Undefeated Horned Frogs Leap To Title Contention

The Horned Frogs of Texas Christian University went undefeated this year. They are ranked No. 4 in the country and field one of the best defenses in college football. But the team may not be getting the respect it deserves.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Run down the top college football teams in the country, and there are the names you know: Florida, Texas, Alabama. Then at number four there's TCU, Texas Christian University, a team that has been best known in past years for its mascot, the horned frog. TCU is a relatively small school in Fort Worth with just 9,000 students. Their last big-time bowl appearance was a half century ago.

NPR's Wade Goodwyn went to find out how the Horned Frogs got so good.

(Soundbite of bells ringing)

WADE GOODWYN: The bells of Robert Carr Chapel ring out sweetly over the live oak trees, while underneath, students and faculty stroll in contemplation and reflection. Though the Horned Frogs are undefeated, it's apparent that at this stronghold of higher learning, there are more important things to think about than football - or maybe not.

Ms. KELSEY JOHNSON (Senior, TCU): Football is a huge topic of conversation. That's what most students spend their time talking about.

GOODWYN: Kelsey Johnson is a senior studying strategic communication. At football factories like Florida and Texas, players like Tim Tebow or Colt McCoy are like campus gods, recognized, admired and whispered about from afar. But students say TCU is different. The campus is small enough that they can have classes with football players several times during their university career.

Lorenzo Samenyego(ph) is a business major who plays trombone in the marching band.

Mr. LORENZO SAMENYEGO (Business Major, TCU): I've known a lot of them, like, such as T.J. Johnson, Marcus Cannon and all. I've known them since my freshman year, and I could still pretty much say those are the same guys that I've met when I came in here at TCU three-and-a-half years ago. They're just a lot bigger and stronger, I guess you could say. That's the only difference.

(Soundbite of drumming)

GOODWYN: TCU averages about 33,000 fans a game. I mean, this is small-time college football, right? Wrong. Week after week, TCU has proven it's one of the best teams in Division I, no matter how many the stadium holds. They have beaten three Top 20 teams and have road wins in Death Valley, at Clemson, at Virginia and a thorough 38-7 humiliation of BYU in Provo. But the game that finally silenced most of the doubters was TCU's complete domination of number 16-ranked Utah three weeks ago.

Unidentified Man: The way it looks like - picked off by Coleman. Ten, five, touchdown TCU. An 11-yard interception return. And the Frogs lead it 34-7 in the second quarter.

GOODWYN: The man who gets the credit is Coach Gary Patterson, who, for the last 12 years, has reinvented TCU football. CBS sports analyst Brian Jones says Patterson has a knack for spotting high school players that are overlooked by the college football powerhouses and then turning those kids into stars.

Mr. BRIAN JONES (Analyst, CBS Sports): Is he getting the tier one athletes? No, he's not getting a ton of great athletes like a Texas is or a Oklahoma. Is he getting those athletes? No. But they're still getting solid athletes. There's a ton of talent in the state of Texas. He's getting his fair share of it, and he's just an excellent coach.

GOODWYN: TCU's transformation from bottom dweller to national title contender was accompanied by a transformation of its coach. In his weekly press conference, Patterson described how he used to operate at TCU, repeated chewing out his players for their mistakes. He said he slowly came to understand that his negativity was more about him than the players.

Mr. GARY PATTERSON (Head Coach, TCU Football): I'm not going to keep talking about, well, if you don't do this you're going to get beat. That's something maybe Gary Patterson earlier years would have done to make myself feel better. If it happened, then, well, I told them, and that's not what I'm going to do. I'm going to talk about the positives and what we need to do to win this ballgame. And maybe that's why this team's changed, because I'm not dealing with negatives all the time.

GOODWYN: TCU is going to play in either the Fiesta, Sugar or Orange Bowl. But if Texas loses to Nebraska on Saturday in the Big 12 championship game - a prospect Horned Frogs are yearning for with every fiber of their collective soul - then TCU will likely play Alabama or Florida for the national championship.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.

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