I’ll never forget that night, way back in 1998. My friend Trish, still a friend to this day, called me — I picked up the landline in my parent’s bedroom in Roseville, CA to talk with her — to ask if I was watching. I was, of course; as a Northern Californian in her sophomore year at TCU, I had a lot of reasons to be locked into a game featuring the upstart Horned Frogs against a burgeoning powerhouse Trojans program, helmed by one Carson Palmer.
Trish’s phone call was one of the critical moments of my college football fandom, one of those moments that I look back on all these years later as a seminal marker pinpointing the day I fell in love with the Frogs. We chatted through most of the second half of the game (Trish is quite the talker, lol) as TCU Football and Dennis Franchione held on to a big first half lead on their way to the program’s first bowl victory in over half a century. It was a seminal moment for Fran, Fort Worth, and the Frogs.
Friday, TCU Football will honor the 1998 Sun Bowl team, the first bowl qualifier since 1994 and first bowl winner since 1956. But this game was more than a bowl victory, it is a keystone moment for the Horned Frogs, the win that ignited a two decade streak of competence and the dawn of the Gary Patterson era. The Frogs announced themselves that fateful day in the desert, as Patterson’s defense held the Trojans to a bowl record -23 rushing yards on the way to a first half shutout and an eventual 28-19 victory. Behind quarterback Patrick Batteaux (who had thrown just one touchdown against six interceptions and had a 55% completion rate but ran for two scores in the game) and running back Basil Mitchell (185 yards on just 19 carries on his way to being named MVP) the TCU offense ate up the clock (20:15 time of possession in the first half alone) while the defense kept the Trojans at arm’s length all day.
The Frogs were 16 point underdogs in El Paso, a refrain that would be familiar throughout TCU’s reign as mid-major power over the course of the next decade and a half. Hell, most folks didn’t think the Frogs belonged in a bowl game, let alone once against a powerhouse program like ‘SC. But TCU did what Frog fans would come to expect over the years; dominated on defense, kept the ball away from their opponent on offense, and generally found a way to win. It wouldn’t be the last time this formula worked against the Big Boys, but it was the first.
Palmer said what many would over the next ten years after the game, when he, stunned, reported “we definitely took TCU for granted. We thought we could do pretty much what we wanted, but they really shut us down. I was surprised when we couldn’t run the football. I couldn’t believe it when they scored their first touchdown. ... I was shocked when it was 21-0.”
Franchione would go on to win the Mobile Alabama Bowl the next season, culminating an 8-4 year. He would win ten games in 2000, before bolting for Bama prior to another Mobile Bowl experience, leaving the program in the hands of a then-unproven defensive coordinator who would go on to have the most successful run since the 1930’s in dragging TCU Football from the WAC to Conference USA to the Mountain West and all the way to the Big 12 big kid’s table.
But it all started in El Paso, on the backs of guys named Basil, London, and Schoebel and a then little-known kick-returner who goes by two letters today — LT. Oh, and lest we forget, a familiar name to those listening in on Saturdays, current sideline guru Landry Burdine, who served as a team captain for that ‘98 squad.
That’s why, Friday afternoon, when they honor the group that laid the foundation 21 years ago, I’ll likely feel a tinge of emotion. When I think back to my earliest memories of my undergrad years, that game ranks near the first and best. When I think of my love of all things TCU Athletics, it all began with a phone call. When I think of the time I’ve put into Frogs O’ War and the friends I’ve made through this site — well, they started when that game ended. When I think of how our university has grown (shoot, I’ve met two TCU grads in Maui this week alone), the first steps were taken on the grass in El Paso.
Today, I realize that there is disappointment in making a “lesser” bowl; we as a fan base seem to EXPECT a NY6 game or at least the Alamo Bowl, to be competing for conference titles and beating the big boys each week. That’s a product of what has been built here — that good isn’t good enough and we believe that we have the ability to be great every single season. But as we play for a berth in what will likely be the First Responders Bowl or something of similar ilk Friday, think back to the Sun Bowl. Remember all that was built that night and all that became because of it. Maybe the bowl game we play in 2019 will lead to the next 20 years of fortune. Maybe these two weeks will lay the foundation for the two decades. Maybe the phone calls happening across the country over winter break will ignite the next generation. Maybe what happens Friday will set the course for something special a year or two down the road.
Maybe the next bowl will be the one that we are looking back on twenty years from now saying “this is where it all began”.
But first, we have to beat WVU. So let’s go earn it. Because as Fran said after the Sun Bowl, “We started the season with very little respect. This has not been an unusual situation for us and we responded well. You only earn respect, it isn’t given to you.”
I guess some things haven’t changed in 21 years. Let’s go earn some respect.
(but first, take a stroll down memory lane, if you would like!)