Horned Frog Basketball Wins NIT
A new coach and four senior believers lead TCU men’s hoops to new heights and the program’s first postseason tournament championship.
A week after the men’s basketball team’s National Invitation Tournament victory, Brandon Parrish still had the championship trophy. After hoisting up the prize and weeping at Madison Square Garden, the senior guard carried the trophy home so he could sleep next to it.
Parrish, career leader in games played at 136, donated his time and energy to the dream of turning TCU into a basketball school. Head coach James “Jamie” Dixon ’87 called Parrish and his three senior teammates, Karviar Shepherd, Chris Washburn and Michael Williams, the Four Believers.
The players earned any triumphant tears they shed.
The basketball team’s win was monumental for TCU but another drop in an ocean of success for Dixon, a 1980s Horned Frog hoops legend who returned in 2016 spreading the gospel of Big 12 championships and deep NCAA tournament runs.
As for what the four-time national Coach of the Year considered distinctive about the NIT championship team, Dixon said, “Our seniors — the type of kids, the type of character, the unbelievable unselfishness they displayed throughout the season.”
True to unselfish form, Parrish relinquished the cherished trophy so fans could pose with it while he and teammates autographed posters at the football team’s spring game in April.
The physical symbol of TCU men’s basketball’s transformation will soon find a permanent home in the Jane & John Justin TCU Athletics Hall of Fame in Ed and Rae Schollmaier Arena, near the Rose Bowl trophy and commemorations of baseball’s four appearances in the College World Series.
After almost two decades of hardwood heartbreak and four last-place finishes in the Big 12, the scalding postseason run earned the men’s program not only a must-see Hall of Fame attraction but also proof that the university’s sports successes have arrived on the basketball court.
A daunting path
TCU’s football success and academic upgrades, which vaulted the university up 37 spots to No. 76 in U.S. News and World Report’s 2014 college rankings, unlocked the gates to the Big 12 conference.
But the men’s basketball program wasn’t ready for the hoops behemoth. Former coach Trent Johnson needed bigger players on the roster. Parrish, from Arlington, Texas, was the first to sign up for Johnson’s cause, and he helped draw to Fort Worth his childhood teammate Shepherd, who was ESPN’s No. 38 national recruit in the Class of 2013.
With the addition of future believer Williams and nebulous plans for a vast update to the barn-like Daniel-Meyer Coliseum, men’s basketball’s future held promise for Johnson and company. (Fourth believer Washburn transferred to TCU as a sophomore.)
Horned Frog basketball had appeared in one NCAA tournament in the lifetimes of the 2013 signing class — in 1998, when the four believers were toddlers. Johnson told the newcomers they would be the ones to reverse the program’s fortunes.
Parrish said he planned to give Fort Worth another reason to enjoy the unparalleled TCU sporting frenzy. “All I really wanted to do was make the city proud.”
“I was wondering, ‘Why did I come to TCU?’ There were times when I doubted the program, doubted myself.”
That idealism met a tough beginning. Hopelessness loomed as the Frogs suffered through a 0-18 conference record during his freshman season. “I was wondering, ‘Why did I come to TCU?’” Parrish said. “There were times when I doubted the program, doubted myself.”
Ready to rebuild
But TCU supporters believed in a brilliant future for basketball and funded a $72 million renovation to the outdated facilities. Ed Schollmaier, former CEO of Alcon Laboratories, and his now-late wife, Rae, kicked in $10 million. When TCU announced the name of the arena, Ed Schollmaier made a wish: “I hope that the city of Fort Worth adopts TCU basketball the same way it’s adopted TCU football.”
During the 20-month renovation, the men’s team played home games at Fort Worth Independent School District’s Wilkerson-Greines Activity Center. (The women’s team played on campus intramural courts.)
When high school star Alex Robinson, son of Darla Biggs Robinson ’85, was reviewing basketball scholarship offers, TCU intrigued him, but his mother said those games in a high school gymnasium erased the Frogs from the list.
Wilkerson-Greines’ ruddy seats created a color discord for the home team’s purple. TCU hauled in outdoor trailers to use as cramped locker rooms. During the record-cold winter, trailer steps froze, creating a hazard for athletes shivering in basketball shorts.
The four believers’ sophomore team was a mix of potential and little to lose. The Frogs improved from their freshman season, finishing 18-15 but without a postseason bid.
Parrish said the thin margin separating dreams from reality was hard to bear. “To lose by one, sometimes you can’t even sleep at night.”
A rash of injuries, including to promising newcomer Kenrich Williams, and two crucial transfers out of the program derailed the next season.
By the December 2015 grand opening ceremony for Schollmaier Arena, the men’s team was about to lose control of the season, which ended with a disappointing 12-21 record. The team knew Johnson’s job was in peril. The coach won only eight Big 12 games in four seasons, and his dismissal in March 2016 was not a surprise, Parrish said, but the players went to the coach’s house to process the letdown together. “Guys were in there crying.”
