How the Big 12’s Smallest School Became Texas’s Biggest Power By: Jonathan Clegg The Wall Street Journal November 6, 2014
Fort Worth, Texas
When Gary Patterson took over as coach of Texas Christian University’s football team in 2000, he didn’t set out to make the school a fixture in the rankings. He sure wasn’t thinking about national championships.
His first priority back then: Try to establish TCU as the second-favorite college team in town.
“We’ve got all these Texas and Texas A&M and Oklahoma grads here, but these are people that love football,” Patterson said shortly after he was promoted from defensive coordinator to the Horned Frogs’ head coach. “If we can touch this community, they will put purple jerseys on and buy season tickets and come to our games.”
That vision has been validated. When the sixth-ranked Horned Frogs host No. 7 Kansas State on Saturday, a matchup with implications for the inaugural four-team College Football Playoff, they will play in front of another sellout crowd, their third of the season.
But along the way, something far greater has taken place here. This tiny private school of about 10,000 students that merely wanted to be its town’s No. 2 team has become the top college-football program in the state of Texas.
“I’m blown away by it,” said Bill Prater, a 1950 TCU graduate and member of the booster club. “Sometimes I can’t quite believe how far we’ve come.”
Barely 20 years ago, TCU had been so dismal for so long that even within Texas, the school had become derisively known as “TC Who?” It seemed that the Frogs were doomed to become perpetual also-rans among the now-dozen Division I college football programs that dot the state.
In 1996, the scandal-prone Southwest Conference broke up, leaving TCU with a murky future. Although TCU had been a member of the SWC since 1923, it pointedly wasn’t invited to join the newly formed Big 12, which instead welcomed Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and even Baylor, a private school with a modest football history.
Left out to dry, TCU was forced to join the far-flung Western Athletic Conference.
“There was incredible anger about that,” said Dan Jenkins, a Fort Worth-based sportswriter and novelist who graduated from TCU in 1953. “The general feeling was that Baylor’s football history wouldn’t make a pimple on TCU’s a—.”
Founded in nearby Thorp Springs in 1873 as AddRan Male and Female College (after founders Addison and Randolph Clark), the school moved to Waco in 1895 before a group of Fort Worth businessmen, with help from the town’s Christian churches, finally lured the renamed Texas Christian University to its present site in 1910 with a gift of $200,000, plus the plot of land on which the campus now sits.
Over the course of its football history, TCU has produced two national championships, 17 conference titles and 30 All-Americans, including legends like Sammy Baugh and Davey O’Brien, the 1938 Heisman Trophy winner.
But by the time the SWC dissolved, those achievements had long been overshadowed by a recruiting scandal in the 1980s that saw the program placed on probation. TCU mustered only five winning seasons between 1966 and 1997. A losing culture developed, producing cheers like “Two, four, six, eight! Score before we graduate!”
“And this on the campus of a school that had been the first Texas team to play in the Cotton Bowl, the Sugar Bowl and the Orange Bowl,” Jenkins said. “Those dark days of the ’70s and ’80s, I’m glad I missed most of them by living in New York.”
How TCU has returned to prominence is partly owed to the growth of television coverage of college football. The pursuit of TV money by schools and conferences has sparked a wave of conference membership changes in recent years. That has propelled the Frogs on a 16-year, five-conference odyssey, which culminated in an invitation to join the Big 12 in 2012—reuniting with Texas, Texas Tech and Baylor, three of their old SWC rivals.
But it also has something to do with the singular talents of Patterson. In 13 seasons as coach, he has led TCU to 11 bowl games, including a historic Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin in 2011 that capped an undefeated season.
“To whom or what do I attribute the rise of our football program?” said university chancellor Victor Boschini Jr. “Easy answer: coach Patterson.”
This season could turn out to be the finest of Patterson’s career. Having seen his team struggle to a 11-12 mark in its first two seasons in the Big 12—including a 6-12 record in conference play—Patterson ditched his favored ball-control offense in favor of a fast-break scheme designed to keep up with the conference’s turbocharged attacks. The results have been remarkable. The Frogs average 550 yards per game this season and rank third nationally in total offense, up from 345 yards and 106th overall in 2013.
Geography also has played its part. The Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex is a rich area for high-school recruits, allowing TCU to compile top-50 recruiting classes in each of the past six years. It is also a rich area for rich donors. The school’s $164 million refurbishment of its 84-year-old Amon G. Carter Stadium, which is near completion, was entirely funded by private donations.
“The whole thing, debt-free—isn’t that phenomenal?” said TCU athletic director Chris Del Conte. “We call it the Camden Yards of college football.”
For all that, the most important foundations laid down in recent years may be those that Patterson built with the community that has come to embrace his team.
From the start of his tenure, Patterson has focused on recruiting local players to strengthen the connection between the town and the team. Of his 273 recruits since 2000, 74 hailed from the Metroplex area. Only 48 have come from out of state .
In his first season, he established “Bleacher Creatures,” a program in which hundreds of kids are given a TCU jersey and a chance to run onto the field with the team before the start of each home game. In 2011, defensive tackle David Johnson became the first former Bleacher Creature to play for the Horned Frogs.
Now, with TCU at 7-1 and poised to make a run at a playoff berth and a shot at a national championship, those efforts are paying off. Hours before last month’s sellout 82-27 win over Texas Tech, TCU’s Frog Alley was crammed with fans in purple jerseys—even if some of them admitted they didn’t really belong there.
“I didn’t even go to school here,” said Mandy Brown, a 2006 Texas Tech graduate who was wearing a purple TCU home jersey and matching cowboy boots. “But my family are all in Fort Worth and this is our team, you know?”