A decade ago, TCU was hardly the apple of the Big 12 eye; or any other major conference for that matter.
The Horned Frogs had just posted an average attendance of less than 30,000, which ranked well below the likes of UTEP, New Mexico and Hawaii.
TCU’s facilities didn’t measure up. And though a budding mid-major program at the time under Gary Patterson, the Horned Frogs were no juggernaut on the field yet, either.
Today, however, TCU is the blueprint for those still in Group of 5 purgatory angling for Power 5 inclusion. And with prospective Big 12 expansion being perhaps the final train out of the Group of 5 station, the race is on among those schools to position themselves as strongly as possible should the moment of Big 12 expansion ever arrive.
“I think there’s definitely a sense of urgency,” said Houston athletic director Hunter Yurachek. “I agree, there’s probably one more shift coming; whether it’s one year or 10 years from now, I don’t know. But I’ve been charged by our president to put our athletic program in the best possible light right now.”
Houston isn’t alone in its urgency.
And Oklahoma president David Boren’s remarks last month that the Big 12 “should strive” to get back to 12 only fanned the flames of the arms race already ignited among top-of-the-line Group of 5 programs.
“If realignment takes place, we want to be in position to be considered,” said Memphis athletic director Tom Bowen. “We’re going to continue on a path of making significant capital improvements.”
Memphis will soon begin constructing an indoor practice facility. Before this season Cincinnati will finish its $86 million renovation of Nippert Stadium, increasing capacity by 5,000 to 40,000 mostly by way of premium seating and suites. Colorado State has broken ground on a new $220 million on-campus stadium that will be finished in 2017. And last fall, Houston opened the $120 million TDECU Stadium.
“It’s not just a facilities arms race that’s under way,” Yurachek said. “You have meal centers, nutrition centers, increased scholarship dollars. You have to keep pace.”
Keeping pace in the arms race off the field, however, is just one part of the equation.
Before joining the Big 12, TCU had launched plans to renovate Amon G. Carter Stadium and upgrade its other football facilities. But it was the Horned Frogs’ on-field dominance that ultimately forced the Big 12 to give them a strong look when it was scrambling to replace Texas A&M and Missouri. In fact from 2005-10, TCU compiled a record of 66-11, capped with a 13-0 season and Rose Bowl victory against Wisconsin.
Memphis, Cincinnati, UCF, East Carolina, Houston, Boise State and Colorado State all posted winning records last season. But the program that can best emulate TCU’s level of winning in the coming years could be the one best positioned to impress and perhaps join the Big 12.
“TCU is certainly a proven model for that,” said Colorado State athletic director Joe Parker. “They created a great roadmap.”
Those with Power 5 aspirations have made hires with that in mind. Despite going 8-5 and beating Pitt in a bowl game last season, Houston fired Tony Levine and brought in Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman, who arrived with a reputation as a rising star in coaching. Already the Cougars have been a force on the recruiting trail, landing commitments from two of the top 10 prospects in the state of Texas.
“We let a football coach go that had a winning record,” Yurachek said. “But we think we hired someone unbelievably special who is a rock star in this community.”
Three years ago, Memphis hired one of Patterson’s disciples — former TCU offensive coordinator Justin Fuente — who last season took the Tigers to their first 10-win season since 1938.
“With Justin Fuente we’re in a unique position to continue to excel, compete and win,” Bowen said. “We want to be relevant and compete at the highest level.”
Today, that’s exactly what TCU is doing. The Horned Frogs are coming off a 12-1 season, which included a share of the Big 12 title and demolition of Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl. This August, TCU will open in the top 5 of the preseason polls and be on the short list of probable playoff contenders.
“You saw their entire institution explode when they got the opportunity to move into the Big 12,” Yurachek said.
It’s unclear when, or even if, another Group of 5 school will get the same chance that TCU has capitalized on. Despite Boren’s charge, expansion still has almost no momentum within Big 12 circles, according to several league sources. Even so, as the past has demonstrated, the college conference landscape could change again rapidly. And the next train could be the last one.
“We’re just trying to put ourselves in the best possible position,” Yurachek said.
“To be a viable option on the menu.”