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Tuesday, December 28, 2010
Stop and smell the (purple) roses

By Brian Bennett

LOS ANGELES -- On Monday morning, TCU coach Gary Patterson took his team out to Rose Bowl Stadium so the players could get a glance at the hallowed grounds. They walked on the grass, took pictures and watched workers apply the first coat of paint that made up the school's logo in an end zone.

You know, once-in-a-lifetime stuff.

"As a former player and an alum, the hair stands up on the back of your neck when you see that," said John Denton, the Horned Frogs' color analyst who accompanied the team on the trip. "Never in my life did I think I'd see TCU in the Rose Bowl."

There were some who might rather have died than see this day. For decades, Big Ten and Pac-10 officials have insisted the only way they would release their prized bowl experience was if rigor mortis finally subsided from their lifeless hands. They can merely grit their teeth now as the Granddaddy of Them All hosts the new kid in town.

TCU's Ed Wesley
Running back Ed Wesley and TCU are bringing the purple back to Pasadena.
Only four times since 1946 has a team outside the Big Ten and Pac-10 elbowed its way onto this stage, and those four schools all have blue-blood lineage: Texas, Miami, Nebraska and Oklahoma. Joining their ranks is a team that -- including its forthcoming entry into the Big East -- has bounced around five different leagues since 1995. TCU was playing in the Fort Worth, galleryfurniture.com and EV1.net Houston bowls in the first part of the 2000s. Now it's ready to paint Pasadena purple for the first time since Northwestern crashed the party in 1996.

“We never thought we’d be here," center Jake Kirkpatrick admits. "We definitely feel blessed."

Ironically, the same BCS many blame for holding down schools outside the six power conferences kicked down college football's most fortified entrance. A rule change forced the Rose to take an automatic qualifier from a non-AQ league the first time it lost one of its league tie-ins to the BCS title game. So as Oregon advanced to play Auburn for the national championship, TCU slid into the void to take on Wisconsin in Saturday's Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO.

That possibility didn't even dawn on many of the Horned Frogs until midway through the season.

"Coming into the year, we weren’t going, ‘OK, we’re going to the Rose Bowl,’" quarterback Andy Dalton said. "Later on when everybody started talking about it, when the media started picking it up, that’s when we realized it.

“To play in a game like this with so much tradition, so much history, it just gave us that extra little bit and it showed in the way we played. I feel like I’ve grown up watching the Rose Bowl, watching all the different things that have happened in it."

The sight of a Horned Frog clinching a rose in its teeth -- the logo adorning TCU's team buses in Los Angeles this week -- takes a little getting used to. But upon closer inspection, this newest member of the Rose Bowl club doesn't seem so out of place.

Tradition? Last year's Tostitos Fiesta Bowl runners-up have now made all four major bowl games in their history. TCU claims two national championships in the 1930s and was a frequent Cotton Bowl participant in the 1950s.

Current credentials? The No. 3 Horned Frogs have finished in the Top 10 three straight seasons and have won 25 consecutive regular-season games. They have the highest average final ranking of any team in the past three years.

"Coach Patterson has built a football program, not a one-hit wonder," TCU athletic director Chris Del Conte said. "As I said last year, getting to a BCS bowl is not the pinnacle for us; it's a jumping-off point."

Stanford fans might be miffed that they're heading to Miami instead of Pasadena, but local businesses aren't too upset. TCU gobbled up its 20,000-ticket allotment in four days and then asked for more. That's pretty strong for a school with fewer than 10,000 students enrolled and, Del Conte says, only about 55,000 living alumni.

Rose Bowl CEO Scott McKibben said subsidiary events such as this week's Hall of Fame luncheon and the Tournament of Roses parade have sold more tickets this year than they have in several years. Wisconsin's rabid fan base accounts for some of that, but McKibben also credits the freshness of the Horned Frogs.

"I think people are more excited coming out here for the Rose Bowl, the parade and everything else then they would be if we were going back to Phoenix to play for the national championship," said Denton, who is also executive director of the Frog Club booster organization. "Our fans grasp the gravity of this situation. This is a day most Frogs fans never thought they'd see."

It's reminiscent of the climax of the Los Angeles-based movie "Magnolia," when frogs began raining from the sky. Such rare phenomenons present two choices: Roll with it, or -- like many of TCU's recent opponents -- end up getting splattered.