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January 15, 2012
Recruiting a running back and turning him into a first-round NFL draft pick at defensive end once was a fine strategy for TCU. Jerry Hughes flourished with that position change at TCU, leading the Horned Frogs to two top-10 finishes and a Fiesta Bowl.
But it's not 2006 anymore and TCU is no longer recruiting to the Mountain West or Conference USA.
TCU is one of four teams to finish in the top 15 in the polls in each of the last four seasons, alongside Alabama, Boise State and Oregon. In 2010, the Horned Frogs won a Rose Bowl and finished a 12-1 season in the Fiesta Bowl a year earlier.
Winning at that level raised TCU's recruiting profile, which looks to increase further with the Horned Frogs' official move to the Big 12 later this year.
For the first time since the dissolution of the Southwest Conference, TCU can sell these recruits and the next batch of prospects on TCU's place in a major conference. And unlike TCU's brief dalliance with the Big East, the Horned Frogs can sell its spot in a geographically sensible league.
At practices for the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, McPherson (Kan.) quarterback Tyler Matthews said he still would have signed with TCU if it remained in the Big East, but the Big 12 was a clincher of sorts.
"I have to say the Big 12 is better," Matthews said. "I don't mean to look down on the Big East, but it's a basketball conference. The Big 12 is so much better."
Only three of TCU's 19 commitments announced after the Horned Frogs' decision to back out of the Big East for the Big 12 in October, so the full impact of a major conference-bound TCU on the recruiting trail won't be felt until the 2013 class.
Still, this is far from the old TCU on the recruiting trail.
First, the Horned Frogs had three commitments playing in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl - Matthews, Carthage (Texas) safety Edward Pope and Spring Branch (Texas) Smithson Valley punter Ethan Perry - the most in program history.
Beyond that, five four-star prospects are committed to TCU. If the remaining four committed prospects sign - the quarterback Matthews already is enrolled - it will be the most for a Horned Frogs signing class in the Rivals era. Furthermore, if the class remains as is, this will be the best TCU class since at least 2002.
On Jan. 20, TCU will get visits from three key prospects: Rivals250 cornerback DeVante Harris of Mesquite (Texas) Horn was a former Oklahoma commit. Dallas Skyline wide receiver Thomas Johnson recently de-committed from Texas, leaving TCU in the mix with Oregon and California. Lithonia (Ga.) Martin Luther King safety Jordan Moore is committed to LSU - for the track team. Ohio State and TCU were the first to offer him for football, but other major FBS programs are starting to take note.
Through a school spokesman, TCU coach Gary Patterson said he did not notice a drastic difference on the recruiting trail, though rival programs could no longer use TCU's affiliation as a non-automatic qualifying BCS program against the Horned Frogs.
"Within 10 days of the announcement of us joining the Pac-12 we had seven verbal commits we were fairly sure we would not have gotten without the BCS affiliation," said Whittingham, whose team used to compete with TCU in the Mountain West.
"That was the biggest detractor before we were in the Pac-12 was not having the BCS affiliation. Even though we'd been to two BCS games and won them both, when it came down to the end, oftentimes not belonging to a BCS conference was the difference."
At Utah, Whittingham said the Utes' recruiting strategy changed once they became a Pac-12 school. It had to.
"Not drastically, but we are getting in on more national recruits and getting our share of them," Whittingham said. "That has to happen if you want to play in the Pac-12 and the level of competition. You have to come away with your fair share of national recruits."
TCU already is seeing its profile change with elite recruits in its own backyard.
Southlake (Texas) Carroll coach Hal Wasson remembers the days when fans could pick just about any seat at TCU home games. Now, his players at the Metroplex powerhouse are looking at TCU more seriously.
"Our players have always been intrigued and interested in TCU because of the proximity," Wasson said. "That's been intriguing enough. Then parlay that into being in the Big 12, a TV conference. They have great exposure, which should put more emphasis on their recruiting [the Dallas-Fort Worth area]."
TCU also can capitalize on geography in ways it couldn't as a prospective Big East member or a member of the Mountain West.
In addition to home games, TCU will have short road trips in the Big 12. Texas, Oklahoma and Baylor are all fewer than 200 miles from Fort Worth - far easier than potential Big East road trips to Rutgers, Connecticut and Cincinnati.
"The Big 12 is a lot better," Pope said. "Since we'll be playing a lot of Texas teams, my mom will be able to see me play a lot more."
In building the program into a national contender, TCU excelled at evaluating and developing unheralded players such as Hughes, quarterback Andy Dalton, linebacker Tank Carder and safety Tejay Johnson.
"TCU takes more time evaluating before handing out [scholarship] offers," Coppell (Texas) coach Joe McBride said. "Even the high-level kids, they've taken more time offering. For the most part, they take their time a little more than everyone else."
TCU's recruiting formula worked as a Mountain West program. Now, it will be tested in the Big 12.
The Horned Frogs may never approach a Texas- or Oklahoma-level of recruiting, but they're starting to closer resemble a Big 12-type recruiting team.
The question is if it's enough to sustain the current level of success.
"I think we can," Matthews said. "We already have great kids going there now we'll be in position to get more five-star players."