The Lost History of TCU and SMU

A look at "The Battle of The Iron Skillet" from a historical, yet, entertaining perspective.

Welcome back, my friends, and welcome once again as we join together for another history lesson of grandiose proportions.

On this eve of the 100th anniversary of the first-ever TCU-SMU game, it’s well worth the time to revisit one of TCU’s deepest rivalries. With the series in favor of the Frogs 47-40-7, the rivalry has historically been a close one, with some of the greatest college football players of all-time taking part in the rivalry.

From the days of gridiron titans such as Sammy Baugh and Doak Walker to the loss and recommissioning of the Iron Skillet, the Frogs and Mustangs have played annually in all but six years (1919, 1920, 1925, 1987, 1988 and 2006) since the birth of the rivalry. Given that two of those years were the two years that SMU did not field a team due to their Death Penalty punishment, there’s certainly reason to believe that there is plenty of history to be found and discussed.

Although this series has not been as long or as often-played as the series against Baylor (as we saw with the history of The Revivalry), TCU’s rivalry with the Mustangs is one of the most celebrated in Frogdom, and one of the rivalries with the most outstanding histories.

Come now, as the lost history of TCU and SMU gets revisited…

Two Schools - A Pair Made From The Start

On Oct. 8, 1915, the SMU Mustangs trotted out on to a football field for the very first time.

That field? Clark Field. And the first team they played in program history? You got it, TCU.

The meeting between the Frogs and Mustangs at that time was not exactly a shining start for the Mustangs, as the Ponies would lose 43-0 at Clark Field in Fort Worth. It was the beginning of a 2-5 year under Ray Morrison for the Red and Blue, as the Mustangs got shut out in all five of their losses and collected their two wins against Hendrix and Dallas University.

The Frogs and Mustangs continued to play for the next three years, at least, until the 1918 game served as the only forfeit from either side in the series. Thanks to a series of strong rainstorms, the TCU team bus got stuck in the mud in Grand Prairie while en route to Dallas’ Armstrong Field, forcing the Frogs to call off the game.

The next few years didn’t feature a matchup between the two schools, but after a mild hiatus, TCU and SMU played for a 0-0 tie in 1922 on a cold December day, restarting the rivalry once more.

By this point, TCU had controlled the series, outscoring the Ponies 125-9 in their first six matches. However, it wouldn’t be long before SMU finally got a win in for their program.

In 1923, the SMU Mustangs put together one of its finest teams - a team that upset Texas A&M in the Aggies’ first-ever loss at Kyle Field and bullied its way to a SWC title. The TCU game was a dominating win for the Mustangs that year, with All-SWC quarterback Logan Stollenwreck leading the Ponies to a 40-0 win over the Frogs.

It would be just the start of epic games between the two schools, as some of college football’s greatest players were about to make their mark on the game - and on the rivalry.

Out come the Legends

The 1930s were glory days indeed for both college football programs, with 1935 likely being the highest point in the history of the TCU and SMU rivalry.

As the No. 1 Horned Frogs went to Dallas on Nov. 30 to meet up with the No. 2 Mustangs, esteemed sportswriters from Boston, New York, Los Angeles and other major metropolitans went to the game to see the Texas schools Duke it out for a bid to play Stanford in the Rose Bowl.

They got, as the revered Grantland Rice put it, “one of the greatest games ever played in the sixty-year history of the nation's finest college sport.”

The game quickly started in favor of SMU, with the Ponies jumping out to a 14-0 lead. But led by quarterback Sammy Baugh, the nation’s passing leader, the Frogs put together a show which dazzled the nation’s gathered media as TCU clawed back to a 14-14 tie.

It would be SMU, though, who would get the title of “most electric play” as SMU back and Ennis native Bob Finley faked a punt on fourth-and-four, and threw a 37-yard pass touchdown to Bobby Wilson, giving the Mustangs the 20-14 victory.

The Mustangs would go on to lose to the Stanford Indians in a 7-0 upset of the Rose Bowl that year, but would claim a national championship with the Dickerson system.

The Frogs, meanwhile, bounced back from the stinging loss by claiming a part of the national championship as well, following a 3-2 victory over LSU in the Sugar Bowl and some favorable calculations from the Williamson System.

With national championships under their belts, the Frogs and Mustangs were just beginning to put together legendary games.

The 1938 matchup wasn’t considered to be a “game of the century,” but it was still a match up of two teams undefeated in Southwest Conference play. As the Fort Worth Press notes, the Frogs battled windy conditions as quarterback Davey O’Brien led a pass-friendly offense to a 20-7 victory, which helped get TCU another bid to the Sugar Bowl - and an AP national championship.

