Cue the voice of John Facenda ...
In the blazing Texas September sun, as the rest of America begins the gradual chill into fall, the heat clings to the Earth here like the tick clings to the mockingbird. Where the zest and frolic of Spring has fallen prey to the searing August scourge and the only life that thrives is the pestilent fire ant, one man also thrives. He thrives not on water, the last drop of which was seen in May, nor on other basic human needs, needs that make mere mortal men weak, like the malnourished babe clinging to the suckled teet for survival. That man thrives not on these mortal trivialities, but on the foolishness of Freshman quarterbacks and the hubris of All-American running backs. Each obsessive hitch of his polyester coaching pants and each compulsive cinch of his grass-stained sneakers are naught but the mundane routine of the shadowy panther, contently licking his fur in the few deceptively calm seconds before vaulting onto his prey in its final desperate moments of life. That man is Legendary Rose Bowl Winning Head Coach Gary Mother Truckin' Patterson of the Texas Christian University Horned Frogs ...
Whoa, that got away from me a little. I was just about to break out the video camera and record
There is no question that, with a begrudging assist to Dennis Franchione, without Gary Patterson, the Frogs are not in the Big XII. He probably gets at least some small credit for the increase in applications and enrollment at TCU, the increase in endowment, and the explosion in campus construction that has occurred over the last decade. He certainly gets a lot of the credit for the new Amon Giles Carter Stadium, a stadium that is likely to be called Carter-Patterson Stadium (or Patterson-Carter?) someday in the not-too-distant future.
After all, it was in the not-too-distant past when TCU was among the most consistently awful teams in college football. Although it predates the TCU consciousness of the newer students and alumni who now fill a stadium more than half as big as the number of living TCU alumni who walk the planet, the Franchione-Patterson era was ushered into being by the 1-10 season of 1997. That season marked the end of the Pat Sullivan era, an era which, like a few of the seven TCU coaching "eras" which spanned the time between Abe Martin's retirement in 1966 and Franchione's hiring in 1998 (an average of 4.5 years per coach), showed a few very rare glimmers of hope --
It is with this Waterboy-esque level of pathos into which Franchione and Patterson set foot onto the campus in 1998. Of course their Bobby Boucher turns out to be an unheralded sophomore tailback who will be a Heisman invitee in three years, but I doubt even they had any inkling of that at that time.
Not everybody is as smitten with our Gary as we are. He won in mediocre conferences. He only had to win one or two "big" games a year. Look at last year! TCU joins a real conference and they go a game over .500! Bam! Lock it!
Ignoring the myriad issues surrounding last season's team and the argument that coaching that band of Freshmen up to the level that they sometimes played may have been his best coaching job yet, let's look at this notion of the "easy" conference being the primary reason for TCU's success over the last decade.
The Immediate Impact of the "Soft Conference"
Starting in 1996, TCU, SMU, Rice and Houston, cast aside by their big state school brethren (and skirt riders Baylor) were left to fend for themselves and found homes in the new 16-team behemoth WAC (for the former three) and CUSA (for the latter). If TCU succeeded during the Patterson era primarily because of the weaker conference competition, then all of the four schools from the ostensibly "major" Southwest Conference must have immediately competed for conference titles in their new leagues, right?
In reality, the four schools all did better after joining their new conferences, but only slightly. Looking at winning percentage of the 4 teams in the 5 years immediately prior (1991-1995) and immediately after (1996-2000) the breakup of the SWC, SMU and Houston averaged roughly 2 more wins a season in the years after the SWC than before, Rice averaged 0.7 more wins a season, and TCU averaged 0.4 more wins. And keep in mind that in 1991, SMU was just in their third season back from the Death Penalty and Houston received their sanctions for John Jenkins' assery during that time. The SMU and Houston teams at the end of the SWC were about as decimated as college football teams could be. They had nowhere to go but up.
Years TCU SMU Rice Houston
1991-1995 0.471 0.209 0.427 0.227
1996-2000 0.508 0.413 0.491 0.408
Table 1. Winning percentage for the 4 SWC schools left out of the Big XII in the 5 years before and after the breakup of the SWC
Point differential over those same two time periods tells an even more muddled story.
Years TCU SMU Rice Houston
1991-1995 -50.4 -143.8 -18.2 -135.8
1996-2000 46.8 -49.4 -25.2 -70.6
Table 2. Average yearly point differential for the 4 SWC schools left out of the Big XII in the 5 years before and after the breakup of the SWC
Rice, despite winning 0.7 more games a season, saw a decrease in their point differential after the breakup of the SWC. TCU went from 4 points worse than their opponents on average per game to 4 points better, and Houston and SMU went from being two TDs worse than their opponents on average per game to being within a TD of their opponents. On average, across the 4 teams, changing conferences gave these teams 1.3 wins a season and 5.7 points a game more. And that is if you neglect how historically and artificially horrible SMU and Houston were in those final years of the SWC due to scholarship restrictions and sanctions.
