TCU primed for new era with old rivals

Frank Windegger won't be in San Diego on Wednesday when the TCU Horned Frogs take on Louisiana Tech in the Poinsettia Bowl. But he'll be watching and cheering from his Fort Worth home. And Windegger, more than most, will cheer the end of one era and the beginning of another.

Wednesday's football game isn't simply a pre-Christmas bowl game for the TCU community. It's the final football game to be played as a member of the Mountain West Conference. After Wednesday, the program points toward the Big 12. To the former TCU athletic director, and Horned Frog alums around when TCU played in the Southwest Conference, the Big 12 sure doesn't seem like a stranger.

"It's kind of like coming home," Windegger said. "We've been sailing around and stopping off at safe harbors, but we're finally back home. For our fans and the younger ones that haven't seen Texas and Oklahoma and Oklahoma State here, there will be some great games."

I remember how Windegger looked as the 1995 season was coming to a close. I was a sophomore at TCU and was around the athletic offices a lot with the campus radio station and school newspaper. He was clearly disappointed that TCU's longtime conference home was getting torn down, but committed to pushing on toward an uncertain future.

The end of the Southwest Conference actually occurred early in 1994, when Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor bolted for the Big 8, later renamed the Big 12. The deed was done in Austin, far enough away from Fort Worth for anyone to know any better. And it left TCU -- and private school mates Rice and SMU -- without a conference home.

Gone were the regional rivals that had made the Southwest Conference such a football power for many decades. Well, at least gone from the TCU perspective. Texas was still going to play Oklahoma, and Baylor would get to enjoy the riches of a new conference (it wasn't lost on anyone at TCU that Gov. Ann Richards and Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock were Baylor grads (Bullock also went to Tech)). TCU was forced to find sanctuary elsewhere.

TCU students, alumni and fans felt like orphans. They didn't have any say in the conference breaking up and were left to figure out who wanted their school.

That's how the Horned Frogs landed in the WAC starting with the 1996 football season. It was a brand-new place with schools that Fort Worth fans didn't really know well. TCU played at Utah that year, welcomed BYU and UNLV to campus and still got to play SMU at the end of the year. But it wasn't the SWC.

The Frogs spent five years in the WAC and were co-champions twice. Their prize: two trips to the Mobile Alabama Bowl under coach Dennis Franchione. Not exactly Dallas and the Cotton Bowl, is it?

Then it was off to Conference USA, with Louisville, UAB, East Carolina, Army and Houston (at least someone else close). TCU won that conference once and beat a ranked Colorado State team in the Liberty Bowl.

After four years with C-USA, it was off to the Mountain West, TCU's league for the last seven sports school years. It was there that TCU established itself as more than just a solid, top-25 football program, but one capable of competing for BCS bowls and championships. But flying off to face San Diego State, Wyoming and, this last season, Boise State, still didn't feel right.

So it was on to the Big East. Well, it was supposed to be, anyway. TCU made the big announcement and had, at last, found a landing spot that included an invitation to the BCS table. For a school that has felt like a castoff since the SWC breakup, it was a big deal.

Still, a rivalry with Connecticut didn't seem natural, did it?

Before the Frogs could even play a game in the new conference, they were off to the new, or rather, old one.
"Now, our fans can take a bus or drive to most of these Big 12 games," Windegger said.

What they'll see is a sports program, led by football, which is in a much better position to be competitive with the big boys in Texas and Oklahoma. It took Baylor some time to get its footing in the Big 12 and during that time, TCU was out building up the football program in homes that weren't quite as nice as the one it will live in starting next school year.

The Frogs are now regularly beating programs in power conferences and likely enter the 2012 season as one of the favorites in the Big 12. That, of course, could largely depend on which quarterbacks enter the NFL draft from other schools (headlined by Robert Griffin III). But the Frogs return nearly everyone from a young team that struggled earlier this season and then got things together, including a win at Boise State (a game that TCU fans still feel should have been played in Fort Worth -- but that's another story).

"All I know is that we've updated our facilities and we're a much stronger program now than we've ever been from top to bottom," Windegger said. "We've got talent in all sports. But this is a much more competitive conference than we've been in the last 15 years."

True. But TCU enters the conference feeling much more like a respected program than one that got thrown out in the mid-1990s. The only ball being tossed around Amon G. Carter Stadium this week is a demolition ball as the school continues to make improvements to the stadium, one that it believes will house many sellouts with regional rivals now coming to Fort Worth.

And unlike those final years in the SWC when a sold-out Amon Carter meant half (sometimes more than that) of the fans wearing the color of the opposition, these sellouts will have a purple haze to them.

"I can't wait," Windegger said. "I'm just elated. All of TCU should be too."

Richard Durrett covers colleges for ESPNDallas.com.