TCU was so bad that its fans screwed up tearing down the goalpost, primarily because the Fort Worth police used pepper spray to deter giddy fans from ripping it down.
“They used mace on the cheerleaders,” former TCU safety Landry Burdine said.
Sometimes you gotta send a message.
The picture is a sad but appropriate scene befitting a loser: A gray afternoon in an empty stadium with a goalpost only half torn down.
“We couldn’t even tear down the … goalpost,” former TCU defensive tackle J.W. Wilson said.
Twenty years later, TCU’s win over SMU, which prompted fans to try to tear down the goalpost, is a just another W against a rival it now owns.
By early November in 1997, TCU was an irrelevant joke. The team was winless, head coach Pat Sullivan had announced his intention to quit at the end of the season, and junior running back Basil Mitchell was on the team bus after another loss.
“We’re playing around and I said, ‘You know what would be really funny? If we lost every game but SMU,’ ” Mitchell said.
Now that would be funny.
On Nov. 20, 1997, at Amon G. Carter Stadium, no one in the world could have foreseen that TCU’s 21-18 victory over SMU would be the start of a magical run that changed a school and a city, and became one of college sports’ most unlikely success stories that offers a model for others.
After a blowout loss against BYU in October, Morale grabbed her shovel and dug another ditch at TCU when Sullivan announced he would resign at the end of the season. The Horned Frogs were in their second season of the Western Athletic Conference, and proving every day that they did not belong in the Big 12.
When Sullivan quit, assistant coaches and staffers cried. They all knew they were gone.
TCU had four games remaining and “the coaches didn’t care,” Mitchell said. “They were trying to find other jobs.”
“That staff hated each other,” Burdine said. “It was the most dysfunctional family Christmas you can remember.
“The two weeks after that loss to BYU were absolutely brutal. There was the component of, ‘You guys got us fired so buckle up.’ We started doing crazy full-contact drills that we had not done all year. When you are that far into the season you are in injury-avoid mode. We were doing wedge-busting drills.
“We did this thing called ‘blood alley’ that they just made up. The first guy who did it got injured. I was the second one up and I hit a freshman who never played again. They were not trying to hurt us, but it was physical.”
TCU’s next game after Sullivan resigned was against a New Mexico team coached by Dennis Franchione.
What was thought to have been a myth was actually true, according to a member of the TCU staff: Fran toured TCU’s facilities before kickoff and, after his team won 40-10, told a few people, “I’ll see you in a few months.”
According to a source, talks between Fran and TCU began almost immediately after Sullivan resigned.
Fran was hired the next month to replace Sullivan.
Before the days of more flexible scheduling, TCU’s game against conference-rival SMU was selected by ESPN for a national broadcast on a Thursday evening.
TCU was 0-10 and trying to avoid its first winless season since 1976.
SMU had ripped off four consecutive wins for a 6-4 record. The Mustangs were playing for a chance to go their first bowl game since serving the “Death Penalty” in 1987. They had already secured their first winning record since 1986, and if they defeated TCU they would go to their first bowl since 1984.
“We all wanted to win that for Coach Sullivan; you never want to be a player when a coach gets fired,” said former TCU quarterback Jeff Dover, who began his career as the starter but had been benched. “We had talked about this was our chance for people to see us (on TV) and see us do the right things and have a big win. There was a trophy to be played for.”
The relevance of the Iron Skillet in the last decade has come to mean little, but on this night, it was more than kitchenware.
Bowl representatives were in Amon G. Carter Stadium to announce an invite to SMU after its win.
In the locker room, Sullivan looked at his players for his final pregame speech, something that did not come natural to him. He said, “I don’t want you to win this game for me.”
At the end of the first quarter, the seats were mostly empty.
“Maybe it was half full,” Wilson said.
Go lower. Think 15,000. Maybe.
“I think more people were just in the parking lot maybe,” Wilson said.
Funny how things don’t seem to change.
SMU transfer starting quarterback Derek Canine, who previously took the job from Dover, was out. By the end of the first quarter, Dover was in for the rest of the game. He threw two touchdown passes in the first half for a 14-10 lead.
At this point the players saw something in the stands.
“You could see more people were coming in,” Burdine said. “We all noticed it.”
As the game game progressed, word spread that TCU might finally win. Students hurried over and walked in past indifferent ticket takers. Everyone was happy someone wanted to go to a game.
As the game progressed, a feeling of euphoria and gnawing uncertainty grabbed the sidelines. TCU had been in close games before that season.
“It’s not like we knew how to win,” Burdine said.
With 10:29 remaining in the game, Mitchell executed a dive-fake at the goal line, which allowed Dover to easily run into the end zone for a 21-10 lead.
SMU had a final shot and, during a desperate drive, completed a long pass against TCU cornerback Corey Masters.
“Corey is the fastest guy on our team and I told him, ‘How do you get beat on a prevent defense?’ ” Mitchell said.
The players had come too far to lose their last shot at a win.
In the final minutes, SMU scored a touchdown with a two-point conversion, and eventually got the ball back for a final chance. TCU came up with the interception that ended it and started … it all.
The maced cheerleaders
Fans, mostly students, rushed the field. In the final game of his six-year tenure in Fort Worth, Sullivan cried as his players mobbed him in the ensuing celebration.
This was a program that had been to three bowl games in 27 years, had not won a bowl game since 1956 and had six winning records since 1960.
Celebrations were not common. The few hundred students immediately pursued the goalpost in the north end zone, but stopped when they saw it was encircled by Fort Worth police.
A few students noticed there were but maybe one or two cops standing guard at the other goalpost, so they all pursued that one.
A reactionary Fort Worth police department actively tried to deter the students.
“They used pepper spray and mace,” Wilson said. “You could totally feel it in your eyes and your skin. You could almost taste it.”
The players and coaches eventually left the field and made their way to the locker room, knowing that it was all over.
“That was one of the best celebrations I’ve ever seen in a locker room,” Burdine said. “It was relief that we didn’t get skunked. Everyone loved Coach Sullivan and we knew he was gone.”
A season’s worth of negative emotion flipped into a release valve of happiness. The season and an era were over. No one knew what was coming.
The previous season, TCU introduced a bronze football on a vertical cut of granite and placed it next to the stadium. After every win, engravers would cut the score, the date and the opponent into the rock.
With so few wins, the Victory Ball became a running joke. The Loser Ball was the usual name.
After Franchione arrived, along with defensive coordinator Gary Patterson, the engraver was a bit busier.
The Victory Ball became full in the early 2000s and, according to TCU athletics spokesman Mark Cohen, now sits in storage.
Almost immediately after its win against SMU, TCU made a pledge to upgrade virtually everything. It let longtime staffers go and began to change its brand and image.
“It’s all changed. I barely recognize the place today,” said Wilson, who lives in west Fort Worth and has his own gas company. He is married with two kids. “It’s funny, I wouldn’t even be recruited to TCU if I played today.”
As Burdine noted, “We were not a good team, but we had good players.”
On the team that defeated SMU that night was running back LaDainian Tomlinson and defensive end Aaron Schobel. They were among a core that started TCU’s two-decade run of success.
The date Nov. 20, 1997, is now just a funny footnote for a bad team. The night was the end of an multi-decade era of losing for TCU. That night was the beginning of what has become a nationally relevant school and football program.
And the Fort Worth cops never used mace on the cheerleaders ever again.
Mac Engel: @macengelprof