The Sullivan-era Frogs needed a lot more than 1.3 wins a season and 5.7 points per game to get to where the Frogs got in 2009 and 2010. And the reality is, the last decade-and-a-half of the SWC was a pretty mediocre era for the SWC, part of what led to its demise. It shouldn't come as a big surprise that the schools who were bad teams at the end of the SWC continued to be bad in their new mediocre conferences.
The "Ease" of Going Undefeated in a Non-AQ Conference
Another argument of the Patterson detractor is that TCU and other non-AQ schools have a better chance of going undefeated in a season by virtue of their soft conference and that the non-AQ, in effect, has an unfair advantage over the AQ school to get the proper ranking to be qualified for a BCS game.
MWC 9 6 105 0.057
WAC 9 9 132 0.068
P12 5 14 143 0.098
SBC 5 9 86 0.105
SEC 6 15 136 0.110
B12 5 17 138 0.123
CUSA 5 16 125 0.128
ACC 5 18 136 0.132
BE 6 16 118 0.136
B10 3 19 136 0.140
MAC 4 20 134 0.149
Table 3. Since 1996, the number of undefeated conference seasons, combined conference champion losses, combined conference games played, and average losing percentage for the conference champion. Table sorted with "easiest" leagues to go undefeated on top and most difficult on bottom.
The detractor is correct in that the MWC has been, for whatever reason, the easiest conference in college football in which to go undefeated. However, note that the MAC has been the most difficult conference in which to go undefeated. The Sun Belt, historically one of, if not the, worst conference, is harder to go undefeated in than the Pac 10/12 and about the same difficulty as the vaunted SEC. The Big 10, Big East, and ACC are the conferences with the highest likelihood of a conference champion suffering a loss.
It is evident from this that the factors that go into the "ease" with which teams in a particular conference can go undefeated has little to do with the strength of the conference. It appears that the more likely driver is a lack of parity in a conference. The lack of parity in the MWC was discussed in some detail in a previous NMMH entry, and for each of the 6 "easiest" conferences in which to go undefeated, 1-3 dominant teams over the time span we're discussing here are easy to identify (WAC -- Boise, P12 -- USC and Oregon, SBC -- Troy, SEC -- Alabama, Florida, LSU). Also note that outside the MWC and WAC, no conference has had more than 6 undefeated champions over the last 17 seasons.
The True Toll of the Mythical "Week-In-Week-Out Pounding"
Six schools have transitioned either to or from Non-AQ to AQ conferences over the last 12 years; Louisville, Cincinnati, and USF from CUSA to the Big East in 2005, Utah from the MWC to Pac 12 in 2011, TCU from the MWC to Big 12 in 2012, and Temple, going both directions, from the Big East to the MAC in 2005 and back to the Big East in 2012. Using the DUSHEE metric, we can compare how equivalently performing teams have done relative to their conference performance.
Figure 1. DUSHEE score versus year for TCU. Conference affiliation designated by marker. Curve is 3-year moving average.
Based on Figure 1, DUSHEE scored the 2003 CUSA team, the 2007 MWC team, and the 2012 Big 12 team all about the same. If we accept that those three teams performed roughly equivalently, then their relative performance within their conference should tell us something about the strength of those conferences, ignoring any year-to-year variability inherent within conference performance.
In 2003, TCU went 11-2 overall, 7-1 in conference, and CUSA's average DUSHEE score was -13.6.
In 2007, TCU went 8-5 overall, 4-4 in conference, and the MWC's average DUSHEE score was -0.3
In 2012, TCU went 7-6 overall, 4-5 in conference, and the Big XII's average DUSHEE score was 18.2
So clearly there is a correlation between conference strength and on-field success if a team's performance is held constant. But notice that there wasn't a big difference between the 2007 and 2012 TCU teams in terms of on-the-field results. the MWC team was a game better overall and a half game better in conference, even though the 2012 Big XII was significantly better than the 2007 MWC overall.
If we look closely at the correlations with the other 5 teams, we can begin to estimate how big a role conference affiliation plays on success.
Figure 2. For the 6 teams who have moved from non-AQ to AQ conferences and vice versa (TCU, Utah, Louisville, Cincinnati, USF, and Temple), their conference winning percentage as a function of DUSHEE Score since 2000.
The correlation is very weak, but if you take the linear fit as having any value at all (which I'm not sure any statistician would abide), the move from non-AQ to AQ for a mediocre team (DUSHEE = 0) decreases the team's conference winning percentage from roughly 60% to 40% (the difference between 3-5 and 5-3). And the impact of the move appears to decrease as the team's performance improves (i.e., the two linear fits appear to converge with increasing DUSHEE score).
What's It All Mean?
While there is some justification for the claim that TCU has benefited by the relegation to non-AQ status after the fall of the SWC, that benefit has been over-estimated. At best, TCU has probably gained an extra 1-2 wins per year in their poorer performing years. And in their better years (namely 2009 and 2010) they are unlikely to have benefited much at all. An easier level of competition nominally makes wins easier, but that advantage is mitigated by the severe recruiting and financial disadvantages that playing in non-AQ conferences possesses.
Patterson's legacy is intact. Let's just figure out whether his name or Amon's name should be listed first on the stadium.