|TCU AD Chris Del Conte on moving to the Big 12: 'We are coming in on par with everybody else.' (Getty Images)|
Moving is not for the faint of heart. Whether down the street or across the country, it's not something most take lightly or enjoy doing.
For Texas Christian University though, moving is something that happens about as often as the Chicago Bears change quarterbacks. As good as LSU is at playing for the BCS title or USC is at grooming quarterbacks, the Horned Frogs have seemingly developed a knack for packing up and relocating.
They've been doing it, literally, from the beginning.
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The school's original campus was supposed to be located in downtown Fort Worth, but Addison and Randolph Clark -- fearing the seedy elements that had invaded the area -- eventually founded the school in Thorp Spring in 1873. Two decades later, they moved down the road to Waco.
A fire at the main administration building in 1910 set off yet another move for TCU. Looking to rebuild with help from the city, school officials ended up listening to civic leaders from across the state. Fort Worth offered $200,000 and 50 acres and that was that, TCU followed the money to their current home along University Avenue.
"We've been matriculating our way around," said athletic director Chris Del Conte. "We're like the Israelites. After 40 years, we're just finding our way."
Once the school itself finally established some roots in the early 20th century, the athletic department did the same and became a longtime member of the Southwest Conference, beginning in 1923. The Horned Frogs had a successful football program during their first few decades in the SWC under coach Dutch Meyer, capturing the national title in 1939 behind Heisman Trophy winner Davey O'Brien.
But success was often fleeting on the gridiron. Competing with heavyweights like Texas and Arkansas, TCU managed to win just one conference title after 1960. When the SWC broke up in 1996, the school was left behind and once again brought out the moving vans.
"People don’t understand where TCU came from and what we had to do in the last 16 years to get where we are right now," said coach Gary Patterson. "Hopefully we’ll never lose that edge of putting our back against the wall and being who we are supposed to be. It’s been an interesting ride."
Just like the roller coasters a few miles from campus at Six Flags, it was a ride that featured a significant drop before shooting to the top.
With facilities far behind others and lacking consistent football success, the Horned Frogs joined the far-flung Western Athletic Conference in 1996 after failing to secure a spot in the Big 12. They struggled to draw crowds to modest-sized Amon G. Carter Stadium, which hadn't been updated in three decades. After going 1-10 overall in their second year in the league, TCU fired coach Pat Sullivan. The small private school in a city known more for stockyards than stocky linemen had hit rock bottom.
"When the SWC went down and we weren't part of the conversation, you created a have and have-not in this state," Del Conte said. "TCU didn't blame anybody, we looked at ourselves. Every time you point a finger, there should be one pointing back at yourself. And that was the best thing to ever happen to us. It woke us up."
"We tell our kids all the time: you’re either getting better or you’re getting worse," Patterson said. "There is no such thing in the world as staying even."
An $11 million athletics complex was almost immediately completed next to the stadium and Dennis Franchione was hired to replace Sullivan. In his first season, Franchione upset USC in the Sun Bowl for the program's first bowl victory in 41 years. Walk the halls of the athletic department today and you'll see plenty of images from what many officials point to as the most important win in school history.
"The real catalyst was the rise of our football program," Del Conte said. "No doubt about it, it began and ends with our football program."
Other sports such as baseball began to take off as the school jumped from the WAC to Conference USA to the Mountain West. It wasn't moving around this time however, it was moving up. Bigger paychecks, more television exposure, tougher competition. Patterson took over for Franchione and continued the building process on the field, leading the Horned Frogs to eight 10-win seasons in the past decade.
With the success came much needed improvements to the infrastructure. Thanks to private donations, a $7 million indoor practice field nicer than what the Dallas Cowboys had was built on campus and named after legend Sammy Baugh. Amon G. Carter was expanded several times, most recently as part of a $164 million renovation that is rebuilding the north and west sides of the stadium and will be completed before next season.
"We decided to invest in ourselves," said Del Conte. "If we wanted to participate at the highest level, we had to dare to be great - both academically and athletically. It's going to an investment from all of us and not just in capital, but in sweat and tears."
Things paid off last season.
Sitting in the football offices is a pyramid-shaped goal board. After an undefeated year, a Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin and an invite to a BCS AQ conference, the Horned Frogs had filled in every space but one -- winning a national championship. Getting to a league like the Big East was supposed to remedy perceptions about who TCU played, allow easier access to BCS games and, hopefully, lead to a berth in the national title game. It wasn't a perfect situation having to fly to play schools like Connecticut and South Florida but they had reached the promised land.
