The damage done to the TCU football program by last week's campus drug sting that produced the arrests of 15 students, including four players identified by police as dealers, will not disappear quickly.
But longtime observers of the program agree on two fundamental beliefs: This is far from the darkest hour in the history of the TCU football program. And the school has the leadership in place, starting with coach Gary Patterson, to absorb the ongoing public-relations hit and recapture on-field success.
Negative perceptions about TCU "will pass by," said Grant Teaff, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association, because administrators acted swiftly -- the four involved players have been dismissed from school -- and the issue did not involve NCAA rules violations that lead to scholarship reductions.
"Not to downplay what took place, because this is really going to hurt," Teaff said. "But this is a different type of situation. Most situations where negative things happen, it involves the NCAA and those coaches are gone. One thing I know beyond a shadow of a doubt is... TCU has quality leadership. I know Gary Patterson will handle this in the proper way. I know the kind of man he is. TCU will come through this and do it the right way."
Whether the Horned Frogs, who will join the Big 12 on July 1, can be a title contender in their new league after waving goodbye this week to four players -- including star linebacker Tanner Brock, the team's leading tackler in 2010 -- remains unclear. Also undetermined is the recruiting implications from reports that five players tested positive for marijuana in a Feb. 1 drug test, according to a source with knowledge of the situation, while 11 others had trace amounts within the margin of error.
What is clear, said former TCU athletic director Frank Windegger, is that the school's football program has overcome bigger challenges through the years. Three multiyear challenges leaped quickly to the minds of Windegger and Dan Jenkins, a noted author and TCU alumnus who played on the Horned Frogs' golf team.
They include the school being left out of the Big 12 when the Southwest Conference broke up in 1994; TCU's three-year probation and NCAA sanctions, handed down in 1986; and an 18-season stretch (1966-83) when the school did not make it to a bowl game and produced only one winning record (6-4-1 in 1971).
If the TCU football program could overcome those challenges and win the 2011 Rose Bowl, this latest setback should pale by comparison, in Jenkins' estimation.
"Being left out of the Big 12 at the end of the SWC was like being told you're a second-class citizen," Jenkins said. "This is embarrassing. But that was a whole lot worse.... It was a long way to get back, but it was fun the way that we did it. You can't take the Rose Bowl away from us. And I don't think a team filled with a bunch of guys smoking pot could've won that game. Show me a [college] football team that doesn't have someone who smokes pot. You can't do it."
Research on that topic supports Jenkins' premise. The arrests at TCU came one month after the NCAA released a report saying 22.6 percent of 20,474 student-athletes who took part in an anonymous survey in 2009 admitted to using marijuana in the previous 12 months. The NCAA does the survey every four years and the percentage of 2009 athletes who admitted to using marijuana was higher than the percentage from the 2005 survey (21.2).
No one interviewed for this story downplayed the significance of the charges against the four dismissed players identified by police as drug dealers. But concerns about widespread drug use within the team, triggered by two dismissed players' claims in arrest affidavits that 60 to 82 players may have failed the Feb. 1 drug test, have been mitigated since the number was reduced to five in a subsequent report citing a source with knowledge of the results. The same report said 86 players passed the test.
Teaff, a former Baylor coach (1972-92) and member of the College Football Hall of Fame, said he immediately knew the numbers cited by players were "not even possible" based on practical experience. Windegger, who retired as TCU's athletic director in 1998 after 45 years of association with the school, said recent headlines have created "a terrible anguish right now" but need to be kept in proper perspective.
"If no more surfaces than these four or five, who knows?" Windegger said when asked to weigh the public-relations damage the school will feel for the foreseeable future. "As of right now, I think this is one of those situations where people will know that TCU stepped up when the situation broke."
What Windegger knows is that his toughest day as a TCU employee occurred when he addressed a meeting of lettermen during his tenure as athletic director and told them the school would not be included in the merger of SWC and Big Eight members that created the Big 12, which began competing in the 1996 football season.
Windegger's tenure at the school, which began as a student-athlete in 1953, also overlapped the death of football coach Jim Pittman and the paralysis of running back Kent Waldrep. Pittman suffered a heart attack while coaching a 1971 game at Baylor and died later that night. Waldrep suffered a broken neck in a 1974 game at Alabama.
Windegger also oversaw the TCU program as it dealt with NCAA sanctions, handed down in 1986, that cost the school two years of TV revenues (1983-84 seasons) and limited the school to 10 football scholarships for the 1987-88 school year and 15 grants for 1988-89. When the NCAA sanctions hit, Windegger huddled with then-coach Jim Wacker.
"We thought it would be 10 years before we got out of that," Windegger said. "And it took about that long before things turned around."
Yet the SWC breakup was most painful, Windegger said, because it touched all sports and came with no clear timetable for resolution.
"Without a doubt," Windegger said.
Next fall, TCU rejoins former SWC members Texas, Texas Tech and Baylor in the Big 12. The Horned Frogs, who have won three consecutive league football titles in the Mountain West, will arrive with a combined record of 36-3 over the past three seasons, including the Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin that capped a 13-0 mark by the 2010 team.
Losing key players, along with national prestige, as a byproduct of last week's campus drug sting will not help in that transition. But Teaff said TCU has the one essential intangible -- trust -- needed to weather a difficult situation.
"Gary will have to rebuild and a lot will be based on trust," Teaff said. "In the eyes of the world, they've been very pristine. There's not been a hint of cheating and their players graduate. That is an important foundation of trust to begin with. Because of the people involved, I think it will be doable. There's so many positives involved for TCU."
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760