It was a hot afternoon in 1974 in Amon G. Carter Stadium, very hot for October. The temperature on the field was in the high 80’s when Marshall Harris, a TCU freshman, trotted into the game, the big white 79 gleaming from the back of his fresh purple jersey. The Scoreboard clock showed only 4:08 left in the game as Marshall took his stance at defensive left tackle and set himself for his first play ever as a TCU Homed Frog. Arkansas snapped the ball and the play went around end, away from him. Second down. The handoff went to the Arkansas halfback, named Woods, who stormed directly towards Harris. Marshall fought off the block, hit Woods hard, and wrestled him to the ground after a gain of only three yards. Harris jumped up, whooped with glee, and bounced back to the defensive huddle. “All right,” he bellowed to his teammates. “Let’s hold ’em.” One of the linebackers, sweaty curls plastered against his battered forehead, lifted his weary eyes and scowled through his facemask, “Aw, shut up, Harris. It’s 49-0 and they’ve got their third string in.”
On the next play, Woods pounded over Harris for 22 yards. Welcome to TCU football.
When Marshall Harris was born in San Antonio in December of 1955, Texas Christian University had just beaten SMU to finish the season 9-1 and bag a Southwest Conference Championship. The Horned Frogs, under coach Abe Martin, were preparing to meet Mississippi in the Cotton Bowl and the Fort Worth campus was one of the nation’s football hotbeds. In 1956, in the wake of the excitement, a second deck was added to Amon G. Carter Stadium, almost doubling its capacity. TCU won the Southwest Conference again. Fort Worth loved the Frogs. TCU was big time.
To stand in the stadium now, on the edge of the field, the stadium empty and baked to a shimmering stillness by the heat of a summer afternoon, it’s hard to believe that there has ever been any glory here. The only cheers today are the raspy jeers of the cicadas in the nearby cedar elms. The only movement is that of three maintenance men sweeping small clouds of dust in the steep upper deck, like some perfunctory seasonal cleaning of a long dead relic. The purple paint that stripes the east side bleachers has faded to a dull gray in the hot glare. The tiny Scoreboard at the northwest corner, still boasting of last spring’s intrasquad game, lists the two opponents as “Purple” and “White.” At least, you think, that’s a game that TCU can’t lose. And that’s something remarkable in this, the home of the losingest team in major college football over the last three years.
When Marshall Harris graduated from Southwest High School in Fort Worth in 1974, where he had been an all-district tackle on a successful winning team, TCU football was already in the throes of the losing syndrome, having had only one winning season in its previous eight. In 1973, the Horned Frogs had staggered into the basement of the Southwest Conference. Marshall’s high school success had assured him of a football scholarship somewhere, and several schools had courted his talents. Having lived in Fort Worth for several years, he cannot have been blind to TCU’s gridiron woes. Why is Marshall Harris playing football at, of all places, TCU?
Marshall rises in greeting from his table at The Hop, a long-standing beer and pizza joint on West Berry near campus. He looms there, his 6 feet 6 inches making the room seem small, his breadth at the shoulders taxing the seams of his baby-blue T-shirt. He extends his hand and it is huge, yet not calloused and cracked by familiarity with the turf; it is in fact soft, almost pudgy, like shaking hands with an old, well-oiled catcher’s mitt. He is smiling, and you realize you didn’t expect that. This man has started 23 consecutive football games for TCU and lost all but one of them. And he’s still smiling.
He is struggling with a moderate-sized bowl of salad which he nibbles and pokes and finally pushes away with a long sigh. “I can’t go another single bite of that,” he says. “I feel like Peter Cottontail.” What? This giant, this baby-blue mountain can’t finish a bowl of salad? This, you begin to realize, is no ordinary defensive lineman.
Why, Marshall? Why TCU? He chuckles (he can laugh about it?) and begins. “When I was choosing a college, I wasn’t choosing a football team. The football scholarship was taken for granted – football was simply my means of going to college. I was looking for a good commercial art or architecture school. As far as football offers, Oklahoma State was very interested – but OSU is out in the boonies and I figured I’d rather not watch the grass grow for four years. Rice was appealing, but the architecture program was too long – I’m too impatient to go to college for seven years. Texas A&M was interested, but I didn’t want to listen to Aggie jokes for the rest of my life. TCU has a good commercial art department. So here I am.”
He pauses. His deep set eyes are made even deeper by the slightly puffed, slightly altered bridge of his nose, the only sign of two dozen football battles to mark his lean and handsome face. “See, I don’t consider myself a great football player [though he has been touted as a potential all-SWC candidate]. I’ve been lucky at TCU. I’ve fallen into the ’hometown-boy-makes-good’ category, me and Renfro [Mike Renfro, record breaking wide receiver, the team’s one legitimate star, an all-America candidate). But we’re two entirely different kinds of athletes. Mike has so much natural talent. Throw the ball anywhere near him and he’ll catch it. He can afford to approach things a little loosely. I don’t have that kind of talent. I have to work a little harder. I smoke one cigarette and I’m liable to die right there on the field. Yeah . . . I’ve been lucky here at TCU.”
