I've been attending TCU games since 1984 (though I wasn't aware of anything actually going on back in those days) and as the football season gets underway in August I'll have seen 28 full seasons of Horned Frog football come and go. I've seen every sort of season from 1 win to 13 wins (with the exception of 9), but one game stands above them all in my memory as the game that made the difference for the Frogs in their ascent from the desolation of 1997's one win WAC season to the nationally respected Big 12 team that we find ourselves today.
Under Gary Patterson TCU has done just about everything short of winning a national title. Upsets over top teams, both at home and on the road? Boise State, Oklahoma, Texas and Utah will all line up to attest to that. Dominating wins over rivals? 9-2 over SMU, 4-1 over Baylor. BCS bowls and conference championships aplenty have been piled up on the Gary Patterson altar, and I'm convinced that he is the coach that will deliver the two things I have yet to see accomplished in my lifetime- a National Championship and a win over A&M. With all that said, however, Patterson was just the defensive coordinator for the win that I feel did the most to change the course of our program- the 2000 TCU Horned Frogs vs. UTEP Miners game.
What exactly made the game so important, though? Background is important here, as back in 2000 the state of the TCU program was not what we're familiar with these days. TCU grads complain a bit about fan attendance and enthusiasm these days when we're averaging 40k+ a game with a fairly high butt-in-seat percentage- it's not fantastic, but folks are trying hard to make the Hell's half-Acre/Bah-zoo thing happen. In 2000... not so much.
This was TCU's greatest season since 1955, the big L.T. for Heisman hype was in full swing... yet the stands were still about half empty most weeks from my vantage point, and dropping a road game to San Jose State took a lot of the wind out of the sails and scuttled all of those grand pipe dreams of national title game appearances- which had seemed not entirely out of reach when the Northwestern team we had absolutely annihilated in week 2 looked to be gunning for the Rose Bowl- it would have been hard to keep us out with a shellacking of the Big Ten champs to our credit, but Northwestern dropped a game to a bad Iowa team and ended up just sharing the Big Ten title, while the Frogs picked up a win over Fresno State but weren't even assured of a share of the WAC title after UTEP posted wins over Fresno and San Jose State.
For all of our top 25 rankings throughout the year, UTEP had the momentum and the fan support- full stands tore down their goalposts when they clinched a share of the WAC against Rice the week before they came to Fort Worth and Miner head coach Gary Nord guaranteed that the Miners would bring enough fans from El Paso to tear down our goalposts when they won the WAC outright with a win over us.
Gameday came and the first part of Gary Nord's prediction came true, as the biggest collection of opposing fans since A&M in 1995 (and biggest until Tech's visit in 2006) swelled in the stands on the visitor's side, not like the generally sedate TCU fans of the time- they were energized and started their U-TEP chants well before kickoff and the WAC commissioner was on the UTEP sideline with the conference championship trophy to award to UTEP on our field if they won (TCU would still need to beat SMU the next week to clinch a share of the title).
UTEP kicked off and the orange section was in a frenzy as Casey Printers fumbled on our first possession, setting the Miners up on our 20 yard line which they quickly capitalized on and the lid blew off the visitor's section. From the rest of the stadium there was a shocked silence- the Frogs had annihilated the Miners the year before to the point where Ladainian Tomlinson had set the NCAA single game rushing record against them, so seeing the Miners immediately seize the momentum and the lead made doubt creep in throughout the stadium- the fans were still a lot more used to seeing beatdowns from mediocre teams like Kansas, Vanderbilt and New Mexico in the previous years, so it was easy for the doom and gloom to creep in- how could TCU be a top 20 team, we were the SWC leftovers and things just weren't meant to go our way.
Until LaDainian Tomlinson busted up the middle on our next possession for the prettiest touchdown run I've ever seen- sixty eight yards practically untouched, and suddenly the chants were for "L-T" over U-TEP and the momentum swung hard. After that first touchdown by UTEP the Frogs ran up 44 in a row, including 24 in the second quarter to make the UTEP contingent start to wonder if it would be worth coming back after halftime.
To their credit, they did, but after an 89 yard touchdown by LT in the third they started to hit the exits hard. In the end the score was 47-14 (even in the pre-Ross Evans days we had trouble with extra points) and the goalposts were turned down by purple clad fans instead of the invading orangemen. After the megaromp over SMU next week the Frogs were WAC co-champs (and owned the head to head against UTEP) and the cogs that eventually led to the Mountain West Dynasty started to move into place.
Why was the game so important, though? Consider if TCU loses- Dennis Franchione is no longer the hottest name on the block, and it may have been Gary Nord who left Texas to take a job coaching the Crimson tide. We all saw just what kind of coach Fran ended up being with 'bama and A&M when he didn't have the best player in college football to hand the ball off to 30+ times a game, though- average at best, and Patterson would have likely turned his role in the TCU turnaround to take his own head coaching spot elsewhere- maybe New Mexico, UTEP or even SMU.
Meanwhile, we'd have been stuck in Conference USA with coach Fran, probably not the team that put together ten and eleven win seasons, but a team that put together seven or eight win seasons- and would that team have been good enough to earn a Mountain West invitation? Would that team have been able to grow to a Rose Bowl winner without Patterson running the show?
Or even if Fran had been able to keep the team as a conference title contender, we all know that Fran was not the loyal sort as Patterson is, and again we'd be hoping for a second coach who could catch lightning in a bottle- and the list of coaches who could do what Patterson has done at TCU is a short one, with an even shorter list of who could do what Patterson has done while staying at TCU. The UTEP game also ensured that TCU finished the season in both of the polls, the first time in my lifetime that had happened, and got people talking about TCU again in a big way.
And in some ways that was the biggest key, as TCU has been wholly embraced by Fort Worth as the city's football team and the place for big time college football in the metroplex in a way that may not have happened without the start in mid-November. Even then the ragtag group that brought down the goalposts wasn't a strong contingent- a few hundred excited kids hopped over the rails and partied with the players, and were almost chased off by the one policeman who was stationed by each goalpost- The UTEP game made it safe to care about the Frogs without the feeling that disappointment was going to be crashing down on us any moment, which is why I consider it the most important TCU football game of the modern era (if not all time).
Is there another game that you think was more important? What was your favorite TCU game that you attended live? Would Franchione have been worth a damn at TCU without Patterson? The comments are yours to discuss!