Similarly, the 1940s and 50s also saw great match ups, including the legendary games between TCU back Lindy Berry and SMU Heisman-winning back Doak Walker, as well as all-American SMU QB Don Meredith going against TCU lineman Bob Lilly and his stout TCU defense.

In their three match ups, Berry would never lose to Walker, holding the Mustangs to two ties and a loss. It was a killer in momentum for SMU’s 1947 campaign, in a year that the Mustangs finished #3 in the nation.

That year, the Ponies went to Fort Worth with a 9-0-1 record, seeking an outright conference title and a marquee bowl game spot. However, Berry matched every move of Walker, including two passing touchdowns and drives of up to 80 yards. The Frogs would tie the Mustangs at 19 to end the game, leaving SMU just shy of getting included with Notre Dame and Michigan for consideration of the national title.

The Frogs would once again counter Doak Walker in 1948 by holding his team to a 7-7 tie, but Berry would be the hero in 1949, as TCU toppled SMU 26-13, giving TCU its first win in the rivalry since 1942.

Things were looking up for the Purple and White, and by the time Bob Lilly came in to play for TCU, the Frogs were a well-oiled machine against the Mustangs. From 1949 to 1965, TCU would win 14 out of 17 contests against the Ponies, losing just twice and tying once (a 28-28 tie in 1961 at Amon G. Carter Stadium).

Several key moments happened during this time, including TCU’s 13-2 victory in 1951 that locked up the SWC title for the Frogs, and Bob Lilly’s dominating performance in the 1959 game, which included a blocked punt and two sacks of SMU great Don Meredith as part of the Frogs seven total sacks, resulting for a loss of 54 yards as they trampled SMU 19-0.

It was a time of greatness for TCU, and when they played SMU, there was more than just SWC glory on the line - there was a trophy to be fought for as well now.

Skillet Trophy

The origins of the Iron Skillet Trophy have a confusing beginning, with two main narratives serving as the start of using cookware as a trophy.

The first one, according to lore and SMU’s archives, says the following:

“Legend has it that during pre-game festivities, an SMU fan was frying frog legs as a joke before the game. A TCU fan saw this and told him that eating the frog legs was going too far and that they should let the game decide who would get the skillet and the frog legs. SMU won that game in 1946 and received the skillet and the frog legs.”

While SMU did win in 1946 by a score of 30-13, and certainly likely that a SMU fan cooked frog legs as part of a tailgate that day, history says it was more likely that the Skillet was a byproduct of student legislation.

According to a 1946 article from the Dallas Morning News (copied here by ESPN), the “Battle of the Iron Skillet” was created in part to prevent “mutilation of school property,” due to the $1,000 worth of damage done to both campuses in previous games.

SMU archivist Joan Gosnell, a former professor at SMU, said that there are several notes and minutes from fall 1946 student council meetings trying to establish a trophy similar to Minnesota and Michigan’s “Little Brown Jug,” and that on Nov. 19, a student had purchased an aluminum skillet to be used as the trophy.

The two schools came together to help pay for the Skillet, and the winner of the annual game would go home with the trophy.

The tradition went on for several years, but the interest in the trophy eventually subsided, TCU Magazine reported. TCU color analyst John Denton wrote some fabulous accounts of playing TCU on his blog, and recalls that the Skillet was lost by the time he was playing in the early 1980s.

For TCU and SMU, the Skillet wouldn’t return until the 1993 contest, when a new skillet was commissioned to be used as the trophy. The original Skillet is still at large.

The Decline and the Return of the Skillet

Although the general decline of interest in the trophy can be easily traced to a decline in competition, it’s unfair to discuss the Battle for the Iron Skillet without discussing the rapidly evolving Mustangs of the 60s and 70s, as well as the forthcoming Pony Express.

There was a clear turning point in the rivalry in 1966, with the introduction of SMU receiver Jerry LeVias, the first scholarship African-American player in the Southwestern Conference.

With his speed, the future second-round draft pick made All-SWC three times as a letterman and led the league twice in receiving - and also caused major damage against the Horned Frogs in a 21-0 win in the Cotton Bowl in ’66.

Including a 68-yard touchdown reception, LeVias helped lead the Mustangs to the victory, which ended the 1966 campaign with a SWC title and berth into the Cotton Bowl (although the Ponies would lose 24-9 to SEC powerhouse Georgia).

That shut-out win was the beginning of an era of utter dominance for the Mustangs, as SMU would win 19 out of 21, including 15 straight from 1972 to 1986.

With names like Eric Dickerson and Craig James, SMU was running the Pony Express with full charge and no regard for the opponents that stood in their way. In 1981 and 1982’s runs to the national championship, the Mustangs toppled the Frogs 20-9 and 16-13.

