When Bart Johnson arrived on the TCU campus four years ago, the Horned Frogs were coming off an 11-1 season, Mountain West Conference championship and No. 11 Associated Press ranking.
Johnson, who himself was unsure if he would continue to play football in college following a stellar career as a receiver at Brownwood High, never anticipated he and the Horned Frogs would be preparing for a BCS bowl four seasons later.
The No. 4 TCU Horned Frogs (12-0) and the No. 6 Boise State Broncos (12-0) are renewing acquaintances in the Fiesta Bowl Monday night, which is being labeled “The BCS Buster Bowl” by various media outlets.
TCU is coming off its first undefeated regular season since 1938 and its first-ever 12-0 start, not to mention making its inaugural trip to a BCS bowl. The Horned Frogs also have a slim chance to claim the Associated Press national championship, a feat that hasn’t occurred at TCU since 1938.
“Four years ago when I came here I never pictured myself being in a situation like this. I didn’t even know if I was going to play football in college or not,” Johnson said. “We have a pyramid of goals each year and the Mountain West Conference championship is our main goal, then getting to a BCS bowl and then the national championship. Now we’re No. 4 in the BCS, playing in the Fiesta Bowl and possibly having a shot at winning the AP national championship. It’s pretty crazy and pretty special.”
The Horned Frogs’ return to national prominence almost mirrors Johnson’s climb up the depth chart. Johnson started his TCU career as a walk on and earned MVP honors on the offensive scout team as a red-shirt freshman in 2006.
In the three seasons that have followed, Johnson has earned a scholarship, started 13 of 38 games and recorded 51 receptions for 667 yards and six touchdowns.
“TCU is a blue collar program,” Johnson said. “We haven’t had the top recruits and we have to compete against the University of Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and places like that around the state. But somehow we find a way to get guys in here.
“Myself, I walked on and ended up doing what I am doing, and Jerry Hughes, he was a running back that was switched over and now he’s an All-American defensive end. It’s weird how Coach (Gary) Patterson takes these players that fly under the radar and turns them into big time players.”
Patterson was named the AP coach of the year earlier in December, an honor Johnson believes is well deserved for his head coach.
“It’s awesome. I’m so proud of him,” Johnson said. “The job he does on the field and off the field is unbelievable. He treats us like family. We’re all so close to each other and that’s a big reason we had the season we did. The team chemistry is unbelievable.”
Johnson has caught at least one pass in 21 consecutive games, which is the longest active streak by a TCU player. He enters the Fiesta Bowl with 30 receptions — second most on the team this season — for 398 yards with two touchdowns. Both touchdown catches — covering 17 and 24 yards — came in the Horned Frogs’ last outing, a 51-10 home win over New Mexico on Nov. 28.
“The highlight of the year was finishing off 12-0 against New Mexico in front of all of Fort Worth,” Johnson said. “It was the first undefeated since for TCU since 1938, so that made it pretty special.”
Hauling in four receptions for 48 yards, including the two touchdown grabs, didn’t hurt Johnson’s impression of the game, either.
“No it didn’t,” Johnson said with a laugh. “It was a nice way to cap off the season.”
As for his performance throughout the season, Johnson compared his role on the TCU offense to what he experienced as a Brownwood Lion.
“I think of myself as a blue collar worker, a slot receiver that’s not real flashy,” Johnson said. “We have guys that catch the long balls, and I do the same thing I did at Brownwood. I’m a third down guy and catch underneath routes. I play hard and block hard and when the ball comes my way, I do what I need to with it. I feel like I’ve done what I could for our team and I’ve had a good season.”
Johnson isn’t the only former Lion on the TCU roster. Ex-Brownwood quarterback Casey Pachall is red-shirting this year and could be in line to guide the Horned Frog offense in the future.
“Casey has the locker right next to me and I see him every day,” Johnson said. “He’s red-shirting this year, and that can be tough coming from high school. You have to pay your dues, start all over again and work your way up the ladder. But he’s doing a good job and next spring is going to be big for him.”
A 14-10 victory at Clemson on Sept. 26 — a game in which Johnson caught four passes for 26 yards — was the point in time where the Horned Frogs realized they could make a push for a BCS bid, according to Johnson.
“When we won in Death Valley against Clemson, we knew something special was going to go on this year,” Johnson said. “Going down there, playing in front of 75,000 and beating an ACC team, we knew this year was going to be something special.”
Johnson and the rest of the Horned Frogs initially wanted a chance to test their mettle against another traditional power in their BCS bowl, but Johnson stated TCU is perfectly happy with its latest bowl showdown against Boise State.
“At first we really wanted a shot at someone big like Florida, but now that we think about it, Boise State is one of the best teams we could play,” Johnson said. “If everything happens like we think it should, we have a chance to finish No. 2 and that would be pretty special. But we’re not taking anything for granted.”
The Horned Frogs and Boise State are no strangers, having squared off last season in the Poinsettia Bowl where TCU picked up a 17-16 victory. Monday’s contest will mark the third time in the Horned Frogs’ last six postseason appearances that they have faced Boise State. The Broncos tallied a 34-31 victory in the 2003 Fort Worth Bowl — now the Armed Forces Bowl — on TCU’s home turf at Amon Carter Stadium.
“We think of Boise State as being a lot like us,” Johnson said. “We’re both trying to get national respect, which I do believe we’ve gained, we’re both from non-BCS automatic qualifier conferences and we’re both undefeated. It’s cool to play another team like that.
“They’re very well-coached, as are we. We’ve been watching film on them and they’re a really sound football team. It’s going to be a test and we’re going to have to play our best game to come out on top. It should be an exciting game for the fans across the nation to watch.”
While a national championship may be out of reach this year, Johnson feels a victory over Boise State Monday night — which would be the Horned Frogs’ fifth consecutive bowl victory — could propel TCU to the status of one of the top national championship contenders in his senior season of 2010.
“To cap off the season 13-0 as Fiesta Bowl champions will propel us into next season,” Johnson said. “Finishing strong this year should get us ranked pretty high going into next year.
“We lose a few guys on offense and a few guys on defense, but I feel like we should have a very special team next year. If we put in all the work we should, I’d like to go ahead and win a national championship, the first since 1938 for TCU. That’s how I’d like to go out as a senior.”