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May 31, 2011

TCU eyes another storybook season

In a long and distinguished journalism career, famed sports writer and college football historian Dan Jenkins has written award-winning articles, insightful columns and books that were made into motion pictures.

He'd also written off his beloved TCU football team.

A Fort Worth native, TCU alum and Horned Frogs football fan since the days of "Slingin'" Sammy Baugh, Jenkins was a first-hand witness to TCU's fall from power to pauper.

When Jenkins was 9, the Horned Frogs won the 1938 national championship, but by the 1960s and '70s, they were punching bags in the old Southwest Conference. The Frogs won a share of the SWC title in 1959 and didn't win another until 1994 -- and that was part of a five-team tie and only because unbeaten Texas A&M was on probation and ineligible for the championship. TCU went 41 years (1959-2000) between appearances in the final AP rankings.

There were NCAA sanctions in 1985, and when the SWC disbanded, TCU was left out of the Big 12. In the following years, TCU would bounce from the WAC to Conference USA to the Mountain West Conference.

Even die-hard fans such as Jenkins, now 81, doubted TCU ever again would be among the nation's elite.

Yet TCU has had three consecutive top-10 finishes, including last season's perfect record that included a Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin and a final No. 2 ranking. TCU again has become a national championship contender.

"Did I ever think I'd see it? Of course not," Jenkins says. "Now, I've got memories to go with Sam Baugh and Davey O'Brien. I hope it ain't all over."

It shouldn't be over. TCU no longer is a rising program, no longer a nice mid-major story. Instead, it's a powerhouse. Each season programs such as Alabama, Oklahoma and Ohio State lose star players but replace them and continue to thrive. TCU resides at that level now, too. The Frogs have won at least 11 games in five of the past six seasons.

The purple masses might even boast that the Frogs are just getting revved up. After this season, they're leaving the Mountain West for the Big East Conference, an automatic qualifier in the BCS system, which will give the Horned Frogs a legitimate chance to contend for the national championship.

That goal is the reason coach Gary Patterson remains in Fort Worth. His record in 11 seasons at TCU is a remarkable 98-28. Perhaps even more remarkable is he's resisted temptations to leave for a "higher-profile program."

"One of the reasons I've stayed here is to do something a lot of people think couldn't be done," Patterson says. "We want to win a national championship. We've got a great foundation and we're building new facilities. We've just got to keep climbing that mountain."

Patterson isn't the first coach who thought TCU could reach such heights. In 1992, then-coach Pat Sullivan told Texas media he thought TCU had the potential to be a powerhouse, much like then-defending national champion Miami. Both are private schools in areas dominated by pro sports, but both also are located in states teeming with elite high school football players.

Sullivan's point: If Miami, once a struggling program, could rise to national prominence, why couldn't TCU?

The idea raised eyebrows and snickers, but nobody who pays attention to college football should be laughing now.

TCU struggled in six seasons under Sullivan, but it made giant strides in three seasons under Dennis Franchione. The climb to prominence began in earnest when Patterson took over in 2001.

"Patterson deserves most of the credit for bringing the Frogs back among the living," Jenkins says. "He's the best defensive coach in America -- the stats back this up -- and the Rose Bowl invite and win was the jewel in the crown. He recruits speed and knows how to use it.

"The administration is right behind him. If a school doesn't have a board of trustees that likes football, forget it. TCU does."

In January, Patterson was awarded with a new contract that extends through 2018.

"He has done a remarkable job in energizing a campus and community around his program and TCU as a whole," TCU athletic director Chris Del Conte said then. "To see a sea of purple in the stands at the Rose Bowl is a testament to what Gary and his staff have accomplished."

Under Patterson's supervision, TCU has progressed to a point that a case could be made that, right now, it's the strongest program in Texas, which has 10 FBS teams and two more (Texas-San Antonio and Texas State) on the way.

Over the past six seasons, TCU has 66 victories -- more than any other program in Texas. The Frogs have finished ranked among the top 10 in each of the past three seasons, including last season's second-place finish.

Don't dismiss that success as a windfall of playing perceived weaker competition in the Mountain West Conference, either. In the past six seasons, TCU is 12-2 against opponents from Big Six conferences, including 6-2 against the Big 12, and is one of only two schools to beat Oklahoma in Norman.

Additionally, TCU had more players selected in April's NFL draft than any other program in the state. All 13 seniors on the 2009 team graduated, and 17 players who participated in last season's Rose Bowl victory already had their degrees and 10 more graduated earlier this month. It's been five years since a football player has been involved in a major off-field incident. The facilities are currently undergoing a $133 million renovation project, which will include Amon Carter Stadium, the weight room and the locker rooms.

All that would describe an elite program.

"TCU has certainly had the best program the last three years," Jenkins says. "But I have to admit that the University of Texas is still the most elite program, despite the Longhorns' dreadful season in 2010."

Texas had posted nine consecutive seasons with at least 10 wins, but without Colt McCoy -- who left Austin as the all-time winningest FBS starting quarterback -- the Longhorns slumped to 5-7 last season.

As Jenkins alluded to when saying he hoped it wasn't over, TCU has some concerns going into 2011, including the departure of quarterback Andy Dalton. But Patterson isn't stressing too much. He said the Frogs have a better situation at quarterback than five years ago, when Dalton took the reins as a redshirt freshman. Sophomore Casey Pachall, a dual threat who chose TCU over Notre Dame, Michigan and Florida, is expected to take over as the starting quarterback, though he's locked in a competition with redshirt freshman Matt Brown.

There are other prominent holes to fill, too, especially along the offensive line and in the secondary. But TCU has suffered heavy losses and bounced back strong before. Five players were drafted off the 2008 team that went 11-2, but the Frogs went 12-1 in '09. That season, they lost All-American defensive end Jerry Hughes, a first-round draft choice, and linebacker Darryl Washington, a second-round selection, but followed with the best season in school history.

Patterson is optimistic the Frogs can continue playing at a high level. Linebackers Tank Carder and Tanner Brock remain, and the defensive line could be better than it was a year ago. The offense features a deep and talented group of running backs headed by Ed Wesley, who rushed for 1,078 yards a year ago.

Plus, the players expect to win now -- but that can be a dangerous proposition. Texas coach Mack Brown complained last season about an aura of entitlement and complacency on his team, and Patterson must guard against that.

He's well-aware that since January, every time his players have gone anywhere, they've been praised and congratulated for winning the Rose Bowl and finishing unbeaten. He has warned them about complacency and reminded them that every year is a new year.

"We don't have the same team that won the Rose Bowl. We've got to move forward," Patterson says. "We've got good players. I'm making sure they don't forget the steps that took them where they need to go.

"What you really worry about is if they're still hungry."

That's typical coach-speak because you know what they say about going back to hamburgers after you've eaten steak. In fact, Jenkins probably has written about just that.

Olin Buchanan is a senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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