Mac Engel

Dennis Franchione: The coach that made TCU relevant and left Alabama for Texas A&M

Former TCU, Alabama and Texas A&M coach Dennis Franchione reflects

Once the hottest name in college football coaching, Dennis Franchione looks back on his time at TCU.
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Once the hottest name in college football coaching, Dennis Franchione looks back on his time at TCU.

Once the hottest name in college coaching, Dennis Franchione is now 67 and, unlike some of his contemporaries, he has no interest in going back.

Les Miles is 65, Mack Brown is 67 and I’m 67,” Franchione said. “People kept asking me if I was going to look at the Texas Tech job. Or the Kansas State job. I did it for 40 years. I’m good.”

Fran’s legacy is complicated, but he did something no one in his profession ever has: As the head coach at TCU, he beat SMU; as the head coach of Alabama, he beat Auburn; as the head coach of Texas A&M, he beat Texas.

He is a breed who had the temerity to pull the reverse of Bear Bryant: He left Alabama for Texas A&M.

Twenty years ago, Coach Franch’ was a star after he led TCU to its first bowl win in 41 years, against USC in the Sun Bowl. Virtually all of TCU’s success over the last two decades began with his arrival from the University of New Mexico.

Fran is retired now and lives on a golf course and a lake in Horseshoe Bay with his wife and their tiny “attack” dog; he reflects on his career with satisfaction, and a perspective gained from dealing with cancer.

There was never a national title for Franchione, but there is an office room stuffed with momentos from a life at the highest level of college football, pictures of kids and grandkids, and the gratifcation that while it was not perfect, it was full.

THE SUN BOWL

Students, alums and fans who are familiar with TCU only this century have no clue how irrelevant the Frogs were before the Sun Bowl. Before Fran’, TCU was known only as “Texas Christian University” and “A Poor Man’s SMU.”

Winning the ‘98 Sun Bowl did not change all of that, but it was a catapult.

“I can pick three or four games but that was maybe the biggest win of my career,” said Fran, who won 127 games as a Division I head coach.

When Fran was hired early in ‘98, TCU had been on a multi-decade run of awful. The football program was so bad TCU was a “basketball school,” even though the Frogs reached the NCAA tournament once in the ‘90s.

Led by then-vice chancellor Dr. William Koehler, the school was in the beginning stages of investing heavily in athletics and hired Fran away from New Mexico. Then it hired athletic director Eric Hyman, and the plan to modernize the athletic department and use the football team as a method to market the school began.

The only way it worked was if football won. Despite finishing with one win the previous season, TCU finished 6-5 playing in the Western Athletic Conference in ‘98.

“We were into our offseason and then I read in the paper (in the first week off December) the Sun Bowl may need to fill a spot,” Fran said because the Big 10 did not have enough bowl-eligible teams. “That there were a dozen candidates and we were being considered.”

Fran led an effort to lobby the Sun Bowl, which included a visit to El Paso with school and community leaders to make a case for TCU. Koehler was adamant about doing whatever necessary to play in the game, knowing the visibility could help the school.

Sun Bowl representatives were hesitant on inviting a small WAC school; this was a time when 6-5 WAC teams were not invited to a bowl.

“Then Texas A&M upset Kansas State in the Big 12 championship game and that sent K-State to the Alamo Bowl,” Fran said. “I was on the phone with the Sun Bowl from 8 at night until two in the morning.”

The next morning, TCU was invited to play in the Sun Bowl. TCU jumped Utah (7-4), Wyoming (8-3) and Colorado State (8-4) from the conference to land an invite. A “deal” between TCU and the Sun Bowl had been made.

TCU coaches had to scramble to find the players, including seniors who thought their football careers were over. A lot of those guys, in a limited time, had begun the process of “letting themselves go.”

“I had a staff meeting and I said, ‘I have great news and some interesting news,’” Fran said. “I said, ‘We’re in the Sun Bowl.’ Guys were happy. Then I said, ‘We’re playing USC.’”

SLAYING ‘SC

On the field for USC on New Year’s Eve Day in 1998 were future NFL players Carson Palmer, R. Jay Soward, Chris Claiborne, Daylon McCutcheon, Chad Morton, and a few others. USC was a 17.5 point favorite.

The night before the game, Fran took his team out of El Paso over to spend the final night in Las Cruces, N.M. to get away from family and friends who may distract them.

“I told them I knew we could win,” Fran said. “Did I believe it? I thought we had a chance.”

The chance centered partially around ‘SC not caring about playing in a game that was beneath them. The Trojans were 8-4 under first-year coach Paul Hackett.

From the moment the game started, ‘SC played like they were above it. TCU led 21-0 in the second quarter, and for the game held USC to minus-23 yards rushing. The Trojans woke up in the second half, but they never threatened to win.

TCU’s option with receiver-turned quarterback Patrick Batteaux and running backs Basil Mitchell and LaDainian Tomlinson ran over USC.

“There is that moment,” he said, “when after the game is over and you’re sitting by yourself and you think, ‘Wow. We did it. We beat USC.”

BECOMING COACH FRAN

The investment to play in the Sun Bowl paid off for the school, and the event organizers. The game featured a crowd of 46,612, the eighth largest in the game’s history. TCU was one of the biggest stories of the bowl season.

The next year, Tomlinson would begin his ascent as one of the best to ever play the game. In 2000, TCU was one of the unofficial teams with the best chance to be a “BCS Buster,” and LT was a Heisman candidate.

