If TCU wants the benefit of the doubt, Gary Patterson says, it must follow the path of the Oregon Ducks into the club of college football royalty.
The Horned Frogs are off to a good start, what with the multiple Nike uniform combos. A few more helmet designs might come in handy.
But really now it’s all about strengthening TCU’s national presence on college football’s big-boy stage, to make TCU roll off the tongue with the same familiar ring as Texas or OU. In today’s parlance, it’s called brand building.
Even with the playoff letdown, this season has served the cause better than anyone expected when camp commenced way back in August. It’s why athletic director Chris Del Conte extended Patterson’s contract on the same day TCU was eliminated from the playoff, and why he was practically bouncing off the walls Tuesday as he officially accepted the Peach Bowl invitation.
Heck, no one expected the Frogs to bounce on the playoff bubble for the duration of the College Playoff Committee’s rankings, so even after the Dec. 7 poll dropkicked them from No. 3 to No. 6 and out of the playoff mix, a few moments of anger quickly faded to the larger, burgeoning picture of a nationally touted TCU brand.
"We’ve been talking about TCU since Oct. 28," Del Conte said, referencing the date of the inaugural CFP poll. "It’s been fantastic."
The Frogs spent a week at No. 4 in the poll, dropped to No. 5 and then got back in at No. 3 in the penultimate rankings. When many — and my hand is raised — believed the Frogs would be in with a convincing final win over Iowa State, which they got, Del Conte said he saw the writing on the wall, that Oklahoma dropping out of the Top 25 and Minnesota losing two of its final three would in the end sabotage the Frogs’ strength of schedule and knock them out.
He was right. But Del Conte never chose to view it as anything but a raging success for the TCU brand. The consolation prizes were too valuable, a Big 12 co-championship in only Year 3 in the conference, a spot in a so-called "New Year’s Six" bowl game against No. 9 Ole Miss in the heart of SEC country — you know, exposing the brand to new markets.
In almost the same breath, Del Conte, a rapid-fire talker who always seems like he just chugged a 2-liter of Mountain Dew, flaunted TCU’s co-title, a fraudulent title if you ask Baylor fans who believe the Bears’ head-to-head victory in October should have cleared the way for one true champion.
Officially, though, that’s not the case, and for a brief moment, Del Conte decided to have a little fun with it. He swerved off the high road TCU had traveled since the playoff announcement left out both of the private, rival schools.
"It took some schools 16 years to win a Big 12 championship," Del Conte said, no wink-wink needed to know his intended target. "We did it in three."
Zing. But now comes the hard part. Sustaining success like the Oregon Ducks, a program that went from 1963 to 1989 without playing in a bowl game to having won the Pac-10/12 four times in the last six seasons, isn’t easy in a competitive conference with coaches criss-crossing each other for the same coveted recruits.
"Oregon hasn’t been on the stage a long time, but they’re new royalty where they’ve gained the respect of the national media and a few people, and I think that’s what TCU has to do," Patterson said. "People say [TCU] won ballgames, but they did it in the Mountain West. Well there were a lot of good players and a lot of good teams and our record was good against teams that were a part of that system.
"For us [to become] royalty, I think it can be as [early] as next year, and almost it was this year."
Almost. The College Football Playoff will indeed feature college football royalty with Ohio State sneaking in at the end to join Alabama, Florida State and the Ducks.
Yet as the Frogs pack their bags for a Christmas Day departure to Atlanta, with recruits who would never have considered a Mountain West TCU now paying close attention, you won’t find anybody in purple lamenting the situation outside of the final-four bracket.
"TCU won during this entire process," Del Conte said. "In terms of the media exposure, talking about it, how Gary handled it. What’s happened around the nation has been a great thing."