Since the late 1980s, TCU football has been the bond that’s kept John Runyon and eight of his fraternity brothers together. The past eight years, however, they’ve been bonded for another reason: the knowledge of having pulled off one of college football’s most mysterious capers in recent history.
Saturday night in Arlington, Texas, the nine will reunite from across the country at AT&T Stadium, where their Horned Frogs will take on Ohio State. They’ll be watching from a box that might as well be called the “Little Sisters of the Poor Suite.”
Because, after all, they were the ones behind 20 billboards that popped up around Columbus, Ohio, eight years ago.
“That’s my core crew, and win or lose, TCU football is what keeps us together,” Runyon said. “And that passion we have is what fueled the billboard thing.”
That billboard thing has only added to the buildup surrounding TCU’s showdown with Ohio State.
Sure, both teams are nationally ranked. And, yes, ESPN’s College GameDay will be in Fort Worth to preview the matchup.
The Horned Frogs also haven’t forgotten about being left out of the inaugural College Football Playoff in 2014, when the selection committee put the eventual national champion Buckeyes in over TCU, who dropped from No. 3 to No. 6 on the final weekend, despite hammering Iowa State by 52 points.
Yet tension between TCU and Ohio State dates back to the backstretch of the 2010 season, when Gary Patterson’s undefeated Horned Frogs were trying to become the first team from a mid-major conference to play for a BCS National Championship.
Then-Ohio State president Gordon Gee took issue with TCU’s candidacy, suggesting that the Horned Frogs were only undefeated because they played the “Little Sisters of the Poor.”
“I made that quip, unfortunately, but of course, I’m well known for making unfortunate quips,” joked Gee, now president at West Virginia University, in an interview with ESPN.com. “I always thought they had a good football program. … I thought it was just a funny statement.”
In the end, Runyon and his buddies would have the last laugh.
TCU went on to stay unbeaten. And though the Horned Frogs just missed out on playing for a national championship, they were invited to play in the Rose Bowl against Big Ten champion Wisconsin, which had also handed the Buckeyes their only loss of the season.
Runyon and his eight friends met in California and went to the game together, watching on as TCU knocked off the Badgers 21-19.
“That was the single best sports day of my life,” Runyon said. “I’ve got chills just even thinking about it. My father and I, we rarely missed a home game growing up. I’d been watching TCU lose since I was in diapers.
“Unfortunately, my dad passed away in 2005. So I had tears of sadness, but tears of joy, because I was with all my buddies, and we got to celebrate the victory.”
Runyon and his crew weren’t completely satisfied, however.
Together, they had suffered through all the losing in the Southwest Conference. They had gone through the humiliation of initially being left out of the Big 12 Conference.
And just two months earlier, they had endured the indignity of their team being compared to the Little Sisters of the Poor.
They wanted Ohio State to feel a little of that pain.
And that inspired an email chain, with Runyon casually suggesting two days later that they “share the expense of a billboard near the Ohio State campus.”
Wes Hoaglund took Runyon’s email request seriously and immediately phoned fellow TCU alum Dave Yacullo, who worked at an advertising agency that helped with national outdoor campaigns.
Yacullo was in.
“We got so lucky because Columbus is the first market where they were testing digital outdoor advertising as a network,” Yacullo said. “So, there had been places where digital had been done before, but they hadn’t really built a full network that covered the whole marketplace. Knowing that we could get up immediately, it just became an amazing opportunity. I said, ‘Well, we’re not going to just put up just one; we’re going to wallpaper the Columbus market.'”
That very day, more than 20 digital billboards went up around Columbus, with the same message:
For their BCS Rose Bowl Victory
-Little Sisters of the Poor
Immediately, the prank drew headlines from around the country. Except nobody knew who was behind it.
“There were all these urban myths out there. People thought it was some T. Boone Pickens oil guy,” said Yacullo, referring to the Oklahoma State mega-booster.
Because Clear Channel was still experimenting with the concept of citywide digital outdoor advertising, the total bill was actually just $5,000. Hoaglund covered that through his mortgage banking company, while the rest of the group pooled together another $5,000 to donate to the Little Sisters of the Poor order of Oregon, Ohio, whose mission is serving the elderly poor.
“When you’re in my business, you have to have a good sense of humor, and I thought they had a good sense of humor, too,” Gee said of the anonymous TCU billboard contingent. “And of course, what is really funny, I had no idea that there was a Catholic order called the Little Sisters of the Poor. I still have the bruises on my knees for begging for forgiveness.”
Gee, who had also sent a personal check to the Little Sisters of the Poor, was forgiven by the sisters for turning them into a punchline when he visited the order the following fall.
Runyon, Hoaglund, Yacullo and the others, meanwhile, opted to keep their anonymity as a way to strengthen their friendship. Not even TCU athletic director Jeremiah Donati knew who had been behind the billboards.
“There were people taking responsibility for it that I knew weren’t involved,” Donati said.
A few days ago, Runyon spilled the beans to Donati during a donor event leading up to the Ohio State game.
Their billboard secret might finally be out.
But as they congregate again from all over the country for one of the biggest TCU games since that Rose Bowl, their friendship has never been stronger.
“It could be another fantastic moment for TCU football, and winning would be better than losing,” Runyon said.
“But getting together, for us, that’s what it’s about.”