Thursday, December 31, 2009

TCU and Bowl Season

There's no doubt that this has been the greatest college football bowl season ever for TCU fans. The reason is obvious, of course--after years of pre-Christmas and New Year's Eve bowls (the latter only when we've been lucky or maneuvered our way into one), we've made January. And not only have we made January, we've made a BCS bowl in January--to be played not on, but after, New Year's Day. (Post-New Year's is the new New Year's Day in the bowl universe.)

Forget about the fact that we might have been one second away from the national-championship game. Forget about the fact that we're playing a rematch with Boise State of last season's Poinsettia Bowl and that Boise, like us, is an "outsider" from a conference that doesn't--thanks to the BCS cartel and its likely illegal practices--qualify its champion automatically for a major bowl game. Forget about missing the chance to prove ourselves against one of the "big boys." We are a big boy now--and so are the Boise State Broncos, who frankly will provide terrifying opposition on Jan. 4.

The countdown to the Fiesta Bowl--and, yes, my lovely wife and I will be there--has been one of the great sports experiences of my life, and it hasn't involved TCU playing a single game. It has involved me watching tons of other bowl games with the smug sense of satisfaction that we're not part of the bowl glut this year--that while USC and Texas A&M and Nebraska and Georgia are playing on random nights in December, we're awaiting a nationally televised Jan. 4 BCS game that will have no competition from the NFL or anything else of sporting significance. We're awaiting our turn as a top-five team, while many "traditional powers" are either sitting at home or pretending to enjoy the hospitality of the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

None of this is meant to sound snobbish. What you have to understand is where we came from, which is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. TCU had the winningest program in the nation in the 1930s and won two national championships (and had a Heisman Trophy winner) during that decade. We remained a national power through the 1950s, winning multiple Southwest Conference championships in a three-decade span and appearing in every major bowl except the Rose Bowl during that time. (Back then, the major bowls, of course, were Cotton, Rose, Sugar and Orange.)

On Jan. 1, 1957, TCU beat Jim Brown and Syracuse in the Cotton Bowl--and then stopped winning bowl games. A Cotton tie with Air Force (0-0) would follow, but the bowl appearances--for more reasons than I'm inclined to go into here--would dry up after that. In 1965, TCU lost to Texas Western (now UT-El Paso) in the Sun Bowl. We wouldn't play in another bowl for nearly two decades.

TCU football fell off a cliff in the late 1960s and then into a deep chasm in the 1970s. We won 26 games in the entire decade of the '70s--the years from 1974-1976 brought two wins in three seasons and finished with an 0-11 mark in '76. We were legendarily bad--some wag famously painted "TCU 0" on the Loop 12 highway sign in Dallas. We were consistently in the bottom 10 in every major publication's college football rankings. We even wore lavender uniforms for a couple of years--for reasons likely unknown to this day.

And tragedy touched the program during those years as well. Coach Jim Pittman dropped dead of a heart attack on the sidelines during the 1971 Baylor game (a rare TCU victory). Billy Tohill, Pittman's replacement, lost a leg in a car accident. Kent Waldrep was paralyzed on the field in a game at Alabama in 1974. Lightning even famously struck Amon G. Carter Stadium during a home game vs. Rice at some point in the disco decade. There was a dark cloud over TCU football.

It finally lifted in 1984. In Jim Wacker's second year as head coach, TCU became the darling of the old Southwest Conference, with running back Kenneth Davis slashing through defenses and a "smash-mouth" football (I've heard more than one person say that Wacker coined the term) team shocking everybody in Texas, Arkansas (especially Arkansas) and beyond. Even in '84, though, there was pain. There was a heartbreaking home loss to Texas in front of a sold-out stadium and a national TV audience. In the biggest event in TCU football in 25 years, we came up short. A huge loss to A&M would follow, and our Cotton Bowl dreams would slip into Bluebonnet Bowl reality. Still, it was TCU's first bowl game since the '65 Sun Bowl, and fans were pumped--until Kenneth Davis got hurt early and we succumbed easily to West Virginia in Houston. TCU finished, appropriately enough, 8-4 in '84.

