It was 20 years ago, on Nov. 20, 1999, that TCU running back LaDainian Tomlinson rushed for 406 yards against the University of Texas-El Paso. Here’s a story from one of our previous Frog Fever editions about that remarkable run and how it helped put TCU football, then an afterthought among college football fans, back on the map.
When former TCU running back LaDainian Tomlinson was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he was honored for his amazing rushing feats in the NFL, mostly with the San Diego Chargers. But Tomlinson’s NFL stardom was no surprise to me because I enthusiastically watched him in college when he played for the Horned Frogs.
I had the privilege of watching Tomlinson rush for an NCAA Division 1-A record 406 yards in a college game against the University of Texas-El Paso 18 years ago.
It was Nov. 20, 1999, when TCU, then playing in the Western Athletic Conference, faced UTEP at Amon Carter Stadium in Fort Worth.
I was a sports reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram at the time. On that Saturday afternoon, I was assigned to attend the TCU game and write a sidebar story. Art Garcia was the TCU beat writer who wrote the main game story.
On that day, the big story line appeared to be TCU’s attempt to clinch bowl eligibility for the second consecutive year under second-year head coach Dennis Franchione. Though TCU eventually routed UTEP, 52-24, and became eligible for a bowl game after a sixth regular-season victory, Tomlinson overshadowed that milestone.
Going into the game, Tomlinson was averaging 146 yards a game. He rushed for 59 yards in the first quarter and had a total of 119 yards at halftime. Still, nobody saw it coming.
It just looked as if he would have an exceptional game, but not record-breaking. He was on a pace to rush for between 225 and 250 yards. In that case, the main story on the game would have begun with something like “LT rushed for 238 yards to give TCU a victory over UTEP to clinch a bowl berth.”
But during the second half of the game, Tomlinson ran like a madman, for 287 more yards — 121 in the third quarter and 166 in the fourth.
It was one big spectacle. For example, Tomlinson carried the ball on every down of a 7-play, 71-yard drive early in the third quarter. Then, early in the fourth quarter, he scored on a 70-yard touchdown run.
As Tomlinson’s numbers began dramatically rising throughout the second half, those in the press box began looking at the record books. They contacted Franchione, advising him that Tomlinson was nearing the all-time rushing record.
Franchione had debated pulling Tomlinson in the fourth quarter after the Horned Frogs had the game in hand. Tomlinson had recently dealt with a troublesome ankle and his coach did not want to risk re-injuring it. But Tomlinson looked sharp throughout the afternoon.
Know Tomlinson was closing in on the record, Franchione kept him in and gave him his shot at history. When Tomlinson left the game with 2:34 left to play, he had exceeded the previous record by 10 yards. He had topped the record held by Tony Sands of Kansas, who rushed for 396 yards against Missouri on Nov. 23, 1991.
After the game, Franchione told reporters why he left Tomlinson in the game.
“We just wanted to get him his 20 yards” that he needed to break the record, Franchione said. “If he’s close to something like that, you’ve got to let him finish off.”
During the postgame news conference Franchione added: “What have we been playing college football for — a hundred-and-something years — and nobody has been able to do what he just did today.”
That put it in perspective. At that point, it sank in that we’d all witnessed a rare feat.
Tomlinson’s single-game rushing record stood for 15 years. Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon broke the record by rushing for 408 yards in a game against Nebraska on Nov. 15, 2014.
A week later, the record was broken again when Oklahoma back Samaje Perine rushed for 427 yards in a game against Kansas on Nov. 22, 2014. Perine’s record still stands.
When Tomlinson left the game after breaking the record in 1999, TCU called a time out. The entire team rushed onto the field to congratulate him. The 21,218 people in attendance gave him a standing ovation.
In the news conference afterward, the ever-polite Tomlinson expressed his gratitude.
“All the credit goes to the offensive line,” he said. “They’ve done a great job creating holes all season. I need to buy them a couple of steaks.”