DALLAS – For a while there, it seemed as if Texas Christian University should have considered a name change. Instead of TCU, it should have been LBU: “Left Behind University.”
New, lucrative athletic leagues kept popping up in the 1990s and 2000s, but the Horned Frogs weren't considered. They were consistent castoffs, scraps left behind to be taken in by whichever conference would accept them.
They went through the ill-conceived 16-team “super” WAC, the depleted eight-team WAC, Conference-USA and the Mountain West before finally accepting an invite in December to join the Big East.
A Texas school in the Big East? It was clunky, but it at least got TCU in a BCS league. It was an improvement from LBU status.
But the real breakthrough came Thursday, when the beleaguered Big 12 Conference extended an invitation. Even if a weird string of circumstances made it possible, the Horned Frogs are being included, at long last. And in a geographically sensible conference.
TCU's acceptance is imminent. A celebration is on the horizon for the west end of the Metroplex.
“It's a good deal for the long-suffering Horned Frogs,” said well-known author and sports writer Dan Jenkins, a TCU alum, fan and unofficial historian. “Feels like they've been in jail for 15 years and now they're out.”
The decision also has to be considered a positive for the Big 12, which is again, for now, at 10 teams. The league had only gone in reverse since Nebraska left in June 2010, losing Colorado soon afterward and then Texas A&M in the past few weeks. Missouri could still leave for the SEC, though that conference does not seem all that eager to extend its footprint to the northwest.
Thursday's decisions in mind – in addition to TCU, the league's presidents also approved measures to protect the conference from future defections - the Big 12 has vowed to proceed.
“We'll be fine either way,” Oklahoma president David Boren said Wednesday, referring to Missouri.
Pending TCU's acceptance, this would be the first time for the Big 12 to get closer to, well, 12. And it's a popular addition, at least as far as Oklahoma is concerned.
“They were the No. 1 choice,” Boren told The Oklahoman on Thursday. “It's a very popular choice with Oklahoma because obviously we like exposure in Texas and we lost A&M, so we like having another Texas school there for the exposure.
“We're very happy with that.”
So is TCU.
It went 1-10 in 1997 and morale could not have been lower. Even the university's high-ranking officials were not inclined to wear purple, TCU's principal color, to sporting events.
“The school had no self-esteem,” said South Carolina athletic director Eric Hyman, who held the same role at TCU from 1997-2005. “TCU wasn't a household name in Fort Worth.”
Something had to be done. That something was “Operation Leapfrog,” a study and report demonstrating the correlation between athletic and institutional growth.
Provost William Koehler and key trustee Malcolm Louden kicked the idea of commitment into gear. Hyman said those two gentlemen, both retired now, deserve a large share of credit for Thursday's victory. It was their vision and support, primarily.
A 1998 Sun Bowl victory against Southern California worked as gratification. LaDainian Tomlinson's success as a runner – he became only the third TCU player to have his number retired, joining quarterbacks “Slingin'” Sammy Baugh and Davey O'Brien – elevated the program even more.
Football coach Gary Patterson took it the rest of the way, arriving in 2000 and instilling toughness and a consistent approach driven by defense.
The on-field rise felt complete as 2011 began. The Frogs reached the Rose Bowl and defeated Wisconsin. Hyman said he had tears in his eyes as he watched, knowing what the journey through the college football wilderness had been like.
Always a strong academic school, now TCU had athletics to bolster its reputation. The fruits of that are seen on campus, where Amon G. Carter Stadium is getting a significant million face-lift.
Included in the additions? Six field-level suites available for the modest price of $15 million each. The school says it has raised $143 million for the project.
No one has a problem wearing purple anymore, to be sure.
“Now TCU is a household name nationally,” Hyman said.
The phone began ringing early Thursday morning at the school's ticket office. Fans weren't sure what to make of the move to the Big East. It would have been tough to get to Piscataway, N.J., and Tampa, Fla.
Norman and Austin? Doable. With joy.
“This was a matter of hard work to get in position,” Hyman said, “and luck. It all came together. It's a proud day for that program.”