Things actually got worse after that. There are many, many stories as to how this went down, but I'll tell you the one I believe. Jim Wacker found out that TCU had cheated--that boosters had paid players, including KD, to play for us--and turned us in. That he turned us in, thereby becoming the first coach in NCAA history to self-report violations, is not in doubt. That he told the NCAA way more than it could ever have discovered in an investigation is also true. Whether he knew about the cheating or not when he came to TCU is still a subject of debate--but I don't think that he did, and, regardless, he did the right thing in coming clean and kicking the paid players (yes, including KD) off the team. It was TCU's first (and, in football, still only) offense. Wacker hoped for lenience from the NCAA.

He didn't get it. Instead, the NCAA gave TCU the "living death penalty," effectively crippling our program for a decade. Wacker hung around through 1991, keeping the program alive with his vibrant personality, positive attitude and and high-powered veer offense, and actually managed to post a 7-4 record in his final season. Wacker was a good coach and a great human being. He is and will remain a TCU legend, despite the losing records his undermanned teams posted in the '80s. But there would be no bowls and few wins over big-name schools.

Wacker left in 1991 to move on to Minnesota in what amounted to a terrible move by TCU's administration--but that's another story. In my freshman year, Pat Sullivan, a Heisman Trophy winner, took over the program. A former quarterbacks coach at Auburn, his alma mater, Sullivan had never so much as served as a coordinator at the college level. He was a good man--I knew him--and a decent coach for a while. In 1994, he led TCU to the Independence Bowl, our first bowl appearance since the '84 Bluebonnet. Many of our best players chose to hang out in Shreveport's casinos until very late the night before the game, as we lost a wet, soggy, damp, cold and depressing affair to Virginia the next day. Sullivan would flirt with the head coaching job at LSU (seriously), but when TCU wouldn't let him out of his contract, he stayed on--and sulked through three more seasons, finally bottoming out with a 1-10 disaster in 1997. The cloud over TCU was as dark as ever.

In the meantime, of course, two conferences--the eight-decade-old Southwest Conference and the old 16-team WAC, left TCU "behind." (The SWC famously broke up altogether in 1994.) Our sordid conference history over the last decade is a massive storyline in TCU football, but it's so complex and such an emotional subject that I'm not going to touch it here. Needless to say, getting dumped by the SWC and WAC into the smaller WAC in the space of just a few years only darkened our cloud. In fact, it dropped us into a thick fog of doubt--on the occasion of both conference implosions, there was serious talk of TCU dropping Division 1-A football. Fortunately nothing came of that. Subsequent inclusion in Conference USA and the Mountain West Conference (our current conference, of course) would help roll our cloud away, but all of that came later.

Despite his ultimate failure, Sullivan did do one incredibly important thing as coach. He recruited a little-known and little-wanted running back from Waco named LaDainian Tomlinson. LaDainian, still "Football Jesus" to me, would save our program. Dennis Franchione took over as coach in 1998 and led TCU to another bowl appearance--this one in the Sun Bowl vs. a down USC program. We were massive underdogs--one pundit said it would take an "act of God" for TCU to win the game. Well, the "C" in TCU must have finally done us some good that day, because we did win, 28-19, behind the running of Basil Mitchell and Tomlinson. Our fortunes had finally begun to turn.

In 2000, Tomlinson's senior season, TCU took an undefeated record and a top-10 BCS ranking into November. We had beaten Northwestern, the Big 10 co-champion, badly, and we had clobbered just about everybody else on our schedule. Tomlinson was running crazy, leading the nation in rushing. All we had to do was go to San Jose State--a team we had beaten 56-0 the year before--get a win, come home and beat UTEP, and we'd be in...the Fiesta Bowl. Undefeated. Finally. What happened that night in San Jose, I still can't rationally discuss. It's still one of the lowest points in my life, period. Long story short, we went to a minor bowl and lost--and Fran bolted for Alabama, insulting TCU and Tomlinson in the process.

