FORT WORTH, Texas — TCU offensive coordinator Garrett Riley laughs when asked about a couple of his backups who might not get a lot of playing time but have plenty of name recognition.
There’s sophomore quarterback Luke Pardee, the grandson of Jack, who was a Junction Boy for Bear Bryant at Texas A&M and coached both the Houston Cougars and Oilers during a legendary career. There’s freshman wide receiver Joe Staubach, the grandson of Roger, the Hall of Fame quarterback who became known as “Captain America” for the Dallas Cowboys.
And overseeing it all is Sonny Dykes, the son of Spike, the West Texas icon who coached high school football at places like Coahoma, Big Spring and Alice, and was a three-time Southwest Conference Coach of the Year who led Texas Tech for 14 seasons.
“We’ve definitely got some royalty on this roster in terms of those two,” Riley said of Pardee and Staubach. “Shoot, having a Dykes be your head coach, if you know any of your Texas sports history, you know you’re part of some Texas royalty.”
When No. 3 TCU faces No. 2 Michigan on Saturday in the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Vrbo Fiesta Bowl (4 p.m. ET, ESPN), the Horned Frogs will be the upstart in the cowboy boots crashing the ball.
Michigan, under Jim Harbaugh, and Georgia, under Kirby Smart, are coached by alums who were star players. Harbaugh was a starting quarterback in the NFL and a successful pro coach. Smart had an airtight pedigree as an assistant for Bobby Bowden and a coordinator for Nick Saban, and last season claimed the Dawgs’ first national title since 1980. Ohio State coach Ryan Day played and coached under Chip Kelly and later was an assistant for Urban Meyer.
TCU, the little private school in Fort Worth — motto: “Where the West Begins” — is coached by Dykes, who didn’t play college football, with coordinators from two small Texas towns. Riley, a former Texas Tech quarterback from Muleshoe in West Texas (population 5,090) runs the offense, while Joe Gillespie, who won a state title as the head coach in his hometown of Stephenville (population 21,199) about 80 miles southwest of Fort Worth, is the defensive coordinator.
So yes, their Lone Star hearts swell with pride in claiming the distinction of becoming the first Texas college to make the playoff in its nine years.
“There’s a lot of people, including myself, that thought it probably was going to be some other Texas team, not this one,” Gillespie said. “So, you hold your chin up and stuff. I’m going to be a Texas high school football coach my whole life, and there’s a lot of pride that goes with that. When I get to visit with Texas high school coaches right now, they’re so proud because of what we represent, where our roots are and where we’ve come from.”
And while the other three playoff teams are all giant state schools with more than 30,000 undergrads to TCU’s 10,000 who can handpick the best recruits from across the country, TCU is just fine being built by Texans.
“The foundation of this program was built on players within an 80-mile radius,” said special teams coach Mark Tommerdahl, a self-professed Yankee from Minnesota who first arrived in Fort Worth in 1998 alongside former Frogs coach Gary Patterson when both were assistants under Dennis Franchione.
Dykes, who turned SMU around by selling Dallas and courting Texas players to come back home, saw the potential in TCU being able to recruit the area at a Big 12 school.
“There are so many great football players in this area that are going to be really, really good college players and go on to be good NFL players, and we need to figure out how to become a destination for those guys,” Dykes said. “Your hope is that as the profile of the program continues to get better and better, those kids that everybody wants from DFW get on our campus, get to know us, get around our players and really get a feel for TCU football and what we’re all about and are going to want to come play here. We think you can build a national championship-caliber program by recruiting in our own backyard.”
It’s a luxury not afforded to other schools, including the Frogs’ CFP opponent. More than 60% of TCU’s roster is from Texas, whereas 12.5% of Michigan’s is from its home state. That’s understandable, given the differences in state population (30 million Texans in the 2022 census vs. 10 million from Michigan), but it’s also a function of concentration.
Michigan has players from 28 states on its roster, plus players from Germany and Canada. The Wolverines have seven players from Massachusetts, six from Connecticut, 10 from Florida, eight from Illinois, six from Texas and eight from California. TCU has nine players from California, but five were transfers. The only other states with more than four players represented are Oklahoma and Louisiana, who both a border with Texas. The Horned Frogs also have 10 players from Texas who went out of state to other colleges before transferring back.
If this year’s early signing day is any indication, TCU’s Texas-centric population is likely to keep growing. The Horned Frogs signed 21 players, with 18 coming from Texas and one each from Louisiana, Tennessee and California.
Recruiting the home turf comes naturally to much of the TCU staff, which also features two East Texas high school legends in former Oklahoma stars Malcolm Kelly, who coaches wide receivers, and Jamarkus McFarland, who coaches the defensive line. Jeff Jordan, who oversees the player personnel department, was the head coach at DFW-area school Garland for 22 years.
Defensive analyst Josh Creech, who works with the linebackers, is also a lifer. His grandfather, Doyle Parker, began his 40-year Texas coaching career at a middle school in Abilene, eventually becoming Spike Dykes’ defensive coordinator at Texas Tech. Creech proudly recalls Parker’s SWC championship ring hurting his hand as a kid when he high-fived his grandfather. Creech’s dad, Jim, was also a longtime Texas high school head coach in the Houston area.
“It starts in his office,” Creech said, pointing to Dykes’ door. “All these people are through and through [Texans]. They have their own kind of legacies that they built wherever they came from. They have their own connections and their own names and they’re respected names because they’re respected men. So, I think we’ve got a great opportunity.”
Dykes’ ambition is to seize that opportunity, including making TCU a legitimate destination for top talent, especially locally. TCU signed the No. 18 class this year, its best recruiting class since ratings were kept, ranking third in the Big 12 behind the departing Oklahoma and Texas, and two spots behind Texas A&M.
“There’s always kind of levels to recruiting,” Dykes said. “When teams that maybe have traditionally recruited better than your program start taking a lot of kids from out of state, that makes more kids in-state available to you. And that’s certainly a great opportunity for us.”
And that means being choosy about transfers. Dykes wants to focus on talent and not just the prestige of the school they’re transferring from.
The Frogs signed just four transfers, three of whom were highly recruited SEC players originally from Texas — Alabama tackle Tommy Brockermeyer (No. 2 player in the 2021 ESPN 300) and wide receiver JoJo Earle (No. 73 in the same class) are from the Fort Worth area, and Florida cornerback Avery Helm is from a Houston suburb. The other, LSU wide receiver Jack Bech, is from Louisiana.
“The goal is to get those kids that have gone to Alabama in the past or have gone to Ohio State or LSU or Florida or wherever, will come here the first go-round instead of the second,” Dykes said. “We expect to compete against Alabama, not only in recruiting but on the field. So the thing you don’t want to start doing is taking a bunch of guys at Alabama that can’t play for them. Because in theory they shouldn’t be able to play for you either.”
Dykes will get his chance to test where the Horned Frogs stand on Saturday. They’ll all be there, from Muleshoe and Stephenville and Big Spring, the Pardees and the Staubachs, with a chance to play for a national championship. But most importantly, with a lot of that Texas exceptionalism being put to the test.
“It’s just been ingrained in our minds, probably since we were born,” Riley said. “It’s just how we’re wired.”
In their first year at TCU, Dykes & Co. made history in Fort Worth. Now they want to restore the pride of Texas college football, which hasn’t always been pretty in the past decade.
“When we were recruiting when we got here we said, ‘We want to be one of the first Texas teams to make it to the CFP, and we want to be one of the first teams that does it before they expand it,'” Gillespie said. “There’s probably more arrogance and bragging rights and stuff like that. Texas is its own thing, you know?”