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Football at TCU

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Here's an all-too-brief look at TCU's remarkable 100-plus years of football in Fort Worth.

[Note: this summary (minus several photos, and more recent material) of TCU's football history was originally posted at The Thwarth's Wimple on September 20, 2006. It was substantially updated a year later at the Purple Wimple. The Wimple heartily recommends Caroline Collier's feature The Frogs Rise Again, published in the Fort Worth Weekly, November 24, 2009. Also, peruse the links embedded throughout this post. They are to contemporary news articles and game summaries that make for very interesting reading. Finally, I apologize for some formatting errors herein, and for broken links.]

Beginnings

Amon Carter Stadium ca. 1940s

TCU traces its football origins to 1896, when it was still AddRan College in Waco, Texas. The school played its cross-town rival, Baylor, twice a year. After moving to Fort Worth, rivaling SMU in the new Southwest Conference, TCU football flourished. In the first 37 years TCU was a member of the SWC, from 1923 to 1960, the Horned Frogs were consistently the best team in the Southwest Conference. They won more national championships, conference championships, went to more bowl games, produced more all-Americans, the Conference’s first Heisman Trophy winner; became the first SWC school to play in the Sugar Bowl, Cotton Bowl, Orange Bowl and Bluebonnet Bowl, and maintained a winning edge over all six of their conference opponents. Read Dan Jenkins' colorful reminisce of that period here.

In 1935, TCU and SMU battled for a bid to the Rose Bowl, in the "Game of the Century" (see highlights here; Time Magazine's report). Quarterback Sam Baugh (who came to TCU to play baseball, but was convinced by Coach Dutch Meyer to play football instead) led Meyer's revolutionary "spread" attack of short passes on any down first in college and then in the pros, leading the Horned Frogs and then Washington Redskins each to their first national titles. (Here's the TCU Magazine's posthumous feature on Baugh.) Baugh's successor Davey O'Brien took TCU to its second title, and won the Heisman, Maxwell and Walter Camp trophies for his unbeaten 1938 campaign.

Abe Martin and his '57 team, here just before taking the field for the Cotton Bowl against Syracuse.

The 1950s Resurgence

The spread offense went out of style, but the Horned Frogs flourished again in the 1950s under Abe Martin, playing in the Cotton Bowl four times, including a win over Jim Brown and Syracuse in 1957. Jim Swink led the squad in the late '50s. (This SI.com writeup about the '57 season, and the pre-game photo at left, which Sports Illustrated named its photo of the century for the 1900s, is spectacular.) TCU expanded the football stadium, nearly doubling its seating capacity, and adding the distinctive upper deck that still dominates the southwest Fort Worth landscape. (until it didn't, that is)

Complacency and Decline
After the 1959 Cotton Bowl, TCU let the Southwest Conference pass it by in recruiting, facilities, and budgeting. The decade was not without its bright spots-- TCU upset Texas a number of times, once thwarting the state school's bid for a national title. Darrell Royal, the Longhorn coach, fought back off the field, pressing for--and getting-- rule changes that allowed for unlimited substitutions during the game. This gave rise to two-squad play, where teams field separate offensive and defensive units. As predicted, state schools flourished in the new game, as their superior funding and attractiveness with the GI Bill enabled them to gather in the best recruits, sometimes offering a good player a scholarship just so he wouldn't play on another team. Until 1994 there was no limit to the number of athletic scholarships a school could maintain, giving a distinct edge to the state-funded schools.
For TCU, which didn't evolve with the the game very well, the result was three long decades of football mediocrity: from 1960 to 1998, TCU appeared on the AP poll only six times-- four of these in '84. In 1994 the parting blow came: the Southwest Conference was dissolved when the Big Eight invited four SWC teams to join: Texas, A&M, Texas Tech and most bitterly, Baylor. Governor Ann Richards and Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock had pushed hard for their alma mater's inclusion in the expanded conference, and TCU was left with Houston, Rice and SMU to glean for themselves.

This aerial view of the match with Texas in 1984 shows TCU's last sell-out until 2006.