But Tomlinson had done enough to make TCU relevant again--he was a Heisman finalist and a top-five draft pick--and Fran's defensive coordinator, Gary Patterson, would take over from there. Coach Patterson, after a rough 2001 season, would lead TCU to an unprecedented run of success, replete with bowl wins, double-digit win seasons and high national rankings. In 2008, we finished No. 7 in the nation with an 11-2 record. But perfection eluded us. Until this season.

Win or lose, I'm going to enjoy the Fiesta Bowl. But let me say this--if we win and go 13-0, it absolutely will erase the pain of 25 years frustration (for me--and many more for older fans) and replace memories of failure and futility with visions of glory. Yes, one game can do that. One game will if we win it, which we honestly should. TCU has been home to Sammy Baugh, Heisman winner Davey O'Brien, Jim Swink, Bob Lilly, Kenneth Davis, LaDainian Tomlinson and many more legendary players. Those among them who remain with us deserve to support a football program that lives up to its famous--if distant--legacy.

We (and I do very strongly mean "we," as TCU has only 9000 or so students and about 60,000 living alumni) are not just playing for perfection in Arizona in January. We're playing for history, for notoriety and, perhaps more than anything else, for redemption. The dark cloud is gone; the sun will be shining--hopefully literally--on TCU in 2010. It has been a long, painful, frustrating and yet sometimes so incredibly joyful journey, and now we're here. We've seen a lot of other programs rise and fall since our last era of greatness, and I've never enjoyed anything in sports more than seeing us rise again. Almost every other bowl game this season is just a prelude to our clash in the desert. It's great to finally be the headliner.

We'll see you on Jan. 4 in Glendale. GO FROGS!

Sunday, December 20, 2009


So, my 36th birthday has come and gone--way gone, now that it's well past 2 am on Dec. 21. All month, people have asked whether Dec. 20, 2009, would be a "landmark" birthday for me--they probably thought I was turning 40. Well, most people wouldn't think of 36 as a landmark. But I do.

I think of every birthday as a landmark birthday. This year, I learned the hard way what I already knew but never liked to think about: Not everybody makes it to 36. To my memory--and it did happen before I was born--my uncle died of a heart attack at 36. And then there was Derek, whose death is still completely incomprehensible to me and hasn't yet become real in my mind. He didn't make it to my current age. I miss him terribly.

Lots of people don't get 36 years on this celestial orb, of course, but I did--and I'm hoping to have quite a few more. I can't believe how blessed I am. I have a beautiful wife, amazing friends and a fantastic place to live. I have a steady job in a time of great uncertainty for many workers, and I have family that loves me and parents and in-laws who are there for me when I need them. I have three nieces and two nephews and another nephew on the way, and they couldn't possibly bring me more joy.

My Facebook page--which I've largely been ignoring lately (sorry, Facebook friends)--was full of birthday wishes today. I was overwhelmed, really. There's an old hymn that we used to sing in church when I was a kid that had a memorable refrain: "Count your many blessings; name them one by one." Well, I can't count that high (and that's not just because I'm bad at math, which I am). I'm blessed beyond anything I can comprehend.

It snowed on my birthday again this year, and I didn't mind. Late last night, my lovely wife and I turned out all the lights in the apartment and opened the blinds to watch the snow fall. It might sound like some schlocky script from a bad holiday TV commercial, but it was a genuinely touching moment. Rare are the times when I stop watching TV, surfing the Web or (these days) playing Wii long enough to really count my blessings, or at least think about them. I should do it more often. I've had more than my share in the last 36 years. So, here's to another landmark birthday, and I offer my sincere thanks and love to everybody who helped me get here.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Time Life Music

These things just aren't fair. They're such sweet torture that I can't resist them. I absolutely adore the late-night Time Life Music commercials for CD compilations. I can watch them over and over and over again (and I did when I lived in Rotterdam--I could sing the snippets of the disco collection song-by-song without having to think about which song came next).