Or so they thought.
"We were always honest with [Big East commissioner] John Marinatto," Del Conte said. "They're all great people and they gave us an opportunity. We had the full intention of getting ourselves in a BCS conference and put the program in a position to compete for a national championship.
"At the time, with Syracuse and Pitt, it was a great fit for us. The Dallas Cowboys are in the NFC East. The media would have been fantastic. But then they lost those two and Texas A&M and Missouri left. We told John, if something happens, we'd have to explore it. And they absolutely understood."
Caught between the Big East conference and a hard place, TCU was pressed for options with nowhere left to turn. The quick jump by schools to the ACC heightened questions about the league remaining an automatic qualifying conference and forced the Horned Frogs to look at options in case the situation resulted in something they didn't exactly sign up for. Even when the SEC announced that the Aggies would be joining the conference, TCU was rarely mentioned as a likely replacement.
"It was very strange, I'm not too sure there was ever a first inkling," Del Conte said of the possibility of changing conferences yet again. "[Marinatto] was caught so off guard by everyone else, we never had the conversation for him to be surprised about us. It was just like when we left the Mountain West, we told Craig Thompson that if this [Big East opportunity] happens, we will go. And he understood."
In emails obtained by CBSSports.com, several Big 12 schools mentioned BYU, Louisville and, among the in-state options, Houston as good targets to replace Texas A&M. Relationships between TCU board members and their counterparts at other conference schools played a part in changing opinions and allowed talks to take place before they could formally happen. But the departure of commissioner Dan Beebe slowed things down, with just one conversation between him and the school before Chuck Neinas was brought on to run things on an interim basis.
"What really brought the conversation around was when Mack Brown said conferences were meant to have rivalries and we need to stay right here," Del Conte said. "Oklahoma said the same thing, 'Why do we need to go to Pullman, Wash.?' This part of Americana is college football and the Big 12 has a very rich tradition."
Del Conte never felt that schools like Texas and Oklahoma resisted adding TCU -- as some have speculated -- and noted that conversations with athletic directors DeLoss Dodds and Joe Castiglione were very courteous and productive. Realizing that the biggest negative about the school is that it wouldn't add a television market, the pitch to other Big 12 members focused on what had gotten them in a position to be invited in the first place.
"It doesn't matter if you're in Nome, Alaska or Dallas, Texas, if you have a great football program, people want to watch you," said Del Conte. "I think the fruits of our labor are evident when you look at the ratings -- there's no one better."
All told, it took just a week from the initial conversation with the Big 12 to TCU's formal invitation being sent out. After paying a $5 million exit fee to the Big East, the Horned Frogs had managed to find the home they'd been looking for in the time between games against SMU and San Diego State.
"If you count the Big East, I've been a part of six conferences in 14 years. If there's one thing I'm sure of, it’s that there is change," Patterson said. "For us, it just presents a bigger challenge."
Though the week-in, week-out competition will no doubt be greater than what TCU has been accustomed to the past few years, they have proven they're up to the task. They went into Norman and captured a rare road win over Oklahoma in 2005 and had dominated Baylor as of late until this year's season-opening two-point loss to the Bears. Recruiting has picked up the past several years and Patterson has been winning battles against Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State among others. With new facilities in place and a team that could be a preseason top 10 in 2012, the Horned Frogs see no reason why they can't compete for the conference title in the near future.
"We're coming in with a different swagger. We're coming in with success. Can we compete? My expectations are that we will," Del Conte said. "We're coming in on par with everybody else."
Television revenue, at least temporarily, will be the only area where TCU will not be. The school will be phased into a full share over its first three years in the Big 12 but still expects to be making quite a bit more than it did in the Mountain West or would have in the Big East. With all the details outside of a schedule set, all that is left for the program is to show everybody why they were so deserving of an invite on the field.
"I have a ring box. You can tell people you went to 13 bowl games in 14 years but it doesn’t matter until you open up the ring box and you see 13 bowl rings," said Patterson. "Everybody has got to be showy. It’s a world of 'show me.' To me, it’s not bragging. It’s a lot of work."
For Del Conte and others, the effort that took them from stop to stop before arriving in the Big 12 rightfully shows that TCU has finally made it.
"We have a phenomenal university, it's beautiful, campus is fantastic, our chancellor has made huge investments in the institution," he said. "We're in a place where you're trying to convince a kid to make a 50-year decision not just a four-year one.
"To see the journey ... it has been a great ride."
One that has hopefully come to a stop.