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The Fran Who Wasn't There: The complicated legacy of Dennis Franchione

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The man who led the Frogs to their first bowl victory since 1956, their first back to back conference championships since 1958-59, left Fort Worth after just 3 seasons left behind more than just the defensive coordinator that would become the best coach in the nation- he left behind feelings of gratitude, resentment, anger and then a bit of quality schadenfreude as he hopped from job to job. On the eve of his retirement, just what do you feel when you think about Fran now?

A picture is worth a thousand conflicting emotions.
A picture is worth a thousand conflicting emotions.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday Dennis Franchione announced his retirement from Texas State University- it's fitting that even after escaping termination after a disappointing 2015 season, Coach Fran decided to leave on his own one more time.  Fran was always climbing the ladder, always jumping to the next job, always with his eyes open to the next opportunity- leaving behind frustrated fans, bewildered ADs and (often) shocked players everywhere he went.  His name alone is enough to make a smile disappear from an Aggie's face any time it comes up in conversation, but before he was their villain he was their savior- just like he had been at Alabama, just like he'd been at TCU, just like he'd been at New Mexico.  Coach Fran has won 8 conference championships, but he'd likely receive plenty of boos anywhere he went if he were to commemorate that team's anniversary- after all, for all of those wins he'd earned, he'd let them all down in the end.

The questions these days are much happier than they were back then.  "Can TCU defend its Big 12 championship?" "Does TCU deserve to be #2 in the nation?" "Is TCU QB Trevone Boykin the best player in the nation?" "Can TCU reload after yet another 10 win season?" are the sorts of questions we get to discuss now, while back in 1997 before he came the questions were "Can TCU survive being left out of the Big 12?" "Can TCU win a single game this season?" "Will TCU continue to support football at a high level after being relegated to the WAC?".  Then TCU's athletic department made the big move to poach Dennis Franchione from WAC rival New Mexico, and we suddenly knew the answer to the last two questions- TCU won the last game of the season against SMU and it had ponied up a big salary to hire a man who had guided the Lobos to their first bowl game in 30 years.  A man who would revive a program that had been left for dead faster than anyone would have believed possible.

In an interview conducted after the Rose Bowl win, Coach Patterson said that of all of the bowl trophies, conference championships and various memorabilia in his office, the one that means the most to him is still the game ball from the 1998 Sun Bowl, where TCU defeated future Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer's USC team to notch its first bowl victory since the 1956 Cotton Bowl.  When asked the reason why, he answered that "Without that game, none of the others may have happened."  And it's true, the 1998 season was one that will always put a smile on my face- TCU was the only team to beat 12-1 Air Force that year, as well as notching wins over a Big 12, SEC and Pac 10 opponent all in the same year- a feat that I'm not sure has been repeated anywhere in football since.  The city of Fort Worth still wasn't all in the Frogs corner yet, many games still weren't televised and much of Amon Carter was still empty when the Frogs came out to play, but Franchione brought with him the feeling that TCU could win absolutely any game that they played- the team played without fear, and (on the back of everyone's favorite frog LaDainian Tomlinson) TCU won back to back bowl games for the first time since the 1935-1936 seasons and won a WAC championship.  In 2000 not only would the Frogs repeat as WAC champions, they would be the first team to be called a potential "BCS buster", though an upset loss at San Jose State would remove the Frogs from serious consideration (and cost LT the Heisman), the Frogs still would finish the regular season ranked for the first time in decades and had earned an invitation from a more prestigious conference to be their home from 2001 on...

And then he was gone.  Off to Alabama to rebuild a tide team that had fallen to 3-8 in 2000 and had lost to hated rival Tennessee an unfathomable six straight times (how times have changed, huh?), and even after the team had voted to allow him to coach in the bowl game, he caused such a stir at the Heisman ceremony (in his Crimson tie, no less) that the decision was overturned and he was simply gone, leaving behind just a few trophies in the case and a defensive coordinator who ran a queer 4-2-5 formation- which ended up working out pretty well for we men in purple, but at the time the TCU fanbase had a feeling of doom- we'd lost the man who'd made us believe that we could win any game we played, and even with Patterson putting in some very solid seasons at TCU, it wasn't really until after the 2005 OU game that we got that feeling fully back.  At Alabama, Fran was hired with three directives from the AD's office- reverse the skid that Mike Dubose had started, do it cleanly (as Dubose had left the Alabama program in a huge hole with the NCAA, the extent of which wasn't clear to anyone yet) and beat Tennessee.  In the space of two seasons at the helm of Alabama, Fran accomplished all of those goals, turning a 3-8 team to 7-5 in his first year and then 10-2 in his second year, which would have sent Alabama to the SEC championship game if not for the NCAA hammering the bammers with a two year postseason ban and a loss of 21 scholarships.  According to later reports, Coach Fran felt betrayed by the Alabama AD, who had assured him that the NCAA violations shouldn't result in too many sanctions, and despite being offered a 10 year contract extension that would've made him one of the highest paid coaches in the nation, Fran's name was being linked to the Texas A&M job- a job he told his players and the nation at a press conference that he would not accept.

