TCU, Big 12 needed each other

FORT WORTH, Texas -- I hope TCU didn't think its program had peaked when it beat Wisconsin to become the Rose Bowl champion last season.

After being exiled from the adults table when the Southwest Conference broke up in 1996, TCU is back.

"We never made an excuse. We never said, 'Why not us?'" said athletic director Chris Del Conte. "[TCU donors and fans] decided, 'We will take care of our own. We will get to the promised land if we work hard and believe in each other.' And you did that.

"Today is living proof that dreams do come true."

How did those dreams come true?

TCU grew up under the guidance of Gary Patterson, who racked up five 11-win seasons in the past six years, capped by last season's glorious night in Pasadena.

Now, it's time to trade in the hot dogs and mac and cheese at the kids table for the steak and potatoes of an AQ conference schedule.

The Horned Frogs are ready.

"We have an opportunity. If the Big 12 believed that we could not be competitive in this league, then they wouldn't have asked us," Patterson said.

TCU doesn't bring the financial punch the Big 12 would have liked. It has problems filling a stadium that will seat about 50,000 and that is currently undergoing a $164 million renovation. The Horned Frogs claim 78,000 living alumni. By comparison, Texas had 51,195 students enrolled during the 2010-11 school year.

Both the stadium and the school's enrollment (9,518) will be the smallest in the Big 12.

That hasn't changed. Though it might soon with high-profile opponents like Texas and Oklahoma preparing to make trips to Fort Worth, instead of Mountain West-flavored cupcakes like UNLV and New Mexico.

TCU's school record for season tickets (14,900) was shattered when it sold 19,100 in 2010. After winning the Rose Bowl, the Horned Frogs sold 22,000 for 2011 -- higher than some total attendance numbers when Gary Patterson became defensive coordinator back in 1998.

Now they're in the Big 12, where the Horned Frogs provide what more established members (looking at you, former Big 12 North) can't. Football credibility.

After the departures of Nebraska and Texas A&M, and possibly rising program Missouri, it's something the Big 12 badly needed.

TCU? Well, under Patterson, the Horned Frogs bring it. Among other accomplishments, TCU is the only program to finish the last three seasons in the top 10 of both polls.

The Horned Frogs are about to start bringing even better players to Fort Worth, too, after landing on equal recruiting ground with the rest of the Big 12 powers that mine the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex for talent.

Undefeated regular seasons in 2009 and 2010 landed the Horned Frogs in the BCS twice. That's the same number of appearances as Nebraska, and excluding Texas (3-1 in four appearances) and Oklahoma (3-5 in eight appearances), that's more than any other team in the Big 12.

"Being in the Big 12 Conference doesn't make us successful," Patterson said. "Winning in the Big 12 Conference is what makes you successful. Our goal is going to be to win in the Big 12 Conference, not just compete in the Big 12 Conference."

The Big 12 was reeling after losing three members in 15 months, with another also looking to leave. Money was secondary to stability, and the league still has $1.1 billion on the way from Fox Sports over the next 13 years and a negotiation for the league's most valuable games coming up in 2014.

Nothing helps that price rise like good football.

TCU dealt with disappointment 15 years ago.

It hired Patterson as its head coach in 2000. Since, it's built itself into something closely resembling a national brand.

As a reward, it gets the access to the BCS without the obvious geographic drawbacks of the Big East, which TCU was slated to join in 2012.

For the Big 12, life is good.

For the Horned Frogs, life is about to get infinitely better.