Right now, I'm in grave danger of purchasing "Romancing the 70s," a set of CDs containing some of the most spectacularly schmaltzy love songs ever recorded. All of these songs remind me of my young childhood, of AM radio, of earth-tone color schemes, pickup trucks, shag carpet, massive collars, medallions resting on sweaty chest hair, colossal sideburns and something we don't get all that much of anymore--sincerity in music, even if it was sickly sweet sincerity covered in treacle and topped with a dollop of Cool Whip. Who could resist Olivia Newton John whispering, "I honestly love you" or Kenny Rogers belting out "She Believes in Me?" And then there's Roberta Flack sitting at the piano and hauntingly cooing "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." It's just too much. Throw in some Leo Sayer, Gilbert O'Sullivan and Lobo, and I'm literally captivated. I can't live without it!

Of course, I've never actually bought one of these things, and I won't tonight, either. But some of these songs will stick in my head, and I'll end up going on an iTunes run to find maybe eight or 10 of them. Oh, singer-songwriters of the '70s, why did you have to be so captivating? And Time Life, why do you have to bring together in one collection all the songs I could never hope to find on my own? Capitalism, you mock me--and yet I keep coming back to you because you're just so darn compelling. Of course, I've never spent a dime on anything Time Life Music, so I guess I'm winning this battle. For now.

Sunday, December 6, 2009


My lovely wife and I are going to the Fiesta Bowl. We made our final arrangements tonight. My Frogs are 12-0 and have the chance to finish with a perfect record, something they haven't done for 71 years. I'm not going to miss that, even if TCU won't have a shot at a "big-name" opponent. Besides, Arizona in January sounds...nice.

We'll see you in Scottsdale for the party and in Glendale for the game. GO FROGS!!

Euphoria to Heartbreak

No disrespect intended to Boise State--and Bronco fans surely must feel this way, too--but matching the only two teams from non-automatic qualifying conferences is an obvious ploy by the BCS powers that be to spare the embarrassment of having another big-name school go down to an "outsider" in a major bowl game. We got screwed. Boise got screwed. The system stinks.

College football is the most corrupt sport in the world. It makes the NBA and South American soccer look squeaky clean. I can't believe that the unprecedented excitement of 12-0, that 25 years of waiting for perfection, has turned into bitterness and anger. The players looked disappointed on TV tonight, as well they should...after all, we did just beat Boise in a bowl game last season.

Nevertheless, I'm making plans to be in Arizona in early January. It's still the chance of a lifetime to see TCU in a major bowl.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Seven Points in Three Games

That's what it came down to tonight. TCU had an infinitesimally slim chance of playing in the national championship game going into today's college football action. We needed Pitt to beat Cincinnati, Clemson to beat Georgia Tech and (especially) Nebraska to beat Texas. It was unlikely, nearly impossible...and then...

The games got close. And they stayed close. Cincy pulled out a one-point comeback win at Pitt--bad for us because because it might let Cincy jump us in the BCS standings (right now, we're at four and Cincy's at five). But it was just a one-point win over a Pitt team that faded at the end of the season. It might not have impressed poll voters that much. So, we still had hope at mid-day.

Following Florida's big loss to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game--arguably a good thing for us, as it'll surely knock Florida out of the BCS top two--tonight brought Nebraska-Texas and GT-Clemson. GT-Clemson wasn't really critical to us; it just would have helped for Clemson to win the ACC Championship Game because we beat Clemson in South Carolina earlier this season. Long story short, Clemson led by one point late in the game but ended up losing by five. Not a good result for us but not a deal-breaker, either.