Denton recalls those games well, noting what it was like to play against such a formidable opponent. For TCU, as they struggled to stay relevant during the 70s and 80s, the SMU game was consistently the game that players played their hardest. Although the Frogs never defeated SMU during that time, they still regularly gave SMU hard fought wins - very similarly in nature to SMU’s efforts circa 2010 and 2012.

Of course, as the 80s moved on, TCU floundered in the bottom of the Southwest Conference, and later put on self-imposed sanctions in light of shady recruiting tactics. During this time, SMU racked up more wins in the series, including a 31-21 win at the Cotton Bowl during the dubious 1986 “Probation Bowl.”

However, it would be one of the last times that SMU took the upper hand in the series, as all of the Mustangs’ 1987 games were canceled by the NCAA and 1988 season was canceled by SMU officials.

The Mustangs have never been the same since.

Modern Day History

In the modern day, the rivalry has had some TCU fans calling for the rivalry to be called off, others saying to keep SMU no matter what, barbs thrown by the head coaches of both programs and several odd moments, including a rushing opponents’ fields after an upset and playing a game in the middle of a monsoon in 2012.

TCU is 11-2 in the rivalry under Gary Patterson, and has won all but six games since the Ponies were reinstated after the death penalty in 1989.

As much as Gary Patterson has downplayed the “rivalry” aspect of several opponents in previous years, stating his famous “next game up” mantra when asked the question about SMU, Baylor and other regional foes, one of the most famous moments of the modern rivalry came after SMU pulled off an overtime upset in 2011, knocking TCU out of the Top 25 for the first time in three years.

The loss snapped a 22-game home winning streak for the Frogs, and was just the second time SMU beat a ranked team since the end of the Death Penalty years. It was also widely (and probably accurately) seen that poor officiating from C-USA provided officials helped get SMU the victory.

With SMU receiver Darius Johnson stating “I don't like these TCU people” and June Jones commenting that TCU hadn’t changed much over the years, the loss was a boiling point for Patterson.

"Don't look for any help coming from us ever again,” Patterson said during his post-game presser. "SMU got a lot of help from us over the last three or four years. They are not going to get any help about a game or a conference; they are going to get no help from Gary Patterson."

Since then, Patterson has stepped down from his words and made amends with Jones, but hasn’t let off on the gas on the field. TCU beat SMU by scores of 48-17 and 56-0 (the largest margin in rivalry history) in 2013 and 2014, respectively.

As the Frogs prepare to host the Mustangs for the 2015 edition of the rivalry game, it’s highly unlikely that TCU will ease up with Chad Morris entering the rivalry for the first time.

Just as the SMU success years of the 70s and 80s paralleled with the Frogs’ victories in the 40s and 50s, the modern day Frogs play with a similar success of the Pony Express teams.

With Peach Bowl and Rose Bowl victories, and a Heisman candidate leading the way for TCU’s quest for a national championship, there’s certainly good reason to believe that there’s much more history to be made in this rivalry.

And as the rivalry hits 100 years, it’s worth arguing that the rivalry should stay in tact. After all, if several conference changes, a collegiate arms race to be the best of the best and a death penalty can’t kill the rivalry, not much can.

And if history is to suggest anything, there’s going to be plenty more to talk about in the future.

For both schools, that’s a wonderful thing.

Class dismissed.

Iron Skillet stats and notes:

  • The longest win streak by either team is SMU, with 15 consecutive wins from 1972 to 1986. TCU’s longest winning streak is six games, while stretched from the 1999 game to the 2004 match.
  • There have been 24 shutouts made in the TCU-SMU series, with TCU shutting out SMU 15 times. SMU has not shut out TCU in a game since 1966, while the Frogs have shut out the Mustangs three times since, including the last matchup.
  • Speaking of, TCU’s 56-0 win in 2014 is the largest margin of victory for either side in the series. SMU’s most lopsided win came in 1923, with a 40-0 win.
  • TCU averages 33.8 points per game against SMU during the Gary Patterson era, while the Ponies average 12.6 points per game against the Frogs during that time.
  • TCU’s Dutch Meyer and SMU’s Matty Bell served as two of the six coaches who ever won a national title with a SWC team. Texas A&M’s Homer Norton, Arkansas’ Frank Broyles and Texas’ Darrell Royal are the others.
  • TCU’s Davey O’Brien (’38) and SMU’s Doak Walker (’48) are two of the five Heisman winners of the SWC. A&M’s John David Crow (’57), Texas’ Earl Campbell (’77) and Houston’s Andre Ware (’89) are the three others.

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