By John Lamberth
(The writer lives in Fort Worth and is a TCU graduate and football fan, and has family in the Louisville area. U of L is his basketball team of choice and he was a big fan of Howard Schnellenberger’s teams. TCU is 7-0 and ranked among the nation’s elite this season.)
The recent talk that TCU might be invited to join the Big East Conference has re-ignited debate about what TCU can actually offer to a conference. The discussion centers around the TCU football team since conference expansion is football driven. Part of the debate is about why TCU was left out of the Big 12 when it formed in 1994 and why they would be considered an asset to a “Big Six” conference now.
TCU was a member of the Southwest Conference when it dissolved in the early Nineties. There were a variety of reasons why this happened, notably that Arkansas had already left for the SEC and the remaining teams were too isolated to garner any national attention in the college football world.
So, when discussions about merging with the Big Eight began, it seemed obvious that the biggest (i.e. money generating) programs would be at the front of the line. The large state schools — Texas, Texas A&M, and Texas Tech — Â were obvious choices. As for the rest, well, Houston and Rice had little going for them. SMU was still in shambles from their “Death Penalty.”
Baylor and TCU were established programs with histories of success. They were also small private schools. So, out of these five Â less than powerhouse programs, why did Baylor get the nod over the others? Two very good reasons: Baylor had the better program at the time, and the school had some political influence in state government. So, TCU was left behind.
Some TCU supporters won’t let go of the political maneuvering, even though an honest fan would say that TCU just hadn’t shown itself to be a worthy program. It had been decades since TCU had been a football power, and college football is all about “What have you done for me lately?”
Fortunately, this exclusion led the TCU athletic program to work twice as hard. TCU has bounced around in three different conferences since the SWC folded. They were co-champions of the WAC twice, C-USA co-champs once, and outright MWC champs twice. There has only been one losing season since 1997 and seven seasons with at least 10 wins. And there have been seven bowl wins in 11 appearances.
So, what does this have to do with TCU joining the Big East? Well, to those who would argue that TCU isn’t a valuable commodity, let’s put this into perspective. Earlier this year, ESPN listed the Top 10 programs of the last decade. TCU was No. 10. Of those 10 programs, two are private schools (TCU and USC) and only two programsÂ have less than 20,000 students (TCU and Boise State). TCU is a small private school that somehow manages to succeed. At about 8,500 students, TCU is one-third to one-eighth the size of the other successful programs.
- TCU manages to recruit quality players despite having to fight Texas, Oklahoma, Texas A&M, and many of the larger schools in the Big 12 as well as the SEC. Surely the school must be doing something right if it can convince good players to go to TCU instead of one of the larger, more “successful” schools. Much of this can be attributed to the quality of the athletic department staff and facilities.
- And it doesn’t hurt that the student body is about 59% female. That kind of ratio is pretty appealing if you are a high school football player. But that doesn’t help in an area that has become a favorite argument of TCU’s detractors: game attendance.
- TCU has only a worldwide living alumni base of about 71,000 people. To put it in perspective, Ohio State has about 15,000 less current students than TCU has total alumni. And TCU’s alumni isn’t necessarily concentrated in the Dallas Fort Worth area. Add to that the male to female ratio, and you are looking at a pretty small base from which to fill your stadium.
- This is not to say that women aren’t football fans… TCU has it’s fair share of die-hard female fans… but male fans are the primary foundation and when you are looking at a student body that only has about 3,500 males, it’s a big fight.
- But despite this, TCU’s football attendance numbers have been growing steadily, now averaging around 38k fans per game. Sure it isn’t the 80,000-plus crowds that some of the “big time” schools get. Â But for a school that ranks as one of the smallest FBS schools, TCU still manages to be about 60th in attendance out of 120 schools. In terms of the Big East, TCU would be right around the average of all the football schools, despite being about half the size of the Big East’s smallest school.
- As far as attendance goes, TCU has to compete with two other FBS schools within about 40 miles as well as for media exposure with the Texas schools in the Big 12. Truthfully, until the last couple of years, the local stations would put Texas and Oklahoma news ahead of hometown TCU. Plus, TCU must fight for attention with the local pro football, baseball, basketball, and hockey teams. It’s not as if TCU is the only game in town.
- But to give an example of how far the program has come, two weeks ago TCU managed 38,000 for a game against Wyoming (fans don’t travel well), while it was Fall Break (students out of town), there were two other major football games nearby (Texas A&M/Arkansas and Baylor/Texas Tech, AND the Texas Rangers were playing their first home playoff game in over a decade. While TCU is in a top five TV market, that market is saturated by sports fans of numerous schools and pro teams. After years of yelling (and winning), TCU is finally getting their hometown to pay attention.
Despite being a small, private school with limited resources and almost no political backing in a state where football is king, TCU has managed to make a name for itself. It should also be noted that it has an endowment of over $1 billion which puts it in some pretty elite company. Consider some of the circumstances that TCU has had to fight to get to where it is now. And don’t think for an instant that TCU is going to stop getting better. They will keep proving the naysayers wrong.