And then he was gone.  Coach Fran wouldn't return to Alabama after completing his interview and accepting the head coaching job at Texas A&M, instead choosing to inform his players of his decision from College Station via a video conference call.  This caused incredible outrage at Alabama, which considered itself the destination for college football coaches (much like today), and the idea that someone would use them as a stepping stone was absolutely galling.  That fact may have actually been what made Texas A&M most pleased about their new hire- the fact that they had taken a coach from Alabama that the Tide had desperately wanted to retain meant more than his sterling reputation of turning around programs in a hurry- but A&M wasn't quite the same job as New Mexico, TCU or Alabama had been- the Aggies had been on the downswing under coach R.C. Slocum, true, but even at his nadir he'd still managed a 6-6 season- and had managed an upset to keep Oklahoma out of the Big 12/possibly national championship game as well.  As a result, the Aggie fanbase certainly didn't think that they were in need of a rebuild- just a retool, while coach Fran came in with the belief that he'd have plenty of time and patience from the fanbase, as he'd always had before- and made the fateful decision to redshirt a huge number of his players going into the 2003 season, hoping to create a huge rebound in the 2004 season with their added depth.  This was the first of Fran's mistakes at A&M, as the Aggies finished the 2003 season with a 4-8 record, their first losing season in 21 years, and what's more suffered a nationally televised 77-0 blowout at the hands of revenge minded Oklahoma, which frankly, could've been many times worse.

For the first time in his career, coach Fran had failed to ingratiate himself to the fanbase in his first season, and as a result, even his high points at A&M never seemed quite as celebrated as they could have been.  Of course, for every success he had in College Station in the seasons following 2003, there was always a "but"- but the sort of things that a fanbase that really supports their coach is willing to overlook.  In 2004 Fran led the Aggies to the Cotton Bowl... but they'd lost to Baylor for the first time in 13 years and got smoked by Tennessee in the Cotton Bowl.  Another down year in 2005 set the Aggies grumbling, and even when it was followed with a 9-3 record in 2006 and picked up a win over the defending national champion Texas Longhorns to keep them out of the Big 12 championship game... A&M could've played in the game themselves if they'd beaten Oklahoma at home, and a field goal call trailing by 4 with 3:28 to play rankled many Aggies further.  Then came the email scandal with "Coachfran.com" which handed out confidential player information to A&M boosters, and the writing was on the wall for Fran without a huge season in 2007.  Despite a second consecutive win over the Longhorns (and, to date, the last win for the Aggies over the Longhorns in College Station), Coach Franchione announced his resignation after the Texas game and that he would not be sticking around to coach the team in the bowl game.  Once again, just like that, he was gone.

After overseeing Texas State's transition from FCS to FBS and from the WAC into the Sun Belt (one more conference upgrade for coach Fran), Fran's fortunes finally fell to the bottom, as the Bobcats fell from a bowlless 7-5 in 2014 to a miserable 3-9 in 2015, the lowest point being the University of North Texas' only victory of the season.  Despite being the subject of numerous hot seat lists and grumbling in the fan base, Coach Fran was retained and expected to continue for at least one more season by the AD... And then, yesterday, he was gone- this time for the very last time.  So how do you consider a man who put together some truly big seasons everywhere he went (yes, even at A&M) but left bitterness behind him at every destination?  How do you weigh the gratitude of him resurrecting a program (and leaving behind an even better coach) with the feeling of betrayal you had when he left for the next big destination?  Enough time has passed at each of his coaching destinations (bar Texas State) where opinions on the man are probably as soft as they're ever going to be- so just what do you think of Fran now, and what do you think his legacy will be?  Let us know in the poll as well as in the comments below.