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!

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