Texas Christian University and Southern Methodist University will meet on the football field for the 102nd time this weekend in a sweet reminder of college football’s simpler place and time—which, in truth, may not have been as sweet or as simple as we remember. As then–TCU coach F. A. Dry bitterly told me close to fifty years ago: “I’ve been ordered not to meet the competition.”
He was referring to an era in which cars and cash were as crucial to Southwest Conference recruiting as handshakes and steak dinners, and he understood that if TCU refused to compete in this arena, it had no chance of building a successful program. He was shown the door in 1982, after compiling a 12–51–3 record over six seasons in Fort Worth.
Rivalry games between TCU and SMU—the winner takes home the Iron Skillet trophy—once mattered in a way that may be difficult for some of today’s fans to understand. Now they’re a reminder of college football’s transformation from a sport built around geographical rivalries to a competition for television ratings. TCU announced this summer that it will pause the rivalry after the 2025 game, and there’s no guarantee that the grudge matches will resume, depending on how future rounds of NCAA conference realignment play out.
If you’re inclined to pine for the good old days, you’re on your own. They aren’t coming back, and there’s no shortage of reasons to look forward to college football’s new normal. Texas and Oklahoma jumping from the Big 12 to the Southeastern Conference next summer will produce a smorgasbord of tantalizing matchup possibilities, as will USC and UCLA’s move to the Big Ten. Meanwhile, the Big 12, despite losing the Longhorns and Sooners, has nicely reinvented itself and appears strong enough to remain relevant.
As for TCU and SMU, the two schools have been on different trajectories for decades. SMU never truly recovered from the recruiting scandals that prompted the NCAA to shut the football program down for the 1987 season (SMU chose to sit out 1988 as well). The program was left without a major conference home after the Southwest disbanded in 1996 and SMU’s multiple attempts to gain admission into the Big 12 over the years were unsuccessful.
Now, finally, SMU has been invited to join the Atlantic Coast Conference—geography? who needs it?—next summer, after the university agreed to join the ACC without any share of the conference’s television-rights money. SMU boosters, desperate to get back in the game, promised to make up the lost revenue, and the school said this week that it raised $100 million in the first seven days after the ACC announcement. In return, SMU believes the ACC will provide a platform to return the Mustangs to national prominence, especially now that slush funds—which brought the program down in 1987—are permitted in college sports via name, image, and likeness (NIL) spending.
Like SMU, TCU wasn’t invited to join the Big 12 in 1996, but the Horned Frogs persevered by hiring a string of first-rate coaches, building excellent facilities, and thriving in smaller conferences for sixteen seasons before the Big 12 finally came knocking in 2011, after Texas A&M announced it would depart for the SEC.
Dennis Franchione (1998–2000) and Gary Patterson (2001–2021) elevated the program to such a place that by the time current coach Sonny Dykes—hired from SMU—stepped off a helicopter at Amon G. Carter Stadium to take over the program, TCU boosters believed the program could hold its own against UT, OU, and anyone else.
Last season’s march to the national championship game was the kind of leap donors expected to see after investing hundreds of millions in facilities and staff. As TCU baseball coach Kirk Saarloos told me during his team’s run to the College World Series last June: “You look at what we have here. Not too many schools have more to offer than TCU or a better place to live than Fort Worth.”
TCU’s decision to end the series with SMU was not too shocking to close followers of college football. The Mustangs simply don’t have much to offer in an early season matchup, given the Horned Frogs’ lofty ambitions. Instead, TCU will fill the SMU-size hole in future schedules with either a tomato-can opponent for an easy victory or a prestige adversary like LSU or Michigan in its quest to get back to the College Football Playoff.
Dykes, asked about the series, said it was important to add another home game, regardless of the opponent. “If we want to be big time, we gotta act big time and schedule big time,” he told reporters. “All that stuff goes together.”
Yet what was surprising, given all that tradition, was the lack of outrage from nostalgic TCU fans. SMU, still seeking relevance, lamented the history that would be lost—as if the Mustangs wouldn’t have done exactly the same if they believed it would have benefited them.