Lucky? After his rude 49-0 welcome to the Southwest Conference in 1974, Marshall, as a freshman, was used only in the waning minutes of the Frogs’ next five consecutive losses; SMU 33-13, Texas A&M 17-0, Alabama 41-3, Baylor 21-7, Texas Tech 28-0. The season reached something of a nadir in humiliation in Birmingham when Bear Bryant’s Crimson Tide, leading by 38 points with less than two minutes remaining, tried an onside kick and recovered it. TCU had opened the season with a victory over UTA (something less than a national powerhouse) and had now dropped eight straight. On November 16, the frazzled Frogs limped into. Amon Carter Stadium to meet Texas.
TCU won the toss. They should have gone home right then. By early in the second quarter, the Longhorns were ahead by thirty points. TCU head coach Jim Shofner surveyed his bench and signalled for Harris to enter the game. “I guess he figured it couldn’t get any worse,” says Marshall. It did. By halftime the score was 52-3. Marshall played the entire second half. Final score: Texas 81, TCU 16. TCU netted-1 yards rushing for the day. By the end of the game, the only fans left in the stands were Texas fans. In the locker room, Coach Shofner said simply, “We were pitiful. I should apologize to Darrell Royal.” Royal tried to be kind, “I don’t like to score 81 points. But you can’t go out there and punt on first down.” Then there were some jokes about using the Longhorn Band in the fourth quarter if they’d only had helmets. TCU offensive tackle Merle Wang sat slumped by his locker, shaking his head: “It was like climbing uphill with no arms and no legs.” For Marshall Harris, in his first sustained activity as a Horned Frog, the game was a blur. “It got the new car feeling out of my system in a hurry.”
Marshall started the next game, the last game of the ’74 season, against Rice. TCU lost, 26-14. That made 10 straight and ended the season with a 1-10 record. For the year, the Frogs of TCU had scored a grand total of 79 points to their opponents’ 345. It must have been, you think, horrible. “Nah. All you can do is forget about it,” says Marshall distractedly. He has forgotten about it. “I wrote it off as a business failure,” he smiles. A season’s worth of talk about losing, losing, losing and he’s still smiling as he gets up to leave The Hop, on his way to begin the night shift at the cement plant where he’s working for the summer. “I shovel mud,” he says.
Marshall opens the front door of his home, his parents’ home, in a well-tailored suburban neighborhood in southwest Fort Worth. Shirtless and shoeless, he fills the doorway as he nods a greeting, his mouth still busy with breakfast. He leads the way to the kitchen table where he is in the midst of a plate heaped high with scrambled eggs and ham. Surrounding the plate are two half-gallon cartons of milk and a half-gallon jar of orange juice. He takes a healthy swig from one of the milk cartons, finishing it off, a reassuring contrast to his previous salad performance. Much more defensive lineman-like. He offers a soft drink and his mother brings a quart bottle of Coca-Cola and a huge glass, more like a vase, filled with ice. It’s like wandering into breakfast in Brobdingnag. Marshall reaches for a box of Wheaties and, in an unfitting prelude to the morning’s topic of conversation, pours himself a big bowl full of the Breakfast of Champions.
TCU opened the 1975 season against the lowly Mavericks of UTA, a team they had beaten in each of the five previous seasons. The Tarrant County “rivalry” held such intrigue as to lure barely 17,000 fans into Amon Carter Stadium. But for the Homed Frogs, it was indeed an important game, important to put the dismal 1974 season far behind, important to get the new season off on the right foot. But unfortunately, and amazingly, TCU was overconfident. “We were expecting a patsy,” says Marshall between spoonfuls. “We felt like Nebraska feels when they’re waiting for us to come to town.”
TCU started out like Nebraska. On their first possession, they marched 63 yards to a touchdown. Little did they know that that touchdown marked the aspirational peak of their season. Five interceptions and a fumble later, TCU had lost the game 24-7. To UTA. It didn’t bode well for the next two games against nationally-ranked Arizona State and Nebraska. The Frogs didn’t pull any upsets: Arizona State 33, TCU 10; Nebraska 56, TCU 14.
“Losing,” says Marshall, “is just like winning in that it has a momentum of its own. The momentum of losing is like bicycling downhill. You just coast.” He pushes a soggy Wheatie around the bottom of the bowl as he continues. “Losing establishes a pattern. We would begin each game with the honest belief that we could win it, that this would be the one. We would play well until that first bad break – fumble, interception, penalty, whatever. Then we’d go to pieces. We’d fall behind by a couple touchdowns. And suddenly you find yourself thinking ’Oh no. Here we go again.’ From there it’s not far to ’Let’s just get this over with.’ You never give up physically, but the mental pattern is tougher to beat. Losing is like a bad habit.”
