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TCU's march through realignment wilderness finally comes to end

"This has nothing to do with tradition. It's business." -- TCU athletic director Frank Windegger to USA Today in February 1994

FORT WORTH, Texas -- People at TCU still stew about getting abandoned by Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor, but Dick Lowe doesn't understand why. Lowe, who played offensive guard for Dutch Meyer from 1947-50 before going into the oil business, believes the Horned Frogs deserved to get left behind along with Houston, Rice and SMU in 1994 when the other members of the Southwest Conference decided to merge with the Big Eight and become the Big 12.

"It hurt a lot, but I think a lot of people took it wrong," said Lowe, a longtime TCU megabooster. "We deserved to be kicked out. We weren't carrying our end of the load. Most people thought we got screwed. I thought we screwed ourselves."

That abandonment set the Horned Frogs on an extraordinary journey through the conference landscape of college athletics. After spending 72 years in the SWC -- considered one of the nation's elite leagues for most of that time -- TCU would either join or announce its intention to join five different conferences. In October 2011, while planning to enter yet another league, the Horned Frogs finally got the invitation they had pined for since 1994. When the clock struck midnight on July 1, TCU finally became a member of the Big 12. Its long walk through the hinterlands had finally come to an end.

To understand why current TCU athletic director Chris Del Conte called Saturday night "New Year's Eve for the Frogs," trace TCU's path. It runs from the 16-team iteration of the WAC to Conference USA to the Mountain West -- with a brief stop in the Big East. The Horned Frogs wandered for a long time to get back to their old neighborhood.

Lowe, who has made and lost several fortunes during his career as "a treasure hunter," understands his school's long climb back better than anyone. TCU never intended to be cast aside, but as Lowe said, the Horned Frogs should have seen their abandonment coming. In 1993, TCU averaged a little more than 26,000 fans. Given the quality of the team, it was more accurate to say Amon G. Carter Stadium was half-empty. From 1985-93, the Frogs went 37-61-1. As realignment swirled in the early '90s, TCU seemed likely to get left behind. Frogs athletic director Frank Windegger would later tell the Houston Chronicle that the seeds of all that realignment were planted by the Supreme Court ruling in 1984 that allowed schools to break free of the NCAA's control over television rights fees. The man who led the charge to give conferences the right to negotiate their own TV deals? Chuck Neinas, then the head of the College Football Association. Remember him, because he'll be back much later in this story.

The more immediate reasons for the breakup of the SWC were the departure of Arkansas to the SEC after the 1991 football season and a dramatic shift of the conference landscape in the early '90s thanks to even more television revenue shockwaves. (Any of this sound familiar?) Notre Dame left the CFA -- an assortment of leagues and schools that negotiated their rights fees as a bloc -- in 1991 to sign its own deal with NBC. Then, in December 1993, Fox outbid CBS for the rights to the NFL's NFC games. That left CBS flush with cash and in need of sports programming. When CBS bought rights to SEC and Big East football games in February 1994, the CFA was all but dead. Before the month ended, the SWC's epitaph had also been written.

With all eight members in Texas, the SWC had a limited footprint and wasn't attractive to television executives. Plus, the taint of scandal and poor attendance made several schools unappealing to other leagues. SMU's football program had received the NCAA's Death Penalty and had not recovered. TCU had suffered through its own player-buying scandal in 1985. Lowe admitted he had paid players and took all the heat for what was actually a much larger slush fund operation. Meanwhile, professional sports franchises had taken root in the Metroplex and in Houston, further eroding interest in football at TCU, SMU, Houston and Rice.

When the SWC fell apart, the WAC scooped up TCU, SMU and Rice as part of a massive expansion to 16 schools. The league began play in 1996 using a confusing quad system that split its members into four four-team divisions. TCU joined SMU, Rice and Tulsa in the division known as Y'all Corner. While fellow WAC member BYU hit the glass ceiling put in place by the Bowl Alliance -- a precursor to the BCS -- in 1996, TCU slogged through another forgettable season. In 1997, the Horned Frogs won only one game for outgoing coach Pat Sullivan, but that 21-18 victory against SMU hurt the league by knocking the Mustangs out of bowl contention.

In December 1997, TCU athletic director Eric Hyman -- who left the AD post at South Carolina last week to take over at Texas A&M -- made the first of two critical football coaching hires. To replace Sullivan, Hyman tapped Dennis Franchione from New Mexico. Franchione had revitalized the Lobos, and he saw no reason he couldn't do the same thing at TCU. "I don't know why this program cannot be competitive on the highest level year-in and year-out," Franchione told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "I'm not saying we're going to win the conference every year, but this school and this university with its academic structure and recruiting base can certainly be competitive for division titles. I feel like the bad years aren't going to be 1-10. The bad years will be 6-5."

At the same time, another power shift in college football was about to change all of college athletics. The 1998 season was the first for the Bowl Championship Series, and the six automatic qualifying conferences (the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-10 and SEC) were the envy of college athletics. Every program outside one of those leagues aspired to join one. "The unintended consequences when they created the BCS were the haves and the have-nots. ... Those things created a divide that had never been part of college athletics," said Del Conte, who was the athletic director at Rice before he came to TCU in 2009. "Once that happened, it was important for [TCU] to be associated with a league that had automatic access. That was the goal. That was what was defining the institution."

First, the Frogs had to win on the football field. Fortunately, by his standards, Franchione didn't have any bad years. In his first season in 1998, he went 7-5 and led TCU to a Sun Bowl win against USC to notch the Horned Frogs' first postseason victory since the 1956 Cotton Bowl. It helped that Franchione inherited a versatile tailback named Ladainian Tomlinson. In 1999 and 2000, Tomlinson led the nation in rushing. TCU won a share of the WAC title in both seasons. This would be a common refrain. No matter where TCU went, it finished atop the league at least once. The only conference in which TCU didn't take at least a share of a title was the Big East, and that was because it never actually played a game in the league.

When they won those WAC titles, the Frogs were lame-duck members of the conference. A chunk of the league had broken away to form the Mountain West, but TCU wasn't invited and would need to make one more stop before it re-joined those schools. On Oct. 11, 1999, Hyman stood on the second hole at a golf fundraiser when his cell phone rang. On the other line was then-Conference USA commissioner Mike Slive, offering a spot in the league beginning in 2001. The Frogs, who had begun to spend money to upgrade facilities, were moving into a slightly better neighborhood.

As the Frogs wrapped their final season in the WAC in 2000, they learned they would have to enter Conference USA without Franchione, who left TCU for Alabama to replace Mike DuBose. Hyman, who had landed Franchione in his first week on the job, would have to make another inspired hire. As Hyman interviewed a list of candidates that included Iowa State's Dan McCarney, Ohio's Jim Grobe and Middle Tennessee State's Andy McCollum, Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Gil Lebreton made a prediction:

"There are Frogs fans, I must report, who cling to the dream that after another two or three more winning football seasons, the Big 12 Conference -- or some other college football heavyweight -- will come knocking on the TCU door.

"They're dreaming. But this is the kind of public perception that Hyman will have to battle.

"Oh, I wish there was a bright up-and-coming coaching star that I could hang in the TCU sky today. But I don't see one."

That star, the coach who would lead TCU to enough winning seasons to earn a golden ticket to the Big 12, was already on TCU's staff. After all those interviews, Hyman elected to promote Horned Frogs defensive coordinator Gary Patterson. There wasn't anything sexy about the classic rock-loving, defense-first Patterson, but TCU didn't need sexy. It just needed to keep winning, and Patterson would do just that. "Gary built it all," Lowe said. "I mean the whole damn thing. If he hadn't have been who he is and what he is, I wouldn't have given them a thing."

That first season, Patterson was stunned to learn that the limited success TCU had under Franchione had warped the players' minds. He remembers a player in 2001 saying, "I thought it would always be like that" as TCU muddled through a 6-6 season. That taught Patterson that handling success was even more difficult than handling failure, and he pledged that if he could get the Frogs winning again, he would stay vigilant against complacency.

The wins came quickly. Patterson went 10-2 and TCU won a share of the C-USA title in his second season, and the Frogs followed that by going 11-2 in 2003. But by January 2004, they had scheduled another move. The Mountain West, which had once shunned TCU, offered the Frogs a new home. That became a necessity after the Big East raided Conference USA to replace schools lost to the ACC. When his school accepted the bid to the Mountain West, TCU chancellor Victor Boschini -- who remains in that position today -- said something quite prescient. "Winning is what matters," Boschini told the Star-Telegram. "I don't think it matters which division or league you are in. If you win, you'll gain national exposure."

That year, Utah won the Mountain West title and became the first program from a non-AQ league to play in a BCS bowl. TCU floundered through a 5-6 rebuilding year in its final C-USA season, but it would roar into the Mountain West in 2005 and begin proving Boschini's prediction correct. The Frogs went 11-1 and won the Mountain West in their first year in the league. TCU and Utah traded blows atop the league, but in 2008, TCU began a four-season run in which it went 47-5, won three Mountain West titles, earned two BCS bowl berths and struck a major blow for the "have-nots" by beating Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 2011.

The winning went hand-in-hand with the construction at TCU's football facilities. When Del Conte took the job in 2009, Boschini and the Board of Trustees charged him with two tasks: getting TCU into a BCS AQ league and raising the money to rebuild Amon G. Carter Stadium into a state-of-the-art facility. There was only one catch. They would have to raise the money in cash. "Our money model had to be different," Patterson said. "They wouldn't let us bond it. They didn't let us borrow it."

