Five years ago TCU was the college football equivalent of a mid-major.
Now, the Horned Frogs are on the verge of becoming a perennial playoff contender.
Monday, we looked at how Baylor rose from conference doormat to become just the second team to win back-to-back Big 12 titles.
Below, we examine the steps that led to TCU’s transformation into a national powerhouse:
1. Hiring — and keeping — Gary Patterson
Even though he had whipped TCU into the No. 1 statistical defense in the country, Patterson wasn’t the automatic choice to take over as head coach after Dennis Franchione bolted for Alabama. UAB coach Watson Brown and Kansas State defensive coordinator Phil Bennett actually initially topped the candidate list. But provost William Koehler and prominent booster Dick Lowe successfully politicked for Patterson to get the job. Fifteen years later, Patterson is now the fifth-longest tenured coach in college football, providing TCU with the necessary continuity to make its gradual ascension.
2. Scheduling — and defeating — the big boys
Under Patterson, TCU never shied away from scheduling BCS conference opponents. Initially, the Horned Frogs took it on the chin. But beginning with a 17-10 win over Oklahoma in the 2005 opener, TCU began to beat those teams. The Horned Frogs went on to notch wins over Baylor, Texas Tech, Stanford, Virginia, Clemson and Oregon State, proving they belonged in a Power 5 conference themselves.
3. Winning the Rose Bowl
When measuring programs, it’s difficult to put much significance on a single win, especially outside of a national championship game. But the 2010 Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin did wonders for TCU’s reputation. Despite finishing the regular season 12-0, the Horned Frogs struggled to gain respect nationally. Ohio State president Gordon Gee suggested the Horned Frogs were undeserving because they played only "Little Sisters of the Poor.” Besides creating national credibility, defeating the Big Ten champs laid the groundwork for TCUs eventual invite into the Big 12.
4. Maneuvering through multiple realignments
After getting left out of the inceptive Big 12, TCU set a record for conference affiliations in the 21st century. Following the Southwest Conference's dissolution, the Horned Frogs landed in the WAC. But successes on the field led to offers from better conferences, which TCU capitalized upon. The Horned Frogs moved up to Conference USA then the Mountain West. On the heels of its Rose Bowl victory, TCU was all set to join the Big East, finally achieving its goal of moving into a conference with an automatic BCS bid. Then the call from the Big 12 came. Validation didn’t come over night. But TCU’s proactive pursuit of a better conference finally landed it in the perfect spot. The Big 12 has since boosted the program’s perception, restored old rivalries and enhanced TCU’s recruiting base.
5. Updating facilities
Even while TCU had been producing a team capable of competing with almost anyone, its facilities for a long time didn't measure up. But spearheaded by Patterson’s aggressive fundraising, the Horned Frogs now boast a football-only weight room, the league’s only cryo-saunas therapy device, an air-conditioned indoor practice facility and the crown jewel, a $164 million tear down and build up of Amon G. Carter Stadium. Conference affiliation and facilities were once TCU’s great Achilles heels in recruiting. That is no longer the case.
6. Mastering a defensive identity
While schools around him were focused on offensive innovation, Patterson's honed 4-2-5 defense became TCU’s calling card, and a huge reason for consistent success. The simple, yet multiple three-safety defense has been an exemplary combat to hurry-up no-huddle offenses. As a result, since joining the Big 12, TCU has ranked first, second and first in the league in total defense.
7. Recruiting what others don’t see
In the past four classes, TCU’s highest finish in the recruiting rankings was 37th. But the Horned Frogs have made up that ground by targeting smart, hard-working athletes who have the versatility to be molded into different positions. TCU brought in Paul Dawson, who was a two-star receiver in high school, and turned him into an All-American linebacker. Marcus Mallet was a running back but became a starting linebacker. Before becoming an All-Big 12 safety, Sam Carter was a high school quarterback. The list goes on.
8. Overcoming the drug culture stigma
The low point of the Patterson era occurred in February 2012, when four of his players were arrested in a campuswide drug sting. Instead of looking the other way or attempting to cover it up, TCU and Patterson acknowledged the problem and dealt with it head on. Reportedly, Patterson had actually ordered a teamwide drug test shortly before the sting. TCU became one of the only schools to do criminal background checks on recruits. Patterson donated $100,000 to the school’s recovery support group, and he stood by QB Casey Pachall as he entered substance abuse treatment. But Patterson also subsequently booted players off the team who were tied up in marijuana-related arrests. The drug sting could have brought down TCU football. Instead, it became the impetus for awareness and change.
9. Hiring Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie
Following two Big 12 seasons of mediocre offense under a dinosaur scheme, Patterson drastically revamped his attack. He brought in Meacham from Houston and Cumbie from Texas Tech to install a hurry-up, spread scheme to a smashing and immediate success. Only Baylor scored more points last season than the Horned Frogs, who have 10 returning offensive starters heading into next season.
10. Keeping Trevone Boykin at QB
It’s hard to remember now, but Boykin actually ended 2013 at wide receiver. When the Horned Frogs added Texas A&M transfer QB Matt Joeckel to the roster last spring, it seemed as if Boykin would remain there, too. But TCU gave Boykin the opportunity to reclaim the QB job. And his skill set and the spread turned out to be a perfect marriage. With a year operating the offense behind him, Boykin enters 2015 as one of the top returning quarterbacks in college football.