TCU succeeds as Fort Worth's team
Editor's note: This is the second in a weeklong series examining the unique circumstances faced by FBS programs that reside in metropolitan markets alongside an NFL franchise.
FORT WORTH, Texas -- According to MapQuest, TCU is a mere 26-minute drive from Cowboys Stadium, the $1 billion monument erected to display the wealth and power of professional football in America.
According to TCU athletic director Chris Del Conte, MapQuest is wrong. "I don't view ourselves in a pro market," Del Conte said.
Del Conte didn't appear to have been sipping from a bottle in his desk drawer. He spoke on a work day afternoon in his office in the elegant Justin Athletic Center on campus. He seemed in touch with the world around him. He spoke with his typical ebullience.
But claiming that TCU is not a satellite in orbit of Jerry Jones' Death Star? Hello?
It turns out that Del Conte's assertion is less about geography than it is about attitude. Fort Worth is Where the West Begins. It's also Where the Snickering about Dallas Begins.
"If you want to go to Dallas, go to Atlanta," Del Conte said. "If you want to go to Texas, come to Fort Worth."
Fort Worth and Dallas are the west and east bookends, respectively, of the Metroplex. Dallas had a TV show named for it, a prime-time soap opera that celebrated greed and venality. Dallas has an international reputation, the care and feeding of which is constant. Fort Worth's outlook to its sister city to the east oscillates between insecurity and bemusement.
Fort Worth views Dallas as self-important, ostentatious, boastful, snotty and humorless. Dallas views Fort Worth as somewhere west of town.
TCU has bet its future on the difference.
"They are the Dallas Cowboys," Del Conte said. "We are Fort Worth's team."
TCU's attitude toward surviving in an NFL market is to go small. The Cowboys are macro. TCU is micro. It's the difference between Home Depot and the hardware store on the corner that's been savvy enough to survive.
"With the success of the program, we've been able to [boost] ourselves as Fort Worth's team," Del Conte said. "We're the neighborhood team. You know how Applebee's is the neighborhood grill?"
Since the subject is athletics, any marketing plan must start with winning. When the Southwest Conference dissolved in the mid-1990s, TCU got left out of the Big 12 because it didn't win. The program hadn't won a SWC championship since 1958. Dennis Franchione arrived in 1998, took over a team that had gone 1-10 the previous year and went 25-10 in the next three seasons.
Franchione parlayed his success into coaching a prestigious program: Alabama. His defensive coordinator, Gary Patterson, took over at TCU in 2001. In 10 seasons he has a record of 98-28. In the past two seasons, the Horned Frogs are 25-1, with a Fiesta Bowl defeat and a Rose Bowl victory.
Patterson parlayed his success into coaching a prestigious program: TCU.
"I think all coaches like the challenge," Patterson said. "'You can't raise the money for a stadium. You can't recruit against Oklahoma and Texas. You can't go to BCS games.' Six years ago, when I told people after 2004 our goal was still to get a BCS game, most laughed. Now we've been to two."
The success begat the ability to climb from the Western Athletic Conference to Conference USA to the Mountain West to, beginning in 2012, the Big East. The success also allowed TCU to raise $143 million to renovate Amon Carter Stadium, which made up for in discomfort what it lacked in charm. The work is on schedule to be completed next year.
It speaks to the loyalty that TCU has generated that six donors gave $15 million each to the campaign.
TCU brings in teams that have a substantial number of alumni in the Metroplex. TCU and SMU have maintained the "Iron Skillet" rivalry even as they have played in different conferences. Last year, Baylor came to Amon Carter Stadium. Next year, Oklahoma is coming. LSU and Texas Tech are coming in future years.
Season tickets for the six home games start at $80, which is almost what Cowboys season ticket holders pay per game -- to park.
But product and price don't change the realities of living in an NFL market, especially in the shadow of the Cowboys, who believe that bigger is always better. Being Fort Worth's team appeals to local pride. That's not the only reason that TCU has adopted that profile. It's also cost-effective.
"How do you cut through the clutter?" asked Scott Kull, TCU associate athletic director for external operations. "It takes significant money in these markets. We're in the fifth biggest media market in the nation. We can't buy network TV and radio is very limited. It's not going to be a lot. Is the little we do worth it? It starts to come down to a business decision. Can we spend that money elsewhere?"
The Horned Frogs have gone hard after kids. Super Frog, the athletic department's costumed mascot, will appear at Little League openings. The Bleacher Creatures program gives kids a TCU jersey and the chance to run onto the field behind the team when it comes out of the locker room. The Bleacher Creatures provide the perfect antidote to tailgating.
"We really tried to focus on what types of color can you come up with that don't cost money," Kull said. "Our tailgating is so good, people won't come into the game. The Bleacher Creatures run right behind the team. A little kid doesn't come without parents. We get the parents out of the parking lot."
Most of all, what TCU does is get out of the office. Patterson spreads his gospel of family and chemistry from the locker room into the city. He will pull over and speak at a bus stop if he sees people waiting. One afternoon this spring, one of the most successful coaches in the nation stood in a TCU parking lot, his McDonald's drive-thru lunch bag growing cold in his hand, talking to a small group of fans.
"The head coach [being] very visible really helps," Kull said. "People don't want to hear from me. He'll do anything we ask him to do. He's had to do that. He really applies himself."
Every week during the season, Patterson conducts a radio show from the Railhead Smokehouse, the kind of barbeque joint that is as essential to Texas as bluebonnets. Railhead is Fort Worth through and through. That Patterson chose it for his show says everything about TCU's life in the Cowboys' market.
Railhead employees wear T-shirts that declare, "Life is too short to live in Dallas."
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.
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