Conference Hopping
The next year Dennis Franchione was hired at great expense to turn around the program, which had again drawn the short straw, as the conference's top teams announced that they would withdraw in 1999 to form the Mountain West Conference. Perhaps the Horned Frogs had the last laugh, when they managed bowl eligibility in '98, and won an invite to the Sun Bowl. The bowl had a tie to the new Mountain West conference, but snubbed the clique, inviting the Fort Worth left-behinds instead. TCU outclassed USC in a memorable upset.
In 1999 a fullback named LaDainian Tomlinson that Franchione inherited from his predecessor was moved to tailback, and led the NCAA in rushing yards. In 2000, LT and defensive genius Gary Patterson led the Horned Frogs on a dizzying winning streak to the last game of the season, in San Jose. Following the Frogs to the west coast was a glut of media speculation about a bid for the Fiesta Bowl. In a rainy game, TCU lost inexplicably. A few weeks later, Franchione fled for a top-tier coaching post. ConferenceUSA invited the Frogs, who accepted and turned their attention east in conference play, for the first time.
After a tremendous upset of 5th ranked Oklahoma to begin 2005, the Horned Frogs found their focus only after being upset the next week by 90-something ranked SMU. However, as Jeff Ballard replaced Tye Gunn to lead a stunning comeback win in Provo, the unlikely Frogs proceeded to sweep the conference, winning their first outright conference title since the 1950s, and landed a bowl bid against a Big 12 opponent in Houston, beating Iowa State 27-24.

The Frogs won and finished the season ranked 11 and 9 in the AP and Coaches polls. Coach Patterson turned down a top-tier coaching post in the Big 12, signaling that his optimistic statements about TCU contending for a BCS bowl and national title were more than coach-speak.

During the off season, the BCS cartel relaxed the admission rules for the lucrative BCS bowls. The Frogs began 2006 as the most prominent non-cartel contenders for a top-tier bowl, cementing that status with a defensive masterpiece against Texas Tech, holding the normally explosive Red Raiders to just one field goal. The Frogs didn't find their own offense until two conference losses had accumulated, tumbling out of the rankings and the national media attention once again. Jeff Ballard led the team to second place in the conference by the end of the season, cracking the top 25 in December, and decimating NIU in the Poinsettia Bowl with a suffocating, second-ranked defense. Meanwhile, the WAC champion Boise State followed Utah's lead to the Fiesta Bowl, and its memorable upset of Oklahoma.

The 2007 season seemed custom-made for showcasing TCU's resurgent program. However, days before the season began, the defensive line turned into a work in progress, with Tommy Blake and James Vess absent; injuries and a couple suspensions decimated the backfield. Turnovers plagued the offense, and after an emotional loss in Austin, the Frogs went on to lose 4 conference games-- Air Force, Wyoming, Utah, and BYU, by a total of 18 points, but win a bowl berth, and the bowl, too. The program had reached the point where a bad season no longer meant a bowl-less one.

The Patterson Era
In 2001, the team landed its fourth straight bowl bid. The Frogs' quarterback threw the game away, being disgruntled at the coaches and having already decided to transfer to a D-2 team. In 2002 a bizarre trend began at TCU, when the starting quarterback got injured and his replacement seemed to be a better player. In this manner Sean Stilley gave way to Tye Gunn, who gave way to Brandon Hassell in 2003. Gunn's season ending injury in 2005 opened the door to Jeff Ballard, one of the winningest quarterbacks in TCU history.
The 2003 season was similar to the 2000 season: a long winning streak coaxed great attention from the national media; the Fiesta Bowl took interest in TCU: so much that after the Frogs beat conference contender Louisville, the bowl put a little bag of Tostitos on every seat in Amon Carter Stadium for the next game. More than 40,000 fans attended the game, in which the Frogs routed Cincinnati. Expectations soared-- only road games to Southern Miss and SMU stood in the way of a BCS bowl, the jackpot of college football's bowl system. TCU played very poorly in Hattiesburg, but scored 28 points in less than 5 minutes in the 4th quarter to come within three points of a tie, but lost the game anyway. They returned to Texas and almost lost at SMU, and then lost the inaugural Fort Worth Bowl to Boise State a month later. The experiment seemed to have reached its logical limits: a team outside the BCS cartel and resources, committed to recruiting and graduating honest student athletes, could win most games, but not regularly, and not under pressure.
This pattern was repeated in 2004 with a highly touted trip to Lubbock to face an old SWC foe, Texas Tech. Mike Leach had helped coach the BYU resurrection of Dutch Meyer's spread attack, and then implemented it in Lubbock with tremendous results. The Frogs held the Red Raiders scoreless for 25 minutes. By halftime, however, Mike Leach's offensive machine had come alive, and tied the score 21-21. The Frogs never regained momentum and left Lubbock with the most embarassing loss in recent memory, 70-35. The 5-6 season ended TCU's streak of bowl seasons at six. Head Coach Gary Patterson had the team drug tested in search for answers, so desparate was he to locate problems and get his team's attention.