The habit continued. Two conference losses to Arkansas and SMU left TCU with a 15-game losing streak, longest in the nation. The situation was getting more difficult. Anonymous letters arrived in the locker room with the disparaging commentary of armchair quarterbacks – “My sister could play for TCU” and the like. In Little Rock, a woman in white hot pants pinned with red Razorback ribbons began razzing the TCU players as they emerged from the locker room onto the field. Defensive end Scott O’Glee suddenly jumped up on the fence as if to go after her. (I think he was kidding,” says Marshall. “The fans loved it.”) But on the TCU campus, the players met with very little derision from their fellow students. “The situation was touchy enough,” recalls Marshall. “I think people were actually afraid to confront us with it. It would be like attacking a wounded animal.”The bruised and bloodied Horned Frogs took their 15-game losing streak into Amon Carter Stadium on October 18, 1975 against Texas A&M. The undefeated Aggies were ranked third in the nation and a comparatively large crowd of 34,000 turned out to witness the mismatch. A&M jumped out to a 14-0 lead. But TCU was playing a different kind of game on this day. The mental pattern didn’t hold true. The Frogs didn’t fold. A&M led by only 14-6 late in the fourth quarter when TCU quarterback Lee Cook hit Renfro with an 11-yard touchdown pass. A two-point conversion would tie the game. For a split second it seemed that TCU’s misery would end in a flash of upset glory. But, there in the end zone, near where Renfro had made his catch, was a yellow flag. He was called for pass interference. No touchdown. Moments later, on an attempted catch at the goal line, Renfro was shoved by an A&M defensive back. No flag. No touchdown. No glory. The game ended 14-6. Game films showed both pass plays to be questionable. But that did nothing to change the verdict of TCU’s 16th consecutive loss.
A locker room is usually a morgue after a hard-fought, dramatic loss. Not so with this team. “We were high,” says Marshall. “Coming close had been exhilarating, like a new thrill. We were high because we almost won.”
Whatever positive spirit was generated by the near win was quickly sapped by the schedule makers. College football schedules are drawn up many years in advance. Whoever plotted TCU’s schedule for the Seventies did so with either rose-colored glasses or a sadistic bent. It’s a schedule rife with names like Ohio State, Penn State, Notre Dame, Nebraska, Tennessee . . . and Alabama. Alabama was the fourth Top Ten opponent of the 1975 season for TCU. “Sure, it gets to you,” says Marshall. “You look on other teams’ schedules and see Tuscaloosa U. and wonder why we don’t get any breathers on our schedule. But then you realize that we are a Tuscaloosa U. – we’re the soft spot on the other schedules.”
Alabama pounded TCU 45-0. Marshall, for the first time, seems pained by the memory. “In a game like that, our defense is on the field for three-fourths of the game. And a team like Alabama is four-deep with talent. You have a 245-pounder beating on you for 40 minutes and then you look up in the third quarter and see some new mammoth come trotting in off their bench. You’re near death and he’s fresh as a daisy. That’s when the mental erosion really sets in. Each time you pick your face up out of the mud you ask yourself; ’What the hell am I doing out here?’ You start thinking ’Jeez, I could have gone to TCJC and be sunbathing right now.’ Your mind starts wandering. You start listening for your name on the P.A. system. The huddle gets sloppy and your plays become strategies like ’Let’s try to keep them under 15 yards on this one.’ You start bitching at your teammates, telling the offensive players ’Hey, why don’t you see if you can stay on the field fora while this time.’ When you come off the field after a long defensive stand and you’re losing by forty points, you just want to say ’Hey, Coach, can I go home now?’ It’s interesting, though, that when you’re actually there in the trenches, face to face on the line with your opponent, losing your 17th game in a row, he won’t say anything about your losing. They’ll talk about your girlfriend or your mother before they’ll talk about losing. They know that losing is bad enough in itself. Nobody is out there to humiliate.”
TCU lost their next three games to Baylor, Texas Tech, and Texas, extending their now-monumental losing streak to 20games. “By then,” says Marshall, “we were just looking ahead to our last game of the season with Rice – the only game where we had a chance.” An odd reversal of form. It is common in sport for a good team to look past weak teams to their next “big game” opponent. In the case of a chronic loser, the tendency is to look past the good teams toward a glimmer of hope, a team that might be equally weak. “A losing team doesn’t generate natural rivalries,” says Marshall. “I don’t think TCU has a special rivalry with anyone. The only thing that comes close is a kind of negative rivalry with Arkansas – they’ve beaten TCU 18 times in a row.”
