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September 25, 2009

TCU looking to join nation's elite

FORT WORTH, Texas - The $7 million Sam Baugh indoor practice field, which opened two years ago, rivals similar structures anywhere. So does the spacious Four Sevens team meeting room. A plush players lounge and an academic center is located inside the $13.5 million Meyer-Martin Athletic Complex, which has numerous flat-screen TVs and a collage featuring former star players such as LaDainian Tomlinson adorning its walls.

The next step is a major renovation of 44,358-seat Amon G. Carter Stadium, which is planned in the near future.

"The alumni have been generous enough so we can do things, and not just in football," says Gary Patterson, TCU's bespectacled and respected coach. "We've got new facilities in football, baseball, basketball go down the list and things have gotten better. We've raised 75, 80 million dollars in the last 10 years."

OK, so maybe that's front-pocket money at Oklahoma State, which has cashed in more than $250 million in donations from T. Boone Pickens, college football's premier sugar daddy. But with its upgraded facilities, TCU now offers a competitive "wow" factor that has become fundamental in building an elite program.

The Horned Frogs already play elite competition. They've faced the likes of Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech in recent seasons. Saturday, they play at Clemson in a game that could have significant implications on eventual BCS matchups.

But that's kind of a sore subject around here.

BCS discussions in September make Patterson bristle. He doesn't want the Horned Frogs so focused on making a giant leap that they overlook the smaller steps it takes to reach their goal. It has happened too many times before.

BCS games are to TCU what the Promised Land was to Moses, what the white whale was to Ahab, what the Democratic nomination was to Hillary Clinton - tantalizingly close but inevitably out of reach.

TCU has 85 victories this decade. That's more wins than traditional powerhouses Tennessee, Alabama, Auburn, Penn State, Michigan, Nebraska, Florida State and Notre Dame. Yet, TCU holds the dubious distinction of being the winningest FBS program this decade not to appear in a BCS game.

That raises the question: Can a non-Big Six program be considered elite if it hasn't reached an elite bowl game?

Five times in the past seven seasons, the Horned Frogs have posted at least 10 victories. But they haven't had the perfect record that is an unwritten requirement for teams outside the Big Six conferences to reach a BCS game.

Utah (twice), Boise State and Hawaii have gone unbeaten and appeared in a BCS bowl. TCU inevitably has stumbled along the way, even losing to lowly SMU a week after upsetting Oklahoma in 2005. It was the Horned Frogs' only loss that season.

"That was heartbreaking," recalls senior cornerback Rafael Priest, who was a redshirt freshman in '05. "We were so high on ourselves. Then, the next week, we didn't prepare and fell short."

BCS bluster

Perhaps because of all the near-misses, Patterson claims he doesn't think about the BCS. He doesn't want his assistants or players thinking about it, either.

"I've never been one to talk about the BCS," he said at his news conference this week. "When people wanted to talk about the BCS at the beginning of the season, I said my job is just to win ballgames. Any coaches or players that let themselves think about the BCS are making a mistake. There are 12 games we've got to play and a lot of tough competition we've got to play.

"If we're playing well in November, we have a chance and people will talk about us. All I'm trying to do right now is beat a very good Clemson team by one point."

TCU is among the top 10 winningest teams this decade but is the only one of the top 10 not to appear in a BCS game. Here's a look at the list.
TeamRecordPct.BCS games
Boise State100-17.855One
Ohio State93-24.795Six
Virginia Tech91-30.7521Three
That might be sufficient for TCU to move to the front of the line of potential "BCS busters," and that's vital.

There has never been more than one "buster" in any season, and truthfully there probably never will. Therefore, having the best resume among non-automatic qualifiers is crucial, and beating power-conference teams is essential to building the best resume.

Utah beat three Big Six opponents in 2004 en route to the Fiesta Bowl and two last season on the way to the Sugar Bowl. Fiesta Bowl-bound Boise State defeated Oregon State in '06. Sugar Bowl-bound Hawaii beat Washington in '07.

"Our main goal is to do what we have to do and take it game by game," junior wide receiver Bart Johnson says. "To go out to Clemson and win that game would be huge for us, whether in the polls or the public eye. But we don't want to focus on that too much."

Boise State has beaten Oregon and Houston has beaten Oklahoma State, so a TCU victory over Clemson wouldn't necessarily be the "best" for a non-Big Six team. But if TCU finishes undefeated, that means it also will have beaten Mountain West Conference foes BYU and Utah, and that likely would give the Frogs more clout in the BCS standings than any other non-Big Six team.

"We're going to play hard. We don't need to put any more emphasis on the [Clemson] game than what it is," Patterson says. "We understand to be ranked and stay in the BCS hunt, we've got to win it.

"But for me, I want my team to get better. It's still about winning conference championships."

Well, not completely.

On the wall next to the door leading out of the Four Seven team meeting room is TCU's pyramid of goals. The pyramid is white, and as each goal is reached, it's shaded in purple. The goals at the top of the pyramid are "going to a BCS bowl game and winning" and "national championship."

A MWC championship wouldn't be sufficient. Only an undefeated season would give the Horned Frogs a chance.

"Of course, every college athlete wants to win a national championship," Priest says. "You make that a point of emphasis, but you have to take it one game at a time. You try not to pay attention to all the 'BCS buster' talk and all that, but we have no choice but to think about it.

"Still, you have a lot of other teams out there going through the same things we're going through. So, you're just trying to take it one game at a time and keep moving forward."

Looking back

You only need to look back a few years to see how far TCU has come.

TCU was a perennial loser in the old Southwest Conference, managing just one winning record in the 19 seasons between 1972 and '90. When Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor left the SWC to join the Big 12 in 1996, TCU was left to join the WAC and promptly went 1-10 under Pat Sullivan in '97.

Dennis Franchione took over in 1998, and with Tomlinson at running back, he led the Horned Frogs to three consecutive winning seasons. Franchione left for Alabama following a 10-2 finish in 2000, and Patterson was promoted from defensive coordinator to coach.

TCU posted double-digit victory totals in 2002, '03, '05, '06 and '08. The program has gotten so strong that an eight-win season in 2007 was considered a disappointment.

"I'm pretty sure they're still a great team this year," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney says. "They're always going to have a lot of success."

Maybe that's because they're always going to be in talent-rich Texas.

Texas, Oklahoma and others of that ilk still get the majority of the state's top-rated players, but there is a lot of talent in the next tier of players, too. Finding great players for TCU just requires looking a little harder; for instance, All-America defensive end Jerry Hughes was a running back in high school. TCU frequently finds undersized high school prospects and develops them into solid - or better - college players.

But other TCU coaches have had Texas as a recruiting base and failed. Patterson, who is in his ninth season as coach, says stability on his staff is a big key to the Horned Frogs' success. Seven assistants have been at TCU for at least five years.

"We have a relationship with the state's high school coaches by being here a long time," Patterson says. "They know if they send one of their players here, we're not only going to try to make him a good player but he'll get a degree. You don't do that on a short-term basis."

No doubt, the most surprising aspect of TCU's coaching stability is that Patterson still is coach. His name routinely surfaces as a candidate when higher-profile programs are in need of a coach, and last year he was rumored to be going to Kansas State, his alma mater, which eventually rehired Bill Snyder.

While TCU has an elite coach, becoming an elite program is dependent upon reaching a BCS game. That final step could come this season. But it won't come without a win at Clemson.

"We're happy to go on the East Coast and play in front of a new crowd and let people find out what TCU football is all about," Priest says. "If we come out of Clemson with a win, hopefully that will put us ahead in the [BCS] race.

"That's all we can hope for."

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