TCU fans, welcome back to Groundhog Day. It’s been a stable decade, but there’s nothing quite like getting back to your roots of four conferences between 2000 and 2012.
Because of the history of uncertainty, TCU fans are likely prepared more than most to deal with the uncertainty of major college football. That doesn’t make Texas and Oklahoma’s departure from the Big 12 any more frustrating.
As TCU enters the next round of conference free agency, here’s how the Horned Frogs are positioned.
Since joining the Big 12 in 2012, TCU has transformed itself into a model member. From a football perspective, TCU has by far the most stability of the other Texas schools, trailing perhaps only Oklahoma State among the remaining eight. Gary Patterson’s program building played a significant part of TCU getting an opportunity in the Power Five in the first place.
TCU also has the advantage of being in perhaps the most important football market in America. The Frogs elevated themselves to a top-three recruiting team in the Big 12 thanks to access to DFW. Any conference that wants to increase its brand awareness in Texas can look to TCU.
In addition to competing at the highest level in football with relative consistency, TCU has elevated its non-revenue sports to a respectable Big 12 level. The baseball team is a consistent national contender and the tennis team is one of TCU’s overlooked gems.
The TCU facilities are outstanding, especially since the university rebuilt the basketball arena. The football field just finished another expansion and ranks among the cooler venues in the Big 12 with such easy access to it from campus. There’s plenty of money to spend.
Another significant factor? TCU has a number of out-of-state students. Many of them come from the state of California. Joining the Pac-12 would be a way to connect even more students to the university, while also bringing the Pac-12 to central time. TCU is a university – and athletic department – still on the rise.
Out of every Power Five institution, TCU is the second smallest, narrowly ahead of Wake Forest. That means that while the Horned Frogs have money to spend, it doesn’t have a massive fan base with ubiquitous brand power. The school has done a strong job of taking over Fort Worth, but that power has not translated to the rest of the Metroplex.
Additionally, all the realignment talk comes as TCU is in the midst of an identity crisis on the football field. TCU’s in the midst of its worst three-year stretch since the Pat Sullivan years – which is a credit to Patterson’s brilliance, but is a concern nonetheless. TCU finished below .500 in conference in three of the last five years.
Perhaps more pressing, TCU might have to figure out the succession plan for Gary Patterson sooner rather than later. There’s no obvious plan for athletic director Jeremiah Donati.
On the basketball court, Jamie Dixon’s early success appears to have petered out. The Frogs peaked at 9-9 in conference play in 2018, but is 19-33 in the Big 12 since then. As the league gets better, the program might be heading the wrong direction. And while TCU baseball is perhaps the school’s signature program, a new skipper takes over that program too after Jim Schlossnagle left for Texas A&M.
There isn’t much reason to worry, but TCU likely wishes the realignment talk happened just a few years ago when TCU was in a Big 12 title game, March Madness and the College World Series all within a year. And if brand power is the primary factor conferences look to when considering realignment, being a small private school is a severe disadvantage.
Because of the combination of market, success and university investment, there are rumblings that TCU could be in perhaps the best position of the remaining Texas schools. It doesn’t hurt that the administration knows how to navigate realignment in a unique way after the last two decades.
Any pitch to other leagues would need to center on access to the coveted DFW market, both for television and recruiting. While Patterson might not be around whenever realignment finally happens, the history of football stability will still be a strong draw.
That said, the Pac-12 has been forward about not taking private religious schools before. While entering the DFW market would be a benefit, is it a benefit clearing more than $30 million a year? Is expanding to central time something that the Pac-12 sees as a strong asset? That’s a question new Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff has to answer.
Even in a worst-case scenario, TCU likely ends up in a revamped combo of the Big 12 and American Athletic Conference that cements itself as a clear top-five league. That league would still make the expanded playoff every year, and TCU could be one of the faces of it. TCU fans should be more optimistic than most.
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