During the rough season, Star-Telegram columnist Theodore “Mac” Engel ’98 MLA wrote that TCU didn’t have the talent for the hardscrabble Big 12. He singled out Parrish and Shepherd, calling the once-prized recruits “mostly duds.”
Parrish said the sleight was painful. “I’m not going to lie, I felt like a loser.” But he didn’t let the public insult unravel his will. Instead, he took a picture of the derogatory paragraph and made it his phone’s screensaver. Parrish recalled many nights when he would wind down to sleep, only to open his phone and see Engel’s critical words. Motivated, he would get back up and devote another hour to the gym.
Optimism was more difficult for some of Parrish’s teammates. When TCU held its annual all-sports spring banquet in 2016, several basketballers chose not to relive the football team’s Alamo Bowl miracle or anticipate the joy of another appearance in the College World Series for the baseball team.
The final piece
The overcast mood surrounding the men’s basketball program soon broke into smiles and high fives. Years of farfetched-sounding rumors materialized when TCU pulled a coup and hired Dixon as its 22nd head coach.
At TCU, Dixon was coached by Jim “Killer” Killingsworth, whose teams won two Southwest Conference titles in the 1980s. At the University of Pittsburgh, Dixon carried “Killer’s” winning ways through a tenure that featured three NCAA Sweet 16 appearances and one Elite Eight in nine consecutive 20-win seasons. Dixon’s Pitt teams played in 11 NCAA men’s basketball tournaments — four more than TCU had achieved throughout its entire history.
Basketball fan Tom Burke ’76 sat through years of unmet basketball expectations after TCU went on its odyssey out of the Southwest Conference, experiencing “the good, the bad and the ugly.” Of Dixon’s return, he said: “We really needed that shot in the arm.”
At the hiring press conference, Dixon explained how he came back to the only school to offer him a scholarship out of high school. TCU had the foundation to become a comprehensive 21st century superpower, including in men’s basketball, he said. “Everything had to be in place.”
The favorite son-turned-coach promised the basketball puzzle was already complete: “We’re going to win,” Dixon said. “Right now.”
“It may not go as fast as you think,” Darla Robinson told Dixon, a friend from her TCU basketball playing days. Her son transferred from Texas A&M University and joined Dixon’s team, which also included Dalton Dry, grandson of former Frog football coach F.A. Dry.
Even though TCU had finished in last place each year since joining the Big 12, the new coach assembled his players and told them to shift mindsets and prepare to be victorious. “Ever since then, we’ve always expected to win,” Alex Robinson said.
‘Seeing the light’
During the summer, Dixon invited TCU basketball alumni to town to sample the shifting tides of the men’s program. About four dozen former players congregated for an arena tour and alumni game. “The vibe was unbelievable,” said James Penny, a member of TCU’s last team to appear in an NCAA tournament.
Dixon’s arrival lured two highly touted freshmen guards to TCU: Desmond Bane and Jaylen Fisher, the highest-rated Frog since Shepherd. Talented supporting staff, including former Marshall University head coach Tom Herrion, signed on as assistant coaches.
People weren’t the only element Dixon changed in the men’s basketball program. “I saw an immediate difference in the ways we worked out and the things we worked on,” Parrish said. “That’s when I started seeing the light.”
Dixon pushed the team to exhaustion in offseason workouts. The players welcomed the challenge, Parrish said. “He knew what it would take, but we didn’t.”
During the summer, Parrish told fellow volunteers during city wildlife reconnaissance missions to anticipate TCU’s mark on the 2017 basketball postseason. The senior guard’s words seemed prescient when the Frogs won their first eight games of the 2016-17 season. Thousands of TCU basketball fans, reinfected with basketball fever, streamed back to Schollmaier Arena.
“I’ve been waiting a long time for this,” said Esco Weatherspoon, a 27-year university employee and thick-and-thin basketball fan, of the average 6,000-plus attendees who supported the men’s team at home games this past season.
Dixon’s high-scoring, loose-playing style was part of the magnet drawing people back. Leading on the scoreboard were Vladimir Brodziansky and Kenrich Williams, who was back after rehabilitating a repaired knee for more than a year.
In early spring, the basketball team was projected as an eight seed in its first NCAA tournament in 19 years. But the possibility dissipated as the team skidded to a seven-game losing streak to conclude the regular season.
Dixon assembled his players after a schedule-ending loss to the University of Oklahoma. He said they were about to establish a new tradition of postseason runs.
Parrish said he and his fellow seniors looked at one another and reached deep. “We’ve been through so much,” he said. “We’ve come so far. We can’t let it go like this.”
Two games later in the Big 12 tournament, the Horned Frogs beat the University of Kansas, the nation’s No. 1 men’s team. As Bane was sinking three clutch free throws in the final seconds, the accelerated heartbeats and starry eyes indicative of the infectious March Madness were returning to TCU.