And then there was the Big 12 Championship Game between Texas and Nebraska. A highly unlikely Nebraska win (the Cornhuskers entered the game as two-touchdown underdogs) could very well have vaulted us into the BCS top two--over Florida and Texas, assuming Cincy didn't jump us--and into the BCS National Championship Game in Pasadena in January. I don't even have words for how I would have felt had that happened. Unfortunately, I don't need them now, either.

I expected--everybody expected--Texas to crush Nebraska. But the Huskers kept the game close...and kept it close...and then finally took the lead by two with 1:44 to play... ... ... ...only to lose on a (literally) last-second field goal. Crushing. Incredible. And there's nothing we could do about it.

Seven total points in three different games--Cincy by one, GT by five and, most painfully, Texas by one--"doomed" TCU to a mere BCS bowl. Honestly, I'm still thrilled that we'll be in a major bowl game, our first for half a century. And I'll make it to the game and have fun no matter what. We're still 12-0. This was still a magical season.

But I feel as though this TCU team could play with anybody in the country--even Alabama and Texas--and we won't get the chance. It's funny how I've gone from euphoria to frustration without TCU losing a game. College football is a stupid sport--it has the worst and most convoluted process for determining a champion in all of sports. Today, we got stung by that process.

Hopefully we'll be able to prove ourselves in a BCS bowl and start high in the polls next season. I'm still excited about going to a bowl in January for the first time in my lifetime--but I'm also frustrated and drained. Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be sports fans...

A Bit Early, but That's OK

Today is the day we celebrate the birthdays of my sister-in-law and her daughter, my middle niece. Given that I also have a December birthday, my wife's family has decided to include me in the celebration. The family is doing this despite my mild protests--I'm a bit superstitious about birthdays (dumb, I know), and don't like to celebrate them until they actually arrive. Mine is on the 20th.

Anyway, the best thing about this early birthday celebration is the spectacular cake my lovely wife made for it:
Yes, that's the famous "flying T," the logo the TCU Horned Frogs wore from the late-'70s until 1992 (my freshman year at TCU, oddly enough), when the current "arched TCU" logo came into fashion. The flying T doesn't exactly bring back memories of TCU's most successful years (the football team was mostly a real loser during that time), but it is the logo of the Jim Wacker-coached teams I fell in love with in the mid-'80s, particularly in 1984. That's when Kenneth Davis and the smash-mouth, "TCUnbelieeeeeeeeeeeeevable" Frogs were shocking the Southwest Conference on their way to their first bowl appearance in almost two decades. (We won't talk, of course, about what happened after that because we're all about happy memories today.)

I'm still very nostalgic about the flying T, of course, and I still love the way it looks. TCU won the last game in which it sported the flying T with a Matt Vogler-to-Stephen Shipley touchdown pass in the dying seconds of a wind-swept game at Amon Carter Stadium to beat Houston 49-45. TCU went 7-4 that year, and although we missed a bowl game (there were a lot fewer of them back then), the Houston win was a great way to cap the Wacker era and send the flying T off with a victory.

Of course, the TCU football program is better now than it has ever been, arguably (with due respect to the team that was the nation's winningest in the 1930s), and I wouldn't trade today's success for anything. But I do like to remember who we were, where we came from and what we went through as fans and as an institution to get where we are today. So, for my 15-day-early birthday celebration, I salute the flying T, and I will surely enjoy devouring it, too.

Friday, December 4, 2009

NPR Loves the Frogs

Well, who wouldn't?

Seriously, though, I'm thrilled and amazed by this very good NPR report on TCU football. Just one note for the reporter: If you're reporting from Fort Worth (which you are), please don't sign off by saying "Dallas." We don't want anybody confusing Fort Worth with its inferior neighbor to the east. (Yes, I made the same comment on the NPR Web site. I feel very strongly about this.)

Other than that, it's a great listen.