things are true, and yet none of them can be singled out as the reason TCU hasn't ever been good in basketball with regularity, which makes it harder to fix.
Into this mess steps Trent Johnson, a man with a history of program building and program polishing, but who struggled mightily in the mediocre SEC after his first year at LSU. The reaction when Johnson was hired was decidedly mixed, as half the fanbase had been holding out for TCU's native son Jamie Dixon to return to the Metroplex and lead the program to the promised land every year, as he's done with Pitt, and thus would have been unhappy with just about anyone else.
The other half of the fanbase were elated that the Frogs were able to pull a coach from a university that everyone has heard of and were proud that TCU had the clout to pull a man from a job in the SEC to Fort Worth. In reality Trent Johnson left LSU for much the same reason that Jim Christian left TCU the week before- to secure a job that would keep him from being fired if things didn't go well next season. As a result LSU fans weren't exactly broken up about seeing the tail end of Johnson, much the same as TCU fans weren't shedding any tears or making angry youtube videos over the departure of Jim Christian to Ohio. If you consider it from that perspective, it's easy to question the Johnson hire- why would you want to hire a guy who was on the way out from his previous job? Likely because he was impressed with Johnson's system and in-game coaching, but also he knew TCU fans had something that LSU fans did not- Patience.
TCU sat through six years of Neil Dougherty with only one finish of .500 in conference play, only starting to grumble when a team that had been in the NIT the year before crashed down to 6-25, the worst TCU basketball season since the SWC- and even then he got another two years after the crash. TCU fans sat through Jim Christian's big sell of the Frogs as the next up and comer, only to put together a 1-15 conference record in his third year and struggle to just over .500 in his fourth.
If you want to compare Johnson to a former TCU coach, the best comparison would likely be Billy Tubbs, the last man to take TCU to the NCAA tournament. Tubbs too had been a riser coming out of Lamar where he built an NCAA team before taking the Oklahoma job. Tubbs had a good run as the coach of the Sooners, making the title game once and the tournament nine times in total, but his team sagged at the end of his career and he found himself taking a lesser job for job security. Tubbs didn't have the best start, but his frog teams improved as he got his players in place, leading to an NCAA berth in his fourth year.
Trent Johnson had a similar rise, building an awful Nevada team to an NCAA tournament team in his fifth year there before heading to Stanford and putting together three NCAA runs and an NIT appearance in four years. Then he took the LSU job and won the regular season crown in his first year before two seasons below .500 landed him on the hot seat. His record in 2011 was above .500, but not enough of an improvement to get him an extension, which caused him to look elsewhere for a place where he could build a program.
Now with Johnson's first year as TCU coach in the books, fans are optimistic in spite of themselves. In Johnson's first year, many of the perceived problems with TCU's program have been eroded. TCU picked up a huge win, its first ever over a top 5 team, is putting together a great recruiting class, the Mavericks, Stars and Cowboys are on downswings and Daniel Meyer Coliseum is being rebuilt. Two things are left for TCU to conquer- posting a winning record and filling the stands with fans in purple. Sadly, if the football team is any basis, it will take several seasons of the former to really change the latter, but we're in the right conference, we're going to have the right arena and I firmly believe we have the right coach. It will take a while to tear out the rot of a decade of bad basketball, but Trent Johnson is the man to do it.