The NIT bid that followed, TCU’s first since 2005, felt like “fate,” Parrish said. The four believers understood their final games could set the future of men’s basketball in a new direction. “This is our time, and we can make history right here.”
To the Garden
The Horned Frogs blew through Fresno State in the NIT tournament’s opening round but lost point guard Fisher to a broken wrist.
The team rallied, traveling to Iowa to snatch an overtime win. “The last time we beat Iowa, my dad was a freshman on the basketball team, in 1948,” said longtime fan John Sherwood ’81.
TCU had never advanced beyond the third round in a postseason basketball tournament. Students appreciated the opportunity to witness the unprecedented happen when the Frogs faced the University of Richmond. Some slept in tents outside Schollmaier Arena, by then nicknamed “Fort Dixon.” Others lined up hours early, hoping for good seats in the Frog Army, a name students gave their riled-up section.
The university printed 3,000 white T-shirts for the game against Richmond. Chancellor Victor J. Boschini, Jr. passed out ice cream sandwiches at halftime. Not that fans needed the sugar rush to cheer, as the Frogs had a big lead at that point in the game.
After the ritual handshakes that sealed the third-round victory, the four emotional seniors passed a microphone, thanking fans for the support.
A year to the day after Dixon took the reins as his alma mater’s head coach, the men’s basketball program was in historic territory. “We’ve made monumental changes in 365 days,” he said.
Though an unfamiliar venue for the Frogs, Dixon once called Madison Square Garden (the NIT finals destination), his second home. The iconic arena named him “Coach of the Decade” for Pitt’s wins there between 2000 and 2010. “The Garden” hosts the Maggie Dixon Classic, organized in honor of Jamie’s younger sister, who coached women’s basketball at West Point until her sudden death in 2006.
On TCU’s first day in the Big Apple, players practiced at West Point’s Christl Arena, where banners bearing Maggie Dixon’s name hung from the ceiling. Alex Robinson said he recognized the importance for his coach. “We wanted to fight for him even more.”
The March 28 semifinal game against the University of Central Florida marked the latest TCU had played a basketball game in March. Brodziansky, who said he was “trying to give back” to his senior teammates, won the opening tipoff against UCF’s 7-5 center Tacko Fall. No hurdle would stand between TCU and its goal.
After a second-half dunk by Shepherd put victory in sight, SuperFrog danced all over the court, spurring on the “T-C-U!” chant from the several thousand fans who made the trip to New York City.
TCU players used the New York Knicks’ locker room for the finals and came out playing like the pro team, racing to a 14-1 lead on befuddled Georgia Tech. Basketball legend Kurt Thomas ’95, a former Knick who achieved TCU’s only triple-double until Kenrich Williams repeated the feat against Richmond, sat courtside with his young son.
The March 30 NIT championship game turned into a runaway dunk-fest. The dominance left an ecstatic fan contingent, which had doubled in size in two days, marveling at how a long-struggling men’s basketball program morphed into the Kings of New York seemingly overnight.
As seconds ticked off on a victory tying the largest margin of defeat (32 points) in NIT finals history, the hugging, tearful seniors came off the court for the last time. The underclassmen took the invisible torch and scored a few more times for good measure. The last points of the game came from a high flying windmill slam by Josh Parrish, Brandon’s freshman brother. (Josh Parrish since announced he would transfer to Rice University.)
After the NIT trophy presentation, a Horned Frog team re-enacted the timeless basketball championship ritual of cutting down strands of a basketball net for the first time in several decades.
‘On the map’
Fort Worth is still celebrating, declaring itself a basketball town. Mayor Betsy Price urged residents to “Go Purple” on the day of the NIT final and organized a downtown celebration for the victors.
“Don’t tell me we can’t win here,” Dixon said about spurring men’s basketball to match the successes of the high-achieving football and baseball programs.
Dixon’s Big 12 championship goal, which Kansas has monopolized for 13 years, will wait. But next year’s TCU squad will be ready to compete. With commitments from several sought-after players, the incoming class is now estimated to be in the nation’s top 10. The young athletes can learn from this season’s top six scorers. All will be back.
Kenrich Williams put TCU’s immediate future in perspective after earning the NIT’s Most Outstanding Player honors. “I think people are starting to realize that our basketball team is on the map.”
Brandon Parrish came to TCU hoping to make a city proud, and he achieved his goal. He wants future players to remember the story he and his senior teammates wrote. “I hope I’ve showed them more than anything about what it takes to be a leader.”
The combined science major, whose main academic interests are environmental science and psychology, and the other believers graduated in May. Parrish wants to become a wildlife advocate after playing professional basketball overseas. However, he said, “I plan on being there when TCU is in that national championship game, when they’re in that Final Four, when they come back here and let the banner down.
“It’s all just been a dream come true,” said Parrish of his senior season. “Through staying the course, continuing to believe in the program, believe in my teammates and believe in myself, we’ve ended up doing something monumental.”