On Saturday afternoon in Morgantown, the two new kids on the Big 12 block will meet for the first time as conference foes. It will represent the culmination of a circuitous journey for one, a more straightforward journey for the other. But a quick look back at the long and winding road of the TCU Horned Frogs reveals that it could have easily been the path traveled for the West Virginia Mountaineers.
For 72 years the Texas Christian University Horned Frogs had competed in the Southwest Conference, claiming a pair of national titles (1935 & 1938) and 9 conference titles. They had assembled a respectable if not overwhelmingly impressive tradition before a lean period in the 1970s and 80s yielded uneven results punctuated by NCAA sanctions in 1986. They were a middling Southwest Conference team who used their position in the football hotbed of Texas to remain competitive if not wholly successful among the likes of Texas, Texas A&M and Houston.
Unfortunately while there’s never a good time to be bad at football, the late 80s and early 90s were a particularly bad time. The winds of conference change had been set in motion by a landmark 1984 Supreme Court ruling (NCAA v. Board of Regents of Univ. of Oklahoma) that empowered conferences (or even individual schools) to negotiate their own TV rights by effectively eliminating the TV bargaining power of the College Football Association. The Big East was formed, Penn State joined the Big 10 and the SEC and Notre Dame negotiated their own TV deals.
The Big 8 saw this new TV honey pot and decided they wanted a piece of the action. They cast their glance southward to a SWC with a small footprint but big brand names. Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor got the golden ticket while TCU, Houston and SMU were left behind.
The first stop for the Frogs was the Western Athletic Conference. It was here that they began the job of rebuilding their program. After a combined 5-17 record in 1996-97, Dennis Franchione was hired and went 25-11 over the next three years, winning bowl games in the first two of those years. The long climb back had begun.
After Franchione's bolt to Alabama, Gary Patterson took over and brought TCU to the next level as the program accepted an invitation to join the expanding Conference USA in 2001. They went from one of the easternmost members of a western league to the westernmost member of a predominantly eastern/central one. The path back to prominence was taking them far, far from home.
The Frogs did in C-USA what they had done in the WAC with an uneven first year before back-to-back 10 win seasons including a conference title in 2002. The cooler kids were once again watching and the Mountain West Conference came calling in 2005. It was time to pack up the gear and head back west. You get the feeling if TCU was a little kid they'd be in the back seat asking "Dad, are we there yet?"
Almost. Dad's about to hit the gas.
TCU's 7 year tenure in the MWC marked a dramatic entrance onto the national stage with 6 seasons with at least 11 wins, 4 conference titles and a pair of BCS bowl appearances including a Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin on New Year's Day 2011. The Frogs managed back to back undefeated regular seasons in 2009 and 2010 and this time, when the winds of realignment came blowing again, they were ready.
First came the invitation to the Frogs to join the Big East, made specifically by the conference to bolster their football resume. For nearly a year it appeared the Frogs were destined to set their sights once again to the east for a better football neighborhood. But in late 2011 a collection of moves set in motion by their former SWC brethren Texas A&M bolting the Big 12 for the SEC culminated in TCU receiving that purloined letter from the Big 12. Sixteen years after they were left behind, the Frogs were finally brought back into the southwest fold. Interim Big 12 Commissioner Chuck Neinas summed it up well as he welcomed TCU Chancellor Victor Boschini to the league: "Chancellor, TCU has traveled a long path, been to different places. Sir, I'd like to welcome you home."
It's an amazing story and a true testament to the dedication to big time football of TCU and their fans. It would have been easy to learn to live with their exclusion from the upper echelon of college football and fall victim to complacency of being just another mid-major. Instead they redoubled their efforts and made the type of investments in facilities that augmented and buttressed their on-field efforts. It wasn't easy, but I would gather that every single TCU player, coach and fan thinks it was worth it.
West Virginia fans would be wise to take a moment and thank their fortune when they look across the field at their opponent on Saturday afternoon. There but for the grace of Pat White and Steve Slaton go they. Take your mind back to mid 2005. The Big East was weakened as no member remained who had won a BCS game. WVU had languished for over a decade in mediocrity, a respectable program but not one that turned heads. Questions abounded that year for the 'Eers before a freshman quarterback and a true freshman running back who didn't even appear on most depth charts at the beginning of the season launched a campaign that ended with the biggest bowl win in WVU history.
The Mountaineers gained instant credibility and capitalized by remaining at the forefront of the national title race for the next two years and capturing another BCS win in 2008. Nine win seasons and consistent national rankings kept them on the national radar as well as the bold hire of the hottest offensive coordinator in the country. When those same winds of change that blew TCU back to the Big 12 came whirling to the Big East, the Mountaineers were fortunate to find themselves with the biggest sail.
So this is how these teams find themselves staring across the green turf at each other on a crisp fall afternoon. Both fighting for respect, not only this year but every year. Both in search of that elusive Big 12 Conference and eventually even national title that will mean they have arrived in full. Having traveled different paths to different places, but finally arriving at the same place, a conference where they won't have to plea their case and fight over computer polls. A conference where the only limit to how high they can rise is how many games they can win.
A conference where they can finally check their coat at the door, pull up a chair and stay awhile.
Quick note: this article drew heavily from a fantastic column CNNSI's Andy Staples wrote back in July when the TCU move became official. He does a great job telling the TCU story and gives a real sense for what that Big 12 invitation really meant to their entire program. I'd be remiss if I didn't highly recommend you give it a read by clicking over here.)