While Patterson is one of TCU's best fundraisers, he isn't especially adept at actually asking for the money. Lowe remembers asking Patterson what he needed once, and all Patterson requested was a revamped academic center for his players closer to the coaches' offices. Eventually, Lowe drew out several more requests. Del Conte does not have any such qualms. After learning of the drive to raise money for the stadium, Lowe and business partner Hunter Enis decided to pledge $5 million. Del Conte pressed for more. "I've got to have 15," Lowe remembered Del Conte saying. So Lowe and Enis, impressed with Patterson's program and Del Conte's moxie, ponied up $15 million to buy one of the six "Founders Suites" that provided the seed money for what eventually became a $164 million project. That money also will provide the Frogs with a new weight room, training room and locker room. "They've bought in that we're part of them," Patterson said of the donors who made the stadium possible. "We're not just over here trying to get wins and losses."

They raised the money and rebuilt the stadium with the idea that when the Frogs opened the new version -- a quaint 50,000-seater that Del Conte said will have the same effect on college football stadiums that Oriole Park at Camden Yards had on baseball stadiums -- they would do it as a member of a BCS AQ league. For much of the construction, though, they thought they would join a different AQ league. As TCU blazed through its 2010 schedule en route to its second consecutive at-large berth in a BCS bowl, the Frogs finally got the AQ call. The Big East wanted TCU as its 17th all-sports member and ninth football member, and the Frogs accepted the invitation on Nov. 30, 2010.

The celebration didn't last long, though. First, TCU seemed an odd fit for a league mostly based on the eastern seaboard. Second, the Big East was financially the weakest of the AQ leagues, and it seemed the most vulnerable to pillaging in another round of realignment. Del Conte and his coaches prepared to enter the Big East, but as they did, forces would conspire to ensure TCU never played a game as a Big East member.

In July 2011, Texas A&M's regents met to discuss the long-term impact of the all-Texas-all-the-time Longhorn Network. An ESPN official had recently given a radio interview during which he had essentially said the network would broadcast the high school games of the Longhorns' recruiting targets. For the Aggies, who considered going to the Pac-10 (with Texas) and the SEC (without Texas) in 2010, this was too much to bear. While the Big 12 made rules to stymie the Longhorn Network's plans, they came too late. Texas A&M's regents had decided that if the SEC still wanted the Aggies, the Aggies would leave the Big 12. The courtship ritual shouldn't have taken long, but Big 12 members -- terrified a third departure in 13 months would splinter the league for good -- worked to slow the deal. Baylor president Ken Starr threatened a lawsuit against the SEC if it swiped A&M.

It took until early September for the SEC to invite Texas A&M, but that invitation hinged on whether the Big 12 members threatening legal action would stand down. Meanwhile, ACC commissioner John Swofford had worked to strengthen his own league. On Sept. 19, Syracuse and Pittsburgh announced their intention to leave the Big East and join the ACC. This further weakened the Big East, and the Frogs had to wonder if they had signed up for another Mountain West. Still, the Big East had the AQ berth. That was the difference. Unfortunately for the league, conference commissioners had already begun work on a plan to eliminate AQ status in the next round of BCS negotiations. The plan had the support of the wealthiest leagues, which wanted to get more than two teams into big-money bowls, and the poorest leagues, which didn't want competitively weak conference champions taking spots from competitively strong ones just because of a contractual bond. By the 2014 season, the concept of AQ status would be dead, and TCU still wouldn't be in a nationally prestigious football league.

On Sept. 25, Texas A&M and the SEC cleared their legal hurdles and announced a deal. Texas A&M's exit from the Big 12 had left a crack in the league that provided TCU with a sliver of hope. Because the Big 12's revamped TV deals required 10 schools, the league had to replace Texas A&M. TCU seemed the logical choice, but the old fears lingered. Would Texas, Texas Tech and Baylor want to raise TCU to their prestige level and give recruits in the Metroplex a nearby Big 12 option? That seemed counterproductive. Del Conte knew the Big 12 presidents would discuss TCU's viability as a member, but he didn't know exactly when. Then, at 7:42 on the morning of Oct. 6, Del Conte was backing out of his driveway when the phone rang. On the other end of the line was interim Big 12 commissioner Chuck Neinas. The man who set the events into motion that ultimately helped cast TCU into conference limbo had good news. The Big 12 wanted TCU. Del Conte pulled back into his driveway and spent several minutes collecting himself.

A few days later, Neinas made the short drive from Big 12 headquarters to Fort Worth to make TCU's addition official. During a press conference, Neinas addressed Boschini. "Chancellor, TCU has traveled a long path, been to different places," Neinas said. "Sir, I'd like to welcome you home."

Moving day didn't officially come until this week. As Saturday bled into Sunday, the Frogs finally stepped across the threshold. It isn't their old home, but the neighborhood feels the same -- even if it has grown a bit bigger and more opulent. As he savored his first moments as a Big 12 athletic director, Del Conte thought back to the October day when he got the call from Neinas. "They put so much hard work and tears into this journey," Del Conte said of the Frogs. "For them to be rewarded... Outside of my children being born and my wife saying yes, that is up there with one of my best days."

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