Work in Sports
Three years after 1-10, Horned Frogs thinking 11-0
By Tim Griffin, Special to CNNSI.com
FORT WORTH, Texas -- The turnaround in the TCU football program is clearly evident to nose tackle Shawn Worthen.
Scanning a crowded room at the Horned Frogs’ media day, the three-year starter chuckled at the irony.
“I can remember when we would come to these things and there would be about three people here,” Worthen said. “It’s amazing. Times have changed around here.”
Only a few years ago, the Horned Frogs were the laughing stock of fans in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. On a highway sign between the two cities, a prankster defaced a road sign by scribbling “Loop 12, TCU 0.”
Today, motorists in the area receive a different message. A giant billboard extolling the Heisman Trophy candidacy of TCU running back LaDainian Tomlinson catches their attention near the Horned Frogs' campus. TCU enters the season ranked 20th in the Associated Press’ preseason poll. It is the first time they have been ranked before the season since 1960.
“We’re grateful for the attention that’s been shown, but we were far more anxious to be ranked after last season after winning our bowl,” TCU coach Dennis Franchione said. “We start a little ahead, but our guys have a great attitude. We know what we have accomplished, but we know what we still have left to do.”
Some of that mindset comes from remembering the past. Only three years ago, Worthen and seven other members of TCU’s projected two-deep roster struggled through an 0-10 start en route to a one-win season. Coach Pat Sullivan was fired late in that season as TCU slid to the bottom of the WAC.
Those memories have helped spur the renaissance in TCU’s program, one of the most dramatic in college football over the past several seasons.
Tomlinson said the bad days during his freshman season are a sobering reminder he thinks about every day.
“It was awful,” Tomlinson said. “Going through something like that makes you play hard every time you go out on the field. I wouldn’t want anybody to experience.”
Practices and schoolwork became a chore for Tomlinson, who said the team’s struggles were the worst memory in his athletic career.
“My whole attitude about the game changed,” Tomlinson said. “I was so embarrassed. I didn’t want to tell people I played for TCU. People asked me about football and I always wanted to change the subject.”
The arrival of Franchione and two winning seasons capped by two bowl-game victories have brought pride back to TCU.
‘The reason we are where we’re at today is because of that man,” offensive tackle David Bobo said, pointing at Franchione. “It’s completely changed since he got here.”
Tomlinson’s emergence hasn’t hurt, either. The 220-pound tailback led the nation in rushing last year with 1,850 yards, capped by an NCAA Division I-A single-game record 406 against UTEP. Those numbers have him mentioned as a contender for the Heisman Trophy.
“Obviously, we feel like we have the best running back in the nation,” Franchione said. “He set the table during his junior year to be mentioned in the circles he’s being mentioned in. Now, it will be up to him to go out and have the type of season we think he can have.”
The TCU coach didn’t expect miracles when he arrived. He was familiar with TCU’s program after coaching against the Horned Frogs five times in his six-year career at New Mexico from 1992-97.
“There’s no way you could have sat here in December 1997 and predicted that this would happen,” Franchione said. “When you inherit a 1-10 team, you don’t know how bad it is. Obviously, there was some talent here, but the biggest thing we have come full circle in attitude. “When we got here they were somewhat ashamed to let anybody know they were a football team. That’s totally different today. The impact we’ve had has been in attitude and work ethic, as much as anything.”
When Franchione arrived in 1997, four members of his team could bench-press 400 pounds. Today, 51 players can.
The turnaround on the field was gradual. TCU opened with a 4-1 start in 1998 and finished 7-5, capping the season with a stunning upset over USC in the Sun Bowl.
The Horned Frogs rebounded from a 1-3 start last year to finish with a share of the WAC title and a victory over East Carolina in the Mobile Alabama Bowl. The back-to-back bowl wins were the first for TCU since winning the 1937 and 1939 Cotton Bowls.
“In 1998, we kind of learned how to win, and last year, we had to learn how to live with winning,” Franchione said. “The team last year had a lot of expectations placed on it. They were only 18 months away from being 1-10, so they still had a little bit of a fragile emotional state. Hopefully, the 2000 team is more prepared for the kind of expectations placed on them.”
The expectations began at the team’s first meeting last week. Franchione listed as the team’s ultimate goal as playing in the Orange Bowl –- the first time he has mentioned a national championship in his goal setting with his team.
“I’m a believer that if you don’t have something as a goal, you can’t achieve it,” Franchione said. “As I told the team, we aren’t going to talk as much as you are going to ask us. But I don’t think Virginia Tech was sitting around talking about playing Florida State in the Sugar Bowl at this point last year.
“I don’t want to sound like I’m putting the cart ahead of the horse. I think it needs to be up there, but we still have a lot of work to do before we put ourselves in position for that to happen.”
Stranger things have happened. TCU has one of the most experienced teams in the country with 10 offensive starters back headed by Tomlinson and quarterback Casey Printers, who won the starting position last year as a freshman.
“We think Casey will help LaDainian,” Franchione said. “He’s a different kind of quarterback. He’s able to run the ball and throw downfield. That should keep some of the offenses from crowding the line of scrimmage against us.”
The Horned Frogs have more weapons on defense. Eight starters return from a unit ranked fifth in the country last season. During a five-game winning streak to finish last season, TCU limited opponents to 135 yards rushing on 142 carries.
The Horned Frogs’ weak schedule -– non-conference games against Northwestern, Arkansas State, Navy and only two 1999 bowl teams - likely won’t impress many voters.
“I feel like we’ve got to win every game we play,” Tomlinson said. “We can’t slip up against anybody.”
TCU’s comeback has vaulted Franchione onto the A-list of potential coaches, where he has been rumored for almost major recent job opening. Despite that talk, Franchione insists he is happy in Fort Worth overseeing his program’s development. “I don’t know if we will always be ranked 20th in the nation, but we are getting to the point where the bad years around here will be four or five wins and not one win,” said Franchione, who has six years remaining on his TCU contract. “The good years will be like this. The foundation is in place for us.”
Tim Griffin covers college football for the San Antonio Express-News.