FORT WORTH, Texas -- TCU held its annual football banquet last Saturday night. The Horned Frogs crammed nearly 1,000 people on the floor of Daniel-Meyer Coliseum to celebrate the young men who won the Rose Bowl to finish 13-0 and No. 2 in the nation.
There was quarterback Andy Dalton, the team MVP, and center Jake Kirkpatrick, the Rimington Award winner, who took time out from preparing for the NFL draft. There were 24 other departing seniors, including All-American safety Tejay Johnson, who turned away from pro football to prepare for a career of interpreting for the deaf.
They are young men of substance. They won 44 games over the last four seasons. And they don't wear the purple anymore.
"The banquet just brought the memories back," said senior All-American linebacker and Rose Bowl Defensive MVP Tank Carder. " We hadn't seen [the seniors] since the day after the [Rose Bowl] game because a bunch of them started training."
Senior offensive tackle Jeff Olson walked into his first position meeting of the 2011 Horned Frogs and felt like he had wandered into the wrong classroom. The familiar faces, four linemen who had started 117 games going into the Rose Bowl, were not there.
"Being so close to those guys, and looking around, not seeing them, or some of the D-backs or D-linemen, it's really a strange feeling," Olson said. "You grow so close, playing for four years. You know how to bug this person, or bug that person, and you can't use those jokes. You need better material for the new guys coming in. It was definitely a weird experience. It was really empty."
The foundation of TCU's success is gone. For the team leaders who remain, the task is to inculcate their young teammates in how the Horned Frogs do business. There is a locker room full of players who have been to the Rose Bowl, and the Fiesta Bowl the year before, though their contribution never left the practice field. If they climb the last rung of the depth chart with a sense of entitlement, then the Horned Frogs will be in trouble.
"You got a lot of guys who may listen to people from the outside telling us how good we are," said junior tailback Ed Wesley, who rushed for 1,078 yards and 11 touchdowns. "And when you have somebody telling you how good you are, you don't feel you have to work as hard."
Wesley is sitting at a picnic table on the patio overlooking the construction site that is Amon Carter Stadium, in the middle of a $130 million renovation. It is close to dusk after one of the Horned Frogs' last spring practices.
"This team has not won a Rose Bowl," Wesley said. "We have to move forward and do everything that an underdog does to get back on top. And that's work hard. That's all it is. Work hard. Work harder than you think you can work. We have very talented guys. All we have to do is just work."
As Olson put it, "We're kind of worried a little bit about the younger kids, thinking that a BCS game is just what happens here."
Head coach Gary Patterson has spent most of the last three months repositioning the chip on his team's shoulder.
Patterson may have a career record of 98-28. He may have brought TCU from Big 12 cuckold to national power. He has a new contract that pays him nearly $3 million per year. But he has never forgotten that he comes from small-town Kansas, and he will spend all day and night proving to the world that he is just as good as the big-city guys, even after he already has proven it.
"People tell you that you can't do something," Patterson said. "I think all coaches are like that. The challenge -- 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."
Patterson talks about his young players and how he and his staff need to "grow them up." Take the quarterbacks: sophomore Casey Pachall, who played in eight games last season, and redshirt freshman Matt Brown. They have taken a lot of practice snaps. At TCU, the 1s, 2s and 3s on the depth chart all get the same amount of reps.
"There's still a long way to go," Patterson said. "It's kind of like Matt Brown being a redshirt freshman quarterback and comparing him to Andy Dalton. I can tell you that Matt Brown runs better. But can he see the zone blitz?"
Saying that a quarterback runs better than Dalton is like saying a young point guard brings the ball upcourt better than Shaq. That's not what makes him valuable.
Patterson needs players like Dalton and Kirkpatrick, who would grab their coaches' laptops on the plane home Saturday night in order to watch video of the game they just played.
Patterson needs players like Wesley, who, from his perch at the stadium, sees two women's basketball players preparing to run stadium stairs and speaks excitedly about the conditioning work that will begin next week.
Wesley got that attitude from the senior running backs who explained life as a Horned Frog to him during his freshman year. For TCU to continue to succeed, players like Carder, Wesley and Olson will have to pass on their knowledge.
"Whenever you come in," said Carder, who missed spring practice while rehabbing from shoulder surgery, "you've got the older guys that you look up to and they're running the show. You're the older guy now. You do kind of get frustrated [with the younger players] sometimes. But all the guys for the most part are real willing to listen and they want to get the things done because they know the goal that Coach Patterson has instilled in us, trying to take it back to where we've been getting the last few years. The way Coach Patterson runs his team is, 'Don't wait to be great. Be great now.'"
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.