Meanwhile, Utah achieved a BCS berth from the second tier Mountain West conference- decimating Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl. ConferenceUSA was gutted in a flurry of re-alignments; Louisville, South Florida and Cincinnati joined the Big East, a cartel conference, again leaving TCU behind. TCU joined the Mountain West that summer.

In 2008, the MWC became increasing visible, as DirecTV began carrying its network, the mtn. TCU's defense returned to high form (#1 nationally), and the Frogs snuck up on BYU, handing the Cougars their first conference loss in over two years. The Frogs came within a missed field goal of the conference championship and an invitation to the Sugar Bowl.

Breakthrough

The Horned Frogs finally found the heretofore elusive mix in 2009, when they replaced offensive coordinators (sending Mike Schultz to Illinois, where Schultz efficiently sunk that offense, and was fired) and suddenly found themselves well-balanced, even in big games. Yes, there had been a talent upgrade in the works, but the Frogs returned much of their offense for the '09 season, and with the new coordinators and an influential new receivers coach (Rusty Burns), the offense went ballistic. TCU improved from the 21st best scoring offense and 24th best total offense in 2008 to 5th and 7th best in '09, respectively. And this while fielding the nation's best defense, again led by two-time All-American defensive end Jerry Hughes.

Dalton's connection with his wideouts had weaponized. (Dalton's passer rating jumped from 129 in 2008 to 151, not least because of Antoine Hicks's knack for finding the endzone on long receptions.) Joe Turner, Matt Tucker, and Ed Wesley ran all over the competition-- and when they were given the reigns to do so, the Frogs were unstoppable. TCU notably won in the rain at Clemson, and in finger-freezing cold at Air Force, and then trod all the heck over BYU in Provo, Utah in Fort Worth, and everybody else in between. ESPN Gameday was on hand for the wins against BYU and Utah, the second of which came before the biggest crowd ever at TCU (50,307). By year's end, the Frogs had outgained their conference opponents by 261 yards, on average-- the largest margin of any 1A team over its conference foes in at least three years. These efforts landed Gary Patterson nine national coach of the year awards.

The only blemish: the culminating game of the season was the Fiesta Bowl, against Boise State, another non-cartel team. The Frogs went into that historic matchup feeling like they had been robbed of a chance to best a BCS legacy program, and in the end left losers. Maddengly, the Frogs chose not to try and run the ball in the face of an unexpectedly realigned Boise defense. Shorn of its balance, the Frog offense sputtered, and TCU lost the defensive slugfest, 17-10.

TCU's loss in Glendale lowered its national rank to #6-- which was higher than earlier years' teams would have dreamed of finishing. Remarkably, the Frogs will start 2010 ranked about the same-- 6-- and won't be the highest ranked non-cartel team. Boise will start at #2 or #3. Replacing only one starter, really, on offense (left tackle Marshall Newhouse), the Frogs should field their most explosive offense, ever. The defense, while replacing Jerry Hughes, Daryl Washington, and two four-year starters at CB (Nick Sanders and Raphael Priest), shouldn't fall too far from its habitual #1 national ranking.

So the experiment has changed: yes, a clean-run non-cartel program can break into the big-money bowls; can it sustain that kind of success into a realistic run at the biggest bowl of them all? Given their returning experience, talent, and starting position, 2010 looked like the Frogs' best chance.

TCU lived up to their billing in 2010, led by seniors like the nation's winningest active quarterback Andy Dalton, Rimington winner Jake Kirkpatrick, and all-Americans Marcus Cannon, Jeremy Kerley, TeJay Johnson, and Wayne Daniels. The team was favored in every one of its contests, and reeled off another loss-less regular season. By the time the Frogs headed west for their first-ever Rose Bowl, Dalton had a passer rating of 167, and a solid hold on every passing record in school history (save career winning percentage). Ed Wesley had turned in the first 1000-yard rushing season since Robert Merrill's in 2003. The program had a ticket to the Big East, as well, but that trip wouldn't begin until a final year in the Mountain West.

[photos: (top to bottom) TCU Stadium in the 1940s, TCU at halftime during the 1957 Cotton-Bowl, TCU beats Texas in the 1960s, TCU v. Texas in 1994, Basil Mitchell runs past USC at the 1998 Sun Bowl, LT runs for 406 yards against UTEP, Coach Patterson celebrates TCU's victory over OU in Norman in 2005, TCU v. Texas Tech in 2006, Jeff Ballard scores against NIU in 2006, Antoine Hicks scores, 2009, Matthew Tucker's one (!$#%$^!) touch during the Fiesta Bowl, 2010, Andy Dalton at the Fiesta Bowl, 2009.]