The Frogs started the season 7-0, and climbed to No. 9 in the AP Poll. They were in a perfect spot to go undefeated, and potentially land a BCS Bowl. But they lost on Thursday night at San Jose State, and it was over.

TCU would eventually become a “BCS Buster,” in 2009.

Wanting a shot to win the national title, Fran left for Alabama after the regular season ended, and LT’s All-American career was over. TCU gave Fran’s defensive coordinator, Gary Patterson, the job.

The final impression TCU fans have of Fran is an image of him sitting at the Heisman Trophy presentation, wearing a crimson colored tie. The image should be that of a program he built when it was nothing, and a Sun Bowl game it should not have been in, much less won.

OF BAMA

Fran says, “The Alabama story has never really been told,” and he’s not dying to go into every detail just yet.

By 2000, the jewel of college football was desperate to find the right fit since Gene Stallings retired after the ‘95 season, and no coach outside of but a few had Fran’s resume.

Fran was hired by Bama in December ‘00, but in Feb. of the following year the NCAA announced it was investigating the program.

The Tide finished 7-5 with an upset over rival Auburn in his first season; it was a four-win improvement from the previous year. In Feb. ‘02, the NCAA put Alabama on a five-year probation, which included a two-year bowl ban, and scholarship reduction.

After the ‘02 season where Alabama finished 10-3 and finished 11th, A&M wanted to replace fired R.C. Slocum. Fran had considerable Texas ties, and by this point he sensed the Bama job he accepted was not the Bama job he was working.

So Fran did the unimaginable and left Alabama for Texas A&M, and his name became, and remains, a four-lettered word in Tuscaloosa.

“There is nothing like coaching football at Alabama. It’s 365. I didn’t mind that. I just needed someone to trust to go through the NCAA stuff. It was hard to figure some things out, and Alabama is going to do what it needs to win,” he said. “I don’t think you can say the (criticism) never bothered you. Alabama fans love Alabama so much they don’t think a coach is ever going to leave. I take that as they wish I would have stayed rather than my leaving created more turmoil for the program because it was another coaching change.”

Fran was replaced by Mike Shula, who lasted four seasons before he was fired and replaced Fran’s old rival from LSU, Nick Saban.

AND KYLE FIELD

Fran’s arrival to College Station in ‘03 was hailed as the answer to Mack Brown in Austin, who at the time was building an eventual national title winner. Fran was going to do for the Aggies what he did for the Frogs.

It never happened. Brown owned Texas.

In ‘06, Fran was close to a breakthrough. The Aggies lost a controversial game against Texas Tech. They also lost by one point in consecutive weeks to Oklahoma and Nebraska. A&M defeated Texas that season, but were blown out by Cal and running back Marshawn Lynch in the Holiday Bowl.

By the middle of ‘07, Fran was in the unfamiliar spot of being unpopular; a faux scandal involving an “insider” letter to boosters put him in a new light, but later AD Bill Byrne cleared him of wrong doing. Fans, and the powerful/influential Aggie boosters, had had enough. They had a gun, even if it was not smoking.

By the time the Aggies hosted Texas, Fran had resigned and agreed to a buyout. At Kyle Field, the Aggies upset No. 13 Texas in his final game.

In his five years at A&M, the Aggies were 0-3 in bowls, posted three winning seasons, and never finished ranked in the Top 25.

Since he left College Station, the Aggies have fired Mike Sherman and Kevin Sumlin as the head coach, and are now hoping Jimbo Fisher is their answer.

“I wanted to coach in Texas again because I had Texas ties. It was hard. I don’t know if I fully understood the ‘Aggie Culture,’” Fran said. “Sometimes I felt like the criticism was unfair, but you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. When I reflect on it, it happened to me once in 40 years. That’s pretty good.”

LIFE ALTERING PERSPECTIVE

After leaving A&M, Fran worked for ESPN, but eventually scratched the itch and took the Texas State job in 2012. Having coached at Pittsburgh State and New Mexico, he knew life of lower level college football.

He had one winning season in four years in San Marcos, and when he retired in December ‘15 he was done. He was one of four active coaches with 200 wins, and led nine teams to conference titles and bowl games.

When he left New Mexico, TCU, Alabama and Texas A&M, there was always a national reaction, headlines, and falling dominos. This time, there was a press release few noticed.

The hottest coach in 2000 was just another guy who got out.

“Had he not retired they would not have found it,” his wife, Kim said.

During a round of golf in ‘16, he finally acknowledged severe back pain. Almost immediately following a visit to the doctor, the test results showed a golf-ball sized tumor on his kidney.

“And I did the one thing you should not do which is to read about it on the internet,” said Fran, whose mother died of cancer.

He had the kidney removed, and because it was addressed so quickly no chemotherapy or radiation was needed. Recovery was still recovery: Miserable.

“I think I watched all of the Olympics,” he said. “Like, all of the Olympics.”

He has had no desire to coach another game. He is a grandad who plays endless amounts of golf, takes care of a dog, watches college football, and does the family thing with his wife and children who are scattered about.

“All I ever wanted to do was play ball, now it’s just a golf ball,” he said. “Now I want to be sure to enjoy what I have, and what time I have left.”

Because Dennis Franchione never won a national title, he will never be regarded the same way as Les Miles, Mack Brown, Nick Saban or his other contemporaries who did.

Fran’s college football legacy is complicated, and while his name is mud in Tuscaloosa and College Station, at TCU and Fort Worth it should forever remain as the guy who started it all.

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