By November 1975, TCU’s only goal was a victory over anybody. The Horned Frogs set their sights on the Owls of Rice. On the strength of their passing game, TCU went ahead 28-7 in the third quarter, then held on as Rice came winging back with two fourth quarter touchdowns. When the gun sounded, the Scoreboard read TCU 28, Rice 21. The losers had finally won.
In the jubilant TCU dressing room, Marshall Harris followed his usual post-game procedure and sat quietly alone by his locker. As he silently removed his pads, a Fort Worth sportswriter remarked that he was hardly jumping up and down with excitement. “It was strange,” says Marshall. “Winning was nice, but somehow I wasn’t all that impressed. I couldn’t help still thinking about all those games we’d lost. Losing somehow made me numb to the thrill of winning. Instead of celebrating, I was sitting there thinking I wished we’d beaten Nebraska.”
He polishes off the last of the half gallon of orange juice and looks up, restlessly, ready to escape from that long season. ” I’ ve got to go out and work on my motorcycle,” he says.
Marshall’s summer habitat, his small room in the corner of the house, is a personal gallery. The walls are covered with his original artwork, and an amazing collection it is. A nude study in pencil here, a landscape there, a surrealistic water color here, a sculpted bust there. Over the head of his bed is a large neon tubing sculpture. On his bookshelf is a science fiction paperback, cover art by Marshall Harris (he has also done the cover art for Frog Facts, the TCU football press guide, for the last two seasons). On his drafting table is a sketch for a neon sign that he’s been asked to design. Except for a chipped and battered purple helmet at the head of his bed, nothing in this room says football.
TCU’s 1976 season opener was against SMU. The Frogs were enthusiastic, anxious to win. They lost. “Miserably,” says Marshall. He is not excited about reliving the 1976 season. His gridiron memories today are cursory: Tennessee (31-0, “A nice hotel though”), Nebraska (64-10, “We just tried to hang on to our lives”), Miami (49-21, “Playing in the Astrodome was like playing on concrete. The 30-yard line is a two-by-four”), Texas (34-10, “It snowed. It was miserable”), Texas A&M (59-10, “They killed us”).
He is stirred only by the memory of the Arkansas game. “I could have scored a touchdown. Darryl Lowe blocked an Arkansas punt and the ball popped up and fell right into my hands. There I was, standing 20 yards from the goal line, nobody in front of me. And I froze, I just froze. Darryl grabbed me by the jersey and tried to pull me to the end zone. I didn’t move. Finally the referee just blew his whistle. It’s a good thing, too – about six Arkansas guys were bearing down on me. I still haven’t lived it down.” For the record, Arkansas 46, TCU 14.
For the record, TCU finished last season with an 0-11 record, the worst in the school’s history. The Horned Frogs were unable to beat even Rice. Since Marshall Harris entered TCU three years ago, the Frogs have lost 31 out of 33 games. But Marshall is still smiling. “I don’t regret any of it. Losing, I think, has taught me a lot more than winning. Some people, some players, associate being on a losing football team with being a losing human being. I just have to let that notion roll off my back. But some players can’t take it. Some of them crack. Maybe they know something I don’t know. I suppose if football is your whole life, losing would hurt deeply. But football isn’t everything. I went to only one TCU game when I was in high school. I rarely watch football, even the NFL, on TV. I personally think football is an interesting game to play but not to watch. So for me, if I lose a football game on Saturday, but turn out a nice silk screen print on Sunday, it’s been a good weekend. Beating Tennessee would be no more gratifying to me than getting my motorcycle put back together.”
He stops fora moment and then shakes his head. “No, I don’t regret any of it. In fact, I’m very excited about the coming season. I’m more excited about football right now than I am about art. In spite of all the losing the last three years, I frankly can’t imagine us not winning this year.” Still smiling. “Besides, it can’t get any worse.”
Amon G. Carter Stadium still sits basking quietly, forlornly in the sun. But in the nearby football office there is a buzz of activity. TCU will begin the 1977 season with a new coaching staff, headed by F.A. Dry. There has been heavy and successful off-season recruiting. Spring drills were spiked with a new intensity. There is an air of confidence and optimism regarding the coming season, spurred perhaps by quiet rumors that TCU has put all of its eggs in Dry’s basket, intimating that if Dry can’t restore life to TCU football, then TCU football may ultimately not be restored. There will be no more losing, or there will be no more football at TCU.
In the parking lot outside the stadium,a shiny white Thunderbird pulls up. Aman gets out and starts to walk away, butstops, pulls a handkerchief out of hispocket, and steps to the rear window ofhis car where he proudly polishes hispurple and white TCU Horned Frog decal.Hope springs eternal.