The moment LaDainian Tomlinson first touched a football in a Pop Warner game, the legend started. Tomlinson, a Waco, Texas native, would go on to have one of the most successful careers in the National Football League.
As he retired on Monday, Tomlinson did so having scored the second-most rushing touchdowns in NFL history, behind only his idol and former Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith, and fifth in all-time rushing yards.
He also became one of the most fascinating players to watch on the field every Sunday when in his prime and was selected to five Pro Bowl rosters and the NFL’s All-Decade Team for the early 2000′s.
But in between his Hall of Fame-worthy career in the pros and his days as a young amateur athlete Tomlinson played a key role in paving the road for TCU football to return to where they feel they belong, the Big 12.
Despite being named Most Valuable Player and Super Centex Offensive Player of the Year in his senior year of high school, after rushing for 2,554 yards and 39 touchdowns after making a move from playing linebacker, not many schools considered Tomlinson to be a big-time running back.
Having only played one year out of the backfield many coaches and programs wondered if he could carry the load on a regular basis. It was a fair concern at the time, but those who passed on Tomlinson would find out just how much of an influence he could be over the coming years.
Timing also played a key role against Tomlinson’s chances of playing running back for top programs such as Oklahoma, Texas, and more.
These high-profile programs had already found their options and were no longer in need of a running back. But TCU made Tomlinson an offer, and he accepted it. To this day it may be recognized as the most significant recruitment in TCU’s football history.
TCU was just a year removed from the disintegration of the old Southwest Conference, which saw Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, and Baylor split off to form the Big 12 with the members of the Big Eight.
Houston went off to join the newly formed Conference USA while TCU, Rice, and Southern Methodist took their programs to the WAC. The Horned Frogs looked like a program on a clear decline, having gone from seven wins and a bowl trip in 1994 to six wins in 1995 and four wins in 1996.
Head coach Pat Sullivan’s time at TCU came to an end after recruiting Tomlinson but finishing with a woeful 1-10 record in 1997, year two in the WAC. TCU managed to score just 15.6 points per game that season.
Perhaps if Sullivan had decided to play his new freshman running back a little bit more things could have ended differently.
Tomlinson played sparingly his first season while splitting time with Basil Mitchell, who led the nation in rushing with a 6.7 yards per attempt average in 1998, winning Sun Bowl MVP honors in TCU’s victory over USC.
That took place in the first year under new head coach Dennis Franchione, with the Horned Frogs finishing the year with seven wins. While Masil took on the majority of the rushing responsibilities, Tomlinson chipped in with 717 rushing yards and eight touchdowns, as well as 17 kick returns for 383 yards.
Franchione noticed that Tomlinson was going to be a key offensive weapon that he inherited, and together they helped continue the rebuilding of the TCU brand.
The following year Tomlinson made Franchione’s job relatively easy. If the ball was placed in the hands of Tomlinson, good things were likely to happen. Though the 1999 season started rough with a 1-3 start, things started to turn around.
Tomlinson exploded for an NCAA record 406 rushing yards against UTEP on his way to rushing for an NCAA-leading 1,850 yards (a small bit more than the Heisman Trophy-winning and AP Player of the Year Ron Dayne, from Wisconsin) and 18 touchdowns. But his encore presentation was even better.
Tomlinson followed up his stellar junior season with a phenomenal senior season by leading the nation with 2,198 yards from scrimmage and rushing for 2,158 yards and 22 touchdowns (second to Virginia Tech’s Lee Suggs).
Tomlinson’s efforts earned him consensus All-American honors as well as the Doak Walker Award, but more importantly Tomlinson earned an invitation to the Heisman Trophy presentation as a finalist, firmly putting TCU’s name back in the consciousness of the college football world.
TCU had finally put together consecutive winning seasons and was showing a clear positive trend on the field. Tomlinson played a key role in the progress but it would have to continue without him from that point on.
Franchione’s success at TCU landed him an offer to become the next head coach at Alabama prior to TCU’s appearance in the Mobile Alabama Bowl in 2000.
The keys to the program would be handed off to Gary Patterson, who would lead TCU into a news conference, Conference USA. Success in the conference led to another invitation by the Mountain West Conference, and you probably know the rest of TCU’s conference history from there.
Tomlinson was not the only person responsible for helping TCU get on the right track, but you can certainly make a case that he might be the most important player in the process.
After Tomlinson moved on to the NFL (he would later return to complete his degree), TCU finished 6-6 in 2001 but the groundwork was there for future success, which resulted in eight seasons of at least ten wins, a pair of BCS bowl appearances and, ultimately, invites to two separate big-money conferences.
Credit Patterson for taking the program to the next level, as well as the entire athletic department staff, but consider that TCU’s road to football resurgence was sparked by Tomlinson.