TCU's march through realignment wilderness finally comes to end
TCU, which had pined for a Big 12 invite since 1994, is officially a member
After 72 years in SWC, TCU joined or intended to join five different leagues
Coach Gary Patterson helped revitalize TCU football into a national brand
"This has nothing to do with tradition. It's business."
-- TCU athletic director Frank Windegger to USA Today in February 1994
FORT WORTH, Texas -- People at TCU still stew about getting abandoned by Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor, but Dick Lowe doesn't understand why. Lowe, who played offensive guard for Dutch Meyer from 1947-50 before going into the oil business, believes the Horned Frogs deserved to get left behind along with Houston, Rice and SMU in 1994 when the other members of the Southwest Conference decided to merge with the Big Eight and become the Big 12.
"It hurt a lot, but I think a lot of people took it wrong," said Lowe, a longtime TCU megabooster. "We deserved to be kicked out. We weren't carrying our end of the load. Most people thought we got screwed. I thought we screwed ourselves."
That abandonment set the Horned Frogs on an extraordinary journey through the conference landscape of college athletics. After spending 72 years in the SWC -- considered one of the nation's elite leagues for most of that time -- TCU would either join or announce its intention to join five different conferences. In October 2011, while planning to enter yet another league, the Horned Frogs finally got the invitation they had pined for since 1994. When the clock struck midnight on July 1, TCU finally became a member of the Big 12. Its long walk through the hinterlands had finally come to an end.
To understand why current TCU athletic director Chris Del Conte called Saturday night "New Year's Eve for the Frogs," trace TCU's path. It runs from the 16-team iteration of the WAC to Conference USA to the Mountain West -- with a brief stop in the Big East. The Horned Frogs wandered for a long time to get back to their old neighborhood.
Lowe, who has made and lost several fortunes during his career as "a treasure hunter," understands his school's long climb back better than anyone. TCU never intended to be cast aside, but as Lowe said, the Horned Frogs should have seen their abandonment coming. In 1993, TCU averaged a little more than 26,000 fans. Given the quality of the team, it was more accurate to say Amon G. Carter Stadium was half-empty. From 1985-93, the Frogs went 37-61-1. As realignment swirled in the early '90s, TCU seemed likely to get left behind. Frogs athletic director Frank Windegger would later tell the Houston Chronicle that the seeds of all that realignment were planted by the Supreme Court ruling in 1984 that allowed schools to break free of the NCAA's control over television rights fees. The man who led the charge to give conferences the right to negotiate their own TV deals? Chuck Neinas, then the head of the College Football Association. Remember him, because he'll be back much later in this story.
The more immediate reasons for the breakup of the SWC were the departure of Arkansas to the SEC after the 1991 football season and a dramatic shift of the conference landscape in the early '90s thanks to even more television revenue shockwaves. (Any of this sound familiar?) Notre Dame left the CFA -- an assortment of leagues and schools that negotiated their rights fees as a bloc -- in 1991 to sign its own deal with NBC. Then, in December 1993, Fox outbid CBS for the rights to the NFL's NFC games. That left CBS flush with cash and in need of sports programming. When CBS bought rights to SEC and Big East football games in February 1994, the CFA was all but dead. Before the month ended, the SWC's epitaph had also been written.
With all eight members in Texas, the SWC had a limited footprint and wasn't attractive to television executives. Plus, the taint of scandal and poor attendance made several schools unappealing to other leagues. SMU's football program had received the NCAA's Death Penalty and had not recovered. TCU had suffered through its own player-buying scandal in 1985. Lowe admitted he had paid players and took all the heat for what was actually a much larger slush fund operation. Meanwhile, professional sports franchises had taken root in the Metroplex and in Houston, further eroding interest in football at TCU, SMU, Houston and Rice.
When the SWC fell apart, the WAC scooped up TCU, SMU and Rice as part of a massive expansion to 16 schools. The league began play in 1996 using a confusing quad system that split its members into four four-team divisions. TCU joined SMU, Rice and Tulsa in the division known as Y'all Corner. While fellow WAC member BYU hit the glass ceiling put in place by the Bowl Alliance -- a precursor to the BCS -- in 1996, TCU slogged through another forgettable season. In 1997, the Horned Frogs won only one game for outgoing coach Pat Sullivan, but that 21-18 victory against SMU hurt the league by knocking the Mustangs out of bowl contention.
In December 1997, TCU athletic director Eric Hyman -- who left the AD post at South Carolina last week to take over at Texas A&M -- made the first of two critical football coaching hires. To replace Sullivan, Hyman tapped Dennis Franchione from New Mexico. Franchione had revitalized the Lobos, and he saw no reason he couldn't do the same thing at TCU. "I don't know why this program cannot be competitive on the highest level year-in and year-out," Franchione told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "I'm not saying we're going to win the conference every year, but this school and this university with its academic structure and recruiting base can certainly be competitive for division titles. I feel like the bad years aren't going to be 1-10. The bad years will be 6-5."
At the same time, another power shift in college football was about to change all of college athletics. The 1998 season was the first for the Bowl Championship Series, and the six automatic qualifying conferences (the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-10 and SEC) were the envy of college athletics. Every program outside one of those leagues aspired to join one. "The unintended consequences when they created the BCS were the haves and the have-nots. ... Those things created a divide that had never been part of college athletics," said Del Conte, who was the athletic director at Rice before he came to TCU in 2009. "Once that happened, it was important for [TCU] to be associated with a league that had automatic access. That was the goal. That was what was defining the institution."
First, the Frogs had to win on the football field. Fortunately, by his standards, Franchione didn't have any bad years. In his first season in 1998, he went 7-5 and led TCU to a Sun Bowl win against USC to notch the Horned Frogs' first postseason victory since the 1956 Cotton Bowl. It helped that Franchione inherited a versatile tailback named Ladainian Tomlinson. In 1999 and 2000, Tomlinson led the nation in rushing. TCU won a share of the WAC title in both seasons. This would be a common refrain. No matter where TCU went, it finished atop the league at least once. The only conference in which TCU didn't take at least a share of a title was the Big East, and that was because it never actually played a game in the league.
When they won those WAC titles, the Frogs were lame-duck members of the conference. A chunk of the league had broken away to form the Mountain West, but TCU wasn't invited and would need to make one more stop before it re-joined those schools. On Oct. 11, 1999, Hyman stood on the second hole at a golf fundraiser when his cell phone rang. On the other line was then-Conference USA commissioner Mike Slive, offering a spot in the league beginning in 2001. The Frogs, who had begun to spend money to upgrade facilities, were moving into a slightly better neighborhood.
As the Frogs wrapped their final season in the WAC in 2000, they learned they would have to enter Conference USA without Franchione, who left TCU for Alabama to replace Mike DuBose. Hyman, who had landed Franchione in his first week on the job, would have to make another inspired hire. As Hyman interviewed a list of candidates that included Iowa State's Dan McCarney, Ohio's Jim Grobe and Middle Tennessee State's Andy McCollum, Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Gil Lebreton made a prediction:
"There are Frogs fans, I must report, who cling to the dream that after another two or three more winning football seasons, the Big 12 Conference -- or some other college football heavyweight -- will come knocking on the TCU door.
"They're dreaming. But this is the kind of public perception that Hyman will have to battle.
"Oh, I wish there was a bright up-and-coming coaching star that I could hang in the TCU sky today. But I don't see one."