But for the handful of genuinely sentimental Iron Skillet fans kicking around North Texas, the rivalry sure did produce some memories. Oh, boy, are there memories. Once upon a time, this was one of college football’s marquee games. In 1935, number four SMU rallied to beat number one TCU and Slingin’ Sammy Baugh 20–14 for a berth in the Rose Bowl. Grantland Rice of the New York Sun declared it the “Game of the Century.”
SMU’s greatest player until Eric Dickerson’s arrival in 1978 was Doak Walker, who had one of his best games in a 1947 tie (19–19) against TCU: 119 rushing yards, two touchdowns, three kickoff returns for 163 yards, ten of fourteen pass completions, and he even kicked an extra point. Generations of TCU and SMU grads would hear about that day for years afterward.
These days, if TCU’s 90,000 or so living alumni were asked to rank this season’s twelve football opponents in order of importance, SMU might be near the bottom. Surprisingly, Texas might not be number one, since a generation of TCU fans now expects to beat the Longhorns (the Horned Frogs are 7–2 against UT since 2014).
“I think TCU fans hate Baylor more than Texas,” longtime Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Bud Kennedy wrote in an email. “They take it for granted they’ll beat Texas. There are kids picking colleges now who don’t remember a time when TCU didn’t beat Texas. After that, [Texas] Tech for sure—there’s a lot of houses divided and West Texas rivalry. Then OU. They would dearly love to play A&M but can’t remember what that’s like.”
SMU? “It’s not a big deal here,” Kennedy wrote. “I think some Dallas people care, but only the few who follow SMU. SMU just doesn’t move the needle here as far as audience or emotion.
“SMU simply doesn’t have much name ID in Fort Worth,” he explained. “I don’t know many people who send kids there except for law school. They send kids to OU and Ole Miss and Tech and then they transfer back home to TCU. I remember a game in the Cotton Bowl, 1973—[SMU coach] Dave Smith vs [TCU’s] Billy Tohill. 18,000 people.” (The Cotton Bowl can seat more than 91,000 fans.)
TCU’s average home football attendance last season was almost double that of SMU’s: 46,562 versus 24,971. SMU’s footprint in Dallas barely registers in an area dominated by professional sports franchises like the Cowboys, the Mavericks, the Stars, and the Rangers. Texas and Texas A&M will always be bigger stories. In Fort Worth, TCU has carved out a niche for itself both because of the Horned Frogs’ success on the field and because some residents still get worked up about the city’s rivalry with Dallas. As Star-Telegram publisher Amon G. Carter famously put it: “Fort Worth is where the West begins. Dallas is where the East peters out.”
The tradition of the Iron Skillet appears to have begun in 1946, when—in SMU’s telling—a tailgating SMU fan was frying frog legs as a joke (probably not to the frog). A TCU fan did not take kindly to the humor and suggested the winner of the game get the skillet.
If Saturday really is the beginning of the end of SMU-TCU, couldn’t someone convince the two bands to keep pranking each other? At times, that has been the best part of the rivalry. One of the best instances was at the 1999 game when members of the SMU Mustang Band dropped ryegrass seeds in the shape of the band’s trademark M onto the field at TCU during their halftime performance. The following spring, those seeds sprouted and delivered big-time.
“Since SMU loses at everything else, it seems natural that its pranks would be lame,” huffed an editorial in TCU’s student newspaper, the Skiff. “But in the future, if SMU students want to do something on our field other than lose, they should consult us first.”
TCU’s band got its revenge the following year by dropping fertilizer on the field in SMU’s new $54 million stadium to spell out “TCU.” Six years later, some SMU fans sneaked onto TCU’s grass and used weed killer to spell “PONY,” to which one of TCU’s most famous grads, the late author Dan Jenkins, said: “I thought it was hilarious and wish we thought of it.”
Seeing how lopsided the series has become on the field, couldn’t the schools at least preserve the part of the rivalry that has delivered real, back and forth excitement?