TCU Field. Photo by Drew Irwin.

For most of my life, Texas Christian University has had a nomadic football team. After the collapse of the Southwest Conference, TCU joined a string of conferences before entering the Big 12 Conference in 2012. The team was part of Conference USA when I arrived at TCU in 2002, but I never really thought of them as a football power. We were still in Texas, a place where football is king, but we were just happy to be noticed.

The Horned Frogs (10-2) will play the Oregon Ducks (9-3) on Saturday, Jan. 2 for the Alamo Bowl. While neither team is playoff-bound, both will be bringing their best games to the Alamodome to make it in the top 10.

TCU is a small, private school with less than 9,000 undergraduate students tucked away into a small section of Fort Worth. I chose it because it felt far enough from my home in Dallas but still felt like I was in the Metroplex. It was a small campus with small class sizes, and it was exactly what I needed. It’s less religious than the name implies, which is why you’ll see “TCU” more than you see “Texas Christian” these days. There’s still a lovely chapel on campus that plays the TCU alma mater on the hour.

When I first arrived on campus, the TCU football team was fighting for attention. Coming off the days of Heisman Trophy hopeful Ladainian Tomlinson, the Horned Frogs were fighting for an identity. Coach Gary Patterson hoped to draw attention to the team through nationally televised games. But in Conference USA against other lesser-known teams, that always meant playing on a weeknight. No matter the time of day, if ESPN would cover the game nationally, Patterson would have his team ready.

There was a running joke during my first few years at TCU: students would show up for the first half, leave at halftime to resume tailgating, and never come back. The small student section would be half-full during most games. Our single losing season during my time at college, the attendance was embarrassing. The stadium was a relic of the Southwest Conference Days with a huge upper deck that was mostly empty. It was simply too hard to fill a stadium that was designed for games against Texas and Texas A&M when we were playing teams like Tulane and Memphis.

But things slowly improved. The football team’s success began to change the campus, as we began to win more and more each year. It’s no coincidence that the success of the football team has led to a shocking makeover to the facilities. I graduated in 2005, and in the last 10 years, there have been a number of new dorms, a new student center, and a new library. There has also been a $164 million renovation to the Amon G. Carter Football Stadium, a recently-completed renovation to the basketball stadium, and an in-progress update to the baseball stadium.

TCU isn’t a sports-obsessed school. Students today are far more interested in the games than just a decade ago, but the non-marquee games still don’t fill the stadium. Fort Worth has officially embraced the school as its own, we’ve made “Purple Fridays” a staple in Cowtown, but it’s a far cry from the support Austin or College Station shows for their hometown schools. TCU’s sports obsession seems relegated to football: the basketball games are usually poorly attended and only recently has the powerhouse TCU baseball team started to get the support it deserves.

Like our fanbase, our tailgate game has always been strong and small. Each fall weekend, the Carter Stadium’s parking lots fill with people, meat, beer and the color purple. There’s a certain electricity that surrounds the stadium that multiplies the bigger the game is. When a lightning warning delayed the big game against Baylor in November, the TCU student section refused to leave, and chanted “Hell no, we won’t go!” even when the PA announcer pleaded for them to seek shelter. I don’t think the student section from our days in Conference USA have done the same thing for a big game.

Even after the Rose Bowl, most football fans didn’t consider TCU’s success anything more than a fluke. We’d gone undefeated but against who? It simply didn’t matter as long as we were playing in a “lesser” conference, and a couple bowl games and some non-conference wins wasn’t going to convince anyone outside of Fort Worth otherwise. When the team finally got an invitation to join the Big 12 Conference in 2012, it was the jackpot-winning moment TCU fans had been waiting for. It was a chance to show the national college football landscape what we could do. We would be part of the annual games between Texas and Oklahoma, games that were televised on big networks. It was a dream come true for some and a late-arriving but well deserved promotion for others.

TCU fans have been the underdogs for so long that the fanbase can be somewhat defensive at times. Fans were quick to defend our Mountain West Conference status prior to the Big 12 invite, claiming that the competition in those conferences was pretty good. We’d point to teams like Utah and BYU and Boise State that had success on college football’s biggest stages. The Ohio State president once referred to our competition as “The Little Sisters of the Poor.”

So we were understandably upset when we felt similarly treated in 2014. Sporting a new high-flying offense with our traditional Patterson defense, every TCU fan knew that we deserved to be in the Final Four College Football Playoff. But in some eyes, TCU was still TCU – a small school that doesn’t travel particularly well. I’m not sure if it’s true, but I’ve heard there are more students enrolled at the University of Texas right now than there are living TCU alumni. It’s hard to compete with a team that can beat your attendance numbers by bringing just their current student body. Even at the Rose Bowl, our finest moment, we probably only had a third of the number of fans in attendance.

We are used to it, but we know we still need to prove ourselves. After crushing Ole Miss in our bowl last season, we felt that this was our moment. We were ranked #2 in the nation to start the season, and we had brought back almost everyone from the offense on that team. The defense was young and inexperienced, but TCU fans have come to trust that Coach Patterson can make any defense work.

TCU fans represent their Horned Frogs. Photo by Drew Irwin.
TCU fans represent their Horned Frogs. Photo by Drew Irwin.

We were convinced that our team’s hard work was leading up to the year 2015. Our team had a Heisman Trophy candidate as quarterback, a high-flying offense, and a fairly friendly schedule on our side. Finally, the national media seemed to be in our corner. Sports writers picked the Frogs to win the conference and make the playoff, and some even picked us to win the national championship. We felt good.

And then the injuries happened. Every week, someone seemed to be getting hurt, and for the first part of the season, it was mostly localized to the already-young and inexperienced defense. The national media began to move on to other teams; TCU just wouldn’t have the ammunition to make it through a 12-game season, critics said. And they were right. After starting the year 8-0, TCU lost games to both Oklahoma schools, which eliminated them from any chance of making the playoff.

Many of us were heartbroken by such a cruel fate. We felt cheated of what was supposed to be our big moment. It wasn’t because we weren’t good enough or because of our conference level. It wasn’t because of anything but freak injuries. Everything seemed to converge at the right time, only to be ripped away at the last second.

Despite the setbacks, I’m still proud of the team. Overcoming all the injuries, the team still managed 10 wins. Though the Alamo Bowl might be a second-tier bowl, TCU is still in the business of building up a long-term resume. A win in San Antonio, especially over a national power like Oregon, would show that TCU is still here. We won’t win it all in 2015, but TCU fans know more than anyone that the college football experience can be a marathon. If anyone knows how to be patient and enjoy whatever victory we can find, it’s the Horned Frog fans.

*Top image: TCU’s Amon G. Carter Stadium, home of the Horned Frogs. Photo by Drew Irwin. 

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Drew Irwin

Irwin is a Dallas native who double-majored in journalism and economics at TCU before graduating in 2005.