On September 13th, 2008, the Stanford Cardinal traveled to Fort Worth, Texas to face the TCU Horned Frogs. It was the second leg of a home and home series, the first ever played between the two schools. In 2007, Stanford lost 36-38 at home. The next year, the Cardinal lost again, 14-38, but it was a strong showing considering the circumstances. Stanford was tied with TCU at 14 apiece going into the second half before the Horned Frogs pulled away with help from four Cardinal turnovers.
Stanford was in year two of Jim Harbaugh’s rebuild of the program, which was already bearing fruit. The Cardinal finished the season with a 5-7 record, and were poised to break through into bowl eligibility the next season. As they say, the rest is history.
On the other hand, TCU was in the middle of a meteoric rise. The Horned Frogs have been one of college football’s recent success stories on par with (or perhaps even eclipsing) Stanford’s rise under Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw.
Texas Christian University was one of the older members of the defunct Southwest Conference. The Horned Frogs had a golden age in the 1930’s under coach Dutch Meyer, led by quarterbacks Sammy Baugh and Davey O’Brien. TCU were awarded national championships for the 1935 and 1938 seasons, but their success wouldn’t last. After Meyer retired in 1952, the Frogs won only four Southwest Conference titles until the league dissolved in 1996.
As one of the SWC’s weaker members, TCU wasn’t involved in the creation of the new Big 12. The story goes that the Horned Frogs were in line for the final spot among the four Texas programs but insider lobbying brought Baylor into the Big 12 instead of the Frogs. TCU was left to fend for themselves and joined the WAC for a time, a long drop from their cushy position among what was considered one of the original power conferences.
TCU knocked around the WAC for the rest of the 1990’s before head coach Dennis Franchione helped to rebuild the team before leaving for Alabama. Franchione’s defensive coordinator, Gary Patterson, stepped in to fill the void. Patterson, a disciple of Bill Snyder, would turn out to be one of the most remarkable head coaches of the 2000’s. To put his impact in terms Stanford fans can understand, Gary Patterson is pretty much Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw wrapped up into one as far as his impact for TCU, and he’s been in Fort Worth nearly twice as long as the Harbaugh-Shaw era has graced The Farm.
Under Patterson, TCU left the moribund (pre-Boise) WAC for Conference USA in 2001. It only took a year for them to win a league title in their new home. After just four seasons in C-USA, the Horned Frogs leapt into the Mountain West Conference, where they would truly make a name for themselves. They weren’t just another good mid-major, they were legitimately one of the best teams in the country on multiple occasions, beating almost every major conference opponent who dared challenge them.
From 2005 to 2011, TCU was consistently one of the best programs in college football. The Horned Frogs won 11 or more games in six out of seven years and won the Mountain West four times. In 2009 they had an undefeated regular season and earned a berth in the Fiesta Bowl, which they barely lost to Boise State. The next year they went a perfect 13-0, beating Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl and finishing 2nd in the AP Poll behind unbeaten Auburn.
TCU was able to parlay their massive success as a mid-major football program into a promotion to a Power 5 conference. In 2012, the Frogs moved into the Big 12 Conference, where they were reunited with their old Southwest Conference rivals Texas, Texas Tech, and Baylor. They suffered a few setbacks in their first couple of seasons, but in 2014 and 2015 TCU was again one of the best teams in the country, barely shut out of a position in the College Football Playoff.
There are many similarities between TCU and Stanford. Both programs have a long distant past of success that has been marginalized by decades of mediocrity. Both teams rose from the ashes in the 2000’s to become darlings of the college football world. Both schools even play a similar brand of football and have carefully cultivated a work ethic that facilitates continued success. This ethos allows both programs to thrive, despite being smaller private institutions, in the face of larger, more entrenched powerhouses.
Stanford and TCU are undoubtedly two of the more remarkable stories in college football in the new millennium and their successes should be celebrated. TCU was already rolling when the teams last played in 2008. Stanford was on the rise and would soon break through into national prominence. Let’s see just what each team has accomplished in the years since these two teams last played.
Since September 13, 2008, the Stanford Cardinal have a combined win-loss record of 93-31. In that same span, TCU has a very similar 94-32 record.
The Horned Frogs have won four conference titles; three in the Mountain West and one in the Big 12. In that same span Stanford has won three PAC-12 titles and five North Division championships.
The Cardinal have attended a bowl every year since 2009. TCU has attended a bowl nearly every season since 1998 with the exceptions of 2004 and 2013. The Horned Frogs have played in a Fiesta Bowl, a Rose Bowl, and a Peach Bowl since 2008. Stanford has attended an Orange Bowl, a Fiesta Bowl, and three Rose Bowls.
Both schools have seen a glut of talent pass through in the past decade, many of whom have gone on to have careers in the NFL. TCU’s Andy Dalton and Tank Carder immediately come to mind. Stanford has a list of current NFL players a mile long, including standouts such as Andrew Luck, Richard Sherman, Doug Baldwin, David DeCastro, Coby Fleener, Austin Hooper, Blake Martinez, Ty Montgomery, Christian McCaffrey, and Levine Toilolo.
Gary Patterson and David Shaw are considered two of the most respected coaches in the game for the way they run their programs with class and dignity, all the while maintaining teams that compete at the highest level.
Bowl games are a way for teams to celebrate a job well done, even if they did not ultimately reach the goal they sought. In the 2017 preseason, both Stanford and TCU were considered outside contenders for their respective conference championships. Both schools made a deep run, surprising some naysayers along the way, but ultimately fell just short. While each team may be disappointed that they didn’t win their conferences, both programs should be proud of themselves.
In the big picture, there are few schools like Stanford and TCU doing so well in college football. They’ve come very far from where they were 10 or 15 year ago. Let’s celebrate two programs who have defied the odds to achieve great success and perhaps greater respect in a cutthroat industry.
When Stanford takes the field in San Antonio, they’ll be facing a program that is a reflection of themselves in all the right ways. Let’s hope for a great game. Go Cardinal!