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Horned Frogs jumping to the big time

Head coach Gary Patterson has found another challenge for his TCU Horned Frogs, and this one might be their toughest yet.

Patterson, who took over the team in 2000 and is now tied with Dutch Meyer for the most victories in program history (109), began his march for football dominance in Fort Worth, Texas as a member of the Western Athletic Conference and has steadily maneuvered his troops through both Conference USA and the Mountain West Conference as well.

The Horned Frogs began playing football more than a century ago and while they haven't really been considered a dominant program in a state where high school football rules and top prospects grow like tumbleweeds, the fact is TCU has won a total of 17 conference championships in five different leagues.

Anxious to capitalize on the team's growing success under Patterson, the school decided to make an odd move in November of 2010 when it agreed to join the Big East Conference.

"Having BCS automatic-qualifying status was a priority for our football program and a great reward for the success we've had the last decade under Gary Patterson," said TCU director of intercollegiate athletics Chris Del Conte at the time. "Keeping all our sports together was also critical. We are very excited to accomplish both these goals and look forward to our new home in the Big East Conference."

Wanting to take that next step and demanding that the BCS recognize what TCU was doing on the gridiron certainly made sense, but to opt for the Big East and not something closer to home was puzzling.

Then again, the leap to a BCS Conference was just what the Frogs needed in order to expand their reach from a national perspective and attract top-flight prospects that might have overlooked TCU previously because of the team's second-tier status in the MWC. With the new conference alignment, TCU would gain even more national television exposure from ESPN, CBS Sports and SportsNet New York, again, a key piece to the growing plan.

The announcement that TCU had accepted a bid for full membership to become the 17th member of the Big East Conference, effective July 1, 2012, also set in motion, among other things, a much-needed expansion of Amon G. Carter Stadium. Opened in 1930, the venue began with a capacity for just 22,000 and has steadily grown over the years to house more than 44,000 thanks to club seats and luxury suites.

Mere days after the Big East announcement, Carter Stadium began a major facelift, one that saw the implosion of the west stands -- the beginning of what was to become a massive $164 million overhaul so the newest addition to the Big East could live up to the standards set by the existing schools.

But a funny thing happened on the way to competing against their brethren from back East...

In September, 2011 the ever-evolving conference landscape shifted yet again as both Syracuse and Pittsburgh announced their intentions to flee the Big East and move to the ACC. Less than six weeks later, West Virginia accepted an invitation to join the Big 12 Conference, depleting the league of even more talent and quite possibly placing the Big East's BCS status in jeopardy.

What had looked like a move that would have benefited the Horned Frogs, was now becoming problematic.

If nothing else, on the field the Frogs were staying focused and keeping their eye on the prize; winning football games. TCU was dominating the MWC, running the table in conference play and going undefeated during the regular season overall, setting up a meeting with Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. It was a close call, but the TCU defense stood firm and held the Badgers in check en route to a thrilling 21-19 victory for the underdogs. TCU had arrived! But just where was it heading?

Nationally ranked right out of the gate in 2011, the Frogs fell to Robert Griffin III and the Baylor Bears in the opener, 50-48, and were then 3-2 after five games, burying any chance of returning to a BCS postseason event. But coach Patterson got his squad back on track as they ripped off eight straight wins and captured the MWC title once again.

It may not have been the season that TCU had hoped and planned for, but at least the future was about to get a little bit brighter. One of just four schools (Alabama, Boise State and Oregon) to finish in the top-15 in both the USA Today and Associated Press rankings at the end of the season the last four years, TCU was again on the move.

"The Big 12 is a perfect fit for TCU," was how Del Conte termed the decision made by the school in October 2011 to stay closer to home. "With our historical ties to Baylor, Texas and Texas Tech, as well as the close proximity to the other league members, we couldn't be more excited to have the Big 12 as our new home. It's been unbelievable to see the excitement among our constituents. We are very proud to represent Fort Worth and the entire Metroplex in the Big 12."

The opportunity may not have presented itself before TCU agreed to the Big East deal, but why wasn't a move to the Big 12 explored in more depth to begin with? It makes all the sense in the world to build stronger rivalries with neighboring schools in Texas and steal away some of the blue-chip players that might have opted for a program in a more prestigious league than Conference USA, the WAC or the MWC.

Now comes word that the Big East isn't quite done with TCU, the league filing a lawsuit in federal court in Washington on Monday because it claims the school has failed to pay its $5 million exit fee. As part of its agreement to join the Big East, the league says TCU agreed to pay an exit fee if it reneged on its original deal and while the conference says it has requested payment in order to clean the slate, TCU has refused.

While the lawyers try to settle their scores in a court room, the good news is that college football is just around the corner and the TCU players, along with coach Patterson, should be taking over the spotlight soon enough.