Mac Engel

LT deserves a statue at TCU

Someone is missing from TCU’s path of statues.

There is Gary Patterson, the football coach who reluctantly agreed to the pricey project because a prominent booster desperately wanted to do it (I’m with Gary on this: it may be deserved but the timing is awkward).

There is Dutch Meyer, who coached TCU to national titles in 1935 and 1938, and is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.

And then there is quarterback Davey O’Brien, winner of the 1938 Heisman Trophy and a man whose name is on the award given annually to the nation’s top college passer.

So ... where is the statue of Slingin’ Sammy Baugh. who for decades was the most famous TCU football player and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s inaugural class?

Speaking of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and statues, how does LaDainian Tomlinson not have one of his own?

TCU’s campus looks nothing like its posh state without LT.

Deservedly, LT will join the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday night, and hopefully one day he will have a statue of his own at TCU’s sprawling athletic complex. Given TCU’s recent history of burning through cash it would be a surprise if one day LT is not further celebrated.

Statues cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, but if TCU is going to encase its greatest football players in bronze both Sammy and LT deserve their own next to GP, Dutch and Davey.

When it comes to making an argument for paying student-athletes, LT is a case study to do it. His impact on TCU is in the millions of dollars.

Of the Texas college football players “used” by their universities in the past 20 or so years as marketing tools — Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M, Robert Griffin III at Baylor, Ricky Williams at Texas — LT eclipsed them all as his school’s national salesman.

Those schools were in power conferences when those star players arrived whereas TCU was well out of the national consciousness when LT ran wild and made the Horned Frogs a name.

He did not do it alone, but no player had a greater impact on TCU’s ascent from second-tier WAC status to a brand that attracts students from across the country, leading to an expansion that includes a medical school and campuswide makeover.

Any time an entity wants to evolve it needs a face and a narrative to sell the “new and improved” label. In TCU’s case, it turned out to be an African-American kid from Rosebud who went mostly unrecruited out of high school.

In 1998, LT was already on campus when TCU administrators were still feeling the sting of being left out of the the Big 12. They were stuck in the vast obscurity of the 16-team Western Athletic Conference. That year the school pledged to try to catch up.

Trustees approved spending for capital improvements. The university took the risk that if it was going to become a brand outside of North Texas, it would use sports to market to a larger pool of students.

TCU is not the first school to try this, but it’s an expensive gamble. The success of the plan is entirely based on whether a football or men’s basketball team wins.

The school handed Dennis Franchione a large raise to leave New Mexico to come to Fort Worth to lead the Horned Frogs football team. Fran continually sold the idea that TCU was a “diamond in the rough.”

What he did not know was that he already had his diamond on the roster.

In Fran’s second year, and LT’s junior season, the coach would begin leaning on a running back the way few coaches ever do. In LT’s final two seasons under Fran, he carried the ball 637 times.

In his junior year he ran the ball 43 times for a then-NCAA record 406 yards against UTEP; during his senior year, he ran the ball at least 30 times in seven games, including 49 carries against Hawaii.

After his game against UTEP, the national attention began to escalate and both TCU and Fran realized they had their face, their voice and their story.

In the summer of 2000, the school invested a few hundred thousand dollars for the “LT For Heisman” campaign; the hope was LT would be invited to New York City for the award ceremony. School administrators knew, because he played in the WAC, he was not likely to win the award. Making it to New York would justify the expense.

In his senior season he ran for more than 2,000 yards and did every interview request thrown his way. Both he and Fran were everywhere as TCU was trying to become a non-power conference team to reach an elite bowl.

That dream died in early November when the Frogs lost by three points at San Jose State, but the push to make TCU a national name worked with LT as the charming face. He received that invite to the Heisman Trophy presentation where he finished fourth.

Fran left with LT after that 2000 season, but the momentum they created carried on under Patterson and endured with a win in the Rose Bowl, an invite to the Big 12 and continued on-campus improvements.

LT didn’t do all of it, but he started it.

That deserves a statue, and while TCU is at it, throw one up for Sammy, too.

Mac Engel: @macengelprof

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram