A look back at the Iron Skillet rivalry before it joins college football traditions lost to history

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The origin of the Iron Skillet rivalry between TCU and SMU remains a topic for debate. As does its future. 

Both programs agree that the Iron Skillet originated in 1946 – almost 30 years after the first meeting between the two teams. The SMU side contends that the rivalry was born from pregame trash talk in the parking lot outside the stadium. The story goes that a Mustang fan was jokingly frying frog legs before the game when a TCU fan suggested that the winner of the game get the skillet and frog legs. 

TCU says that the Iron Skillet tradition was born when the SMU student council proposed the idea of introducing a trophy into the rivalry. TCU accepted and the two sides eventually agreed upon an iron skillet. Regardless of its origin, SMU won that 1946 contest and the two student bodies met at Italian Village in Dallas to award the inaugural trophy to the Mustangs. TCU student body president, Derrell Tipps, presented the trophy to SMU student body president, Bobby Harris. 

The original transcription on the Iron Skillet read, “Presented in token of southwestern friendship to the winner of the annual TCU-SMU football game. Student tradition sponsored jointly by student governments of the universities.” 

That artifact of college football history was eventually lost. It was replaced in 1993 by the current trophy – one that’s resided with Sonny Dykes for three years straight. But, like the trophy, the actual game is under attack with the final scheduled meeting to take place in 2025. Tradition is under siege in college football, and the DFW rivals are in danger of losing over 100 games of history for a few extra bucks from one more home game a year and an easier path to the playoff. 

“When you transition from a four-team to a 12-team playoff, that changes the scheduling dynamic,” Dykes, now at TCU, said about the scheduling format that’s caused the Horned Frogs to nix the rivalry following the current contract through 2025. “It is really, really important to be smart about scheduling. You’ve got to do a good job of No. 1, taking care of your season ticket holders. No. 2, making your situation makes sense for you when it comes to the end goal. The rivalry is one of those things that we’ll kind of see how it plays out and how it fits into the whole thing.” 

The first gridiron meeting between the Horned Frogs and the Mustangs took place on Oct. 8, 1915. TCU won the first game, 43-0, and were 3-1-1 in the first five meetings against the crosstown rival with SMU’s only win coming due to a Horned Frogs forfeit in 1918. SMU won its first game on the scoreboard over TCU in 1923, 40-0.  

The rivalry game reached its peak in 1935 when both teams entered the game 10-0 on the season in what Grantland Rice of the New York Sun described as “The Game of the Century.” He reported that over 36,000 people were jammed inside the 30,000-person stadium. The winner would not only win the Southwest Conference but would become the first SWC team to play in the Rose Bowl. 

The Mustangs jumped out to a 14-0 lead before TCU, led by quarterback Sammy Baugh, stormed back to tie the game at 14. SMU faced fourth-and-four with over seven minutes left in the fourth quarter on the TCU 37. The Mustangs lined up to punt, but quarterback Bob Finley threw the ball to running back Bobby Wilson for a 50-yard touchdown pass to seal a 20-14 win. SMU went on to the Rose Bowl and lost to Stanford. TCU beat Carnegie Tech in the Sugar Bowl. Both programs claim a national championship in 1935. 

The two programs are more similar than different, even if the current generation never experienced the rivalry at its height. The Week 4 contest between TCU and SMU will be the 102nd meeting between the two teams. The Horned Frogs hold a 52-42-7 all-time edge thanks to a 20-8 edge since 1989. SMU led the series 34-32-7 prior to the Death Penalty handed out in the mid-1980s. The Horned Frogs are 17-4 against SMU since the turn of the century with two of those wins by the Mustangs occurring when current TCU head coach Sonny Dykes was the head man on the Hilltop. 

TCU and SMU were 13-13-6 against each other until the start of the 1950s. TCU won that decade 8-2. SMU turned the rivalry around in the 1970s, winning eight of the 10 games played that decade. That dominance continued into the 1980s when the Pony Express won seven of the eight games played that decade. The two teams didn’t play in 1987 or 1988 due to a self-imposed ban on football by SMU following the Death Penalty. 

TCU and SMU shared the same conference from 1923 to 2000. They were both in the SWC until 1995 and then shared the WAC until 2000. As TCU transitioned to the Big 12 and Gary Patterson started humming in Fort Worth, the Horned Frogs took a step past the Mustangs. That’s changed in recent years with SMU winning two of the last three. The Mustangs are moving the ACC in 2024 as the seventh team in a Power Four conference from Texas. 

Only four intrastate rivals from Texas have played more times than the 101 meetings between SMU and TCU. Baylor vs. TCU and Texas vs. Texas A&M lead the way with 118 meetings. Texas vs. Baylor is third on the list with 112 matchups, while Texas A&M and Baylor have played 108 times. The two teams have played in 101 of the last 108 seasons. And that’s all set to end after 2025. For many of the same reasons, the state of Texas is also about to be without Texas vs. Baylor just like it lost the “Battle of the Brazos” rivalry game between Texas A&M and Baylor when the Aggies left for the SEC in 2012. 

“It’s disappointing for Metroplex football fans,” SMU athletic director Rick Hart told the Dallas Morning News when the end of the rivalry was announced prior to the 2023 season. “This is a rivalry that has spanned a century-plus. It is the Battle for the Iron Skillet, Dallas versus Fort Worth, Doak Walker versus Sammy Baugh, the Pony Express versus LaDainian Tomlinson, and more. It is part of the very fabric of college football. Our hope is that TCU will resume the series, as we at SMU want to continue this rivalry in perpetuity.” 

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