TCU football coach Gary Patterson remembers walking into Texas high schools five or even 10 years ago and knowing that there were certain players the Horned Frogs didn't have a realistic chance to get. And the high school coaches of those kids knew it, so they didn't even bother to show film of some of those players to Patterson and his staff.
"We didn't even have a chance to recruit that kind of kid, and now we do," Patterson said. "We have a chance at any kid in their program. That's the biggest change. Back then it was: 'Here's who you can recruit.' Now, we can recruit anyone we want to."
That's what happens when you go from students storming the field after the Frogs' only win in 1997 to a program that regularly puts up double-digit wins and has played in back-to-back BCS bowls.
Clearly, beating Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl and finishing No. 2 in the polls has elevated TCU to a new level. With this year's recruits ready to sign national letters of intent Wednesday, the Frogs aren't just some nice story of an underdog team trying to compete at a high level. They are competing at that level and have been doing so for a number of years.
Recruits these days don't remember the TCU struggles before Patterson arrived as defensive coordinator in the late 1990s. All they know is that the Horned Frogs have made numerous bowl appearances and have shown they can beat top-flight teams anywhere they play them.
TCU had most of its class locked up before winning the granddaddy of them all on Jan. 1. But it's that kind of win on national television against tough competition that can make a difference with a big recruit or two trying to make up his mind close to signing day. And it doesn't hurt for freshmen, sophomores and juniors to see it, either, as they begin deciding where to play college football in the near future.
The Frogs are respected enough now that they are beating Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma and other major BCS schools to some of the top prospects. Wide receiver Brandon Carter is a prime example. The Euless Trinity speedster was committed to Oklahoma until a few weeks ago, when he switched to TCU.
Patterson's staff also has commitments from LaDarius Brown, a Waxahachie wide receiver on the ESPNU 150 list. Brown considered Auburn, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and others before choosing TCU. The fact that the Horned Frogs beat out those schools -- something that wasn't likely to happen even five years ago -- shows how far the program has come.
Patterson knows it won't necessarily show up in the rankings, although the Frogs are knocking on the door for entrance into ESPN.com's top 25 recruiting rankings and are in the top tier, according to a some services.
"I don't look at the rankings," Patterson said. "We had a kid committed to us a couple of years ago that was a two-star and when he went to a bigger school, he was a four-star. What does that tell you? We recruit guys that we think are good players and players that fit into our system. That's why I don't look at rankings. They don't matter."
What matters to Patterson are relationships, and his staff is very good at maintaining them with high school coaches and establishing them with recruits. They don't simply try to find the best overall players and go after them. They look for specific skill sets and athleticism and then put the players in the position that can best showcase their skills.
When TCU landed Jerry Hughes a few years ago, he was an oversized running back who also had offers from North Texas, Iowa State, Arizona State and Baylor. So the "larger" in-state schools weren't even in on Hughes, who was converted to defensive end by the Frogs and ended up being drafted 31st overall by the Indianapolis Colts in the 2010 draft.
Tank Carder, the hero of the Rose Bowl, returns in 2011 for his senior season after deciding not to come out early for the NFL draft. TCU was the only FBS school to offer Carder a scholarship.
"We've built a reputation for being good evaluators," Patterson said. "We're not going to be more national in our recruiting now. We know how important the state of Texas is to us.
"It's not the ones that you don't get that get you beat; it's the ones you take that don't pan out. The key is not making a lot of mistakes. We get a chance to see these guys at camps and spring practice and really get to know them. We know their character, work ethic and how they've been taught at their high schools."
But establishing relationships and making the proper sales pitch is only effective if a kid gets to TCU and likes the feel of the place. The campus has had a remarkable makeover since Patterson's early days in Fort Worth.
In addition to new housing and various classroom buildings popping up, there is a new athletic office complex near the stadium, revamped football practice fields and an indoor practice facility. Plus, the stadium is in the middle of a major renovation. Add in a first-class weight room and a team room larger than the one the Dallas Cowboys use at Valley Ranch, and TCU can compete with the larger schools in and out of the state.
"If we didn't have those kinds of facilities, the Pittsburgh Steelers wouldn't be practicing here for the Super Bowl," Patterson said. "We still sell the circle of life. I still believe even on our visits that we don't go over the top. Our thing is getting to know our players and make them understand they have a chance to get a great education, graduate and play winning football."
Patterson said he's already noticed that moving to the Big East makes a difference. Starting in 2012, TCU will go from a team in a non-automatic qualifying conference to one that already has a seat at the lucrative BCS table.
"It sets the tone and takes us to a different hurdle, even though I don't think it makes our program any different," Patterson said. "But it's all about perception. It opens more doors. When we started here, it was hard for a recruit to justify why he would go to TCU over some of these other schools. Now you hear, 'Why wouldn't you?'"
Richard Durrett covers colleges for ESPNDallas.com.