Long before TCU was a national name, Frank Windegger ‘started all of this.’

Long before its multi-million dollar facilities, and success that rivals some of the bigger names in college athletics, TCU was a modest-sized athletic department frog-paddling in deep waters to stay afloat. The man doing a lot of the kicking was Frank Windegger.

When TCU was a little, private regional school with an athletic department that spent as little as possible, Windegger was the man who worked to keep it a point of pride rather than a point of embarrassment.

“He started all of this,” TCU women’s golf coach Angie Ravaioli-Larkin said Saturday morning.

The man known to so many as Coach Windegger died on Friday in Fort Worth. The former long time TCU athletic director was 88. Friends close to Frank said he had been in failing health, and was moved to hospice care earlier in the week.

For almost 50 years Frank poured every fiber and drop of his being into TCU, and for more than two decades he kept an athletic department “around it” despite its small budget set accordingly by a variety of administrators who thought big results were attainable through small investments.

“It was such a different era then. TCU had a guy who was loyal and a good solider and did what he was asked to do,” said former TCU kicker John Denton, who played for the program in the early 1980s before he became a fixture with the school between his time as a broadcaster, and in development.

“It’s miraculous when you look at the job he did with the limited tool box he had to navigate. He was perfect for the job, and he did the absolute best that he could. If anyone knew the ship from the engine shop up, it was Frank.”

In 1953 Windegger left his home in St. Louis for TCU, because football coach Abe Martin convinced him to come to Fort Worth to look. After watching one football practice, Windegger wanted to return home but didn’t have the $14 for the bus fare.

He went on to play baseball for TCU, and graduated in 1957. He then spent two years in the Army followed by a brief period as a high school baseball coach. In 1962, he was hired by TCU to be its head baseball coach, at the age of 28.

Something worked; the team won the conference title in 1963, thus making him the youngest coach ever to win a conference title. He eventually would become the TCU ticket manager, the TCU athletics business manager, and the TCU assistant athletics director.

He stepped down as baseball coach after the 1975 season to become the school’s full-time athletic director. It was a position he held until he retired in the spring of 1998.

Sometime in the early 1980s, as college athletics began to radically change with the influx of television money, he held down what was to become an almost no-win position.

He worked in an era long before college athletic departments hired search firms to find coaches, or were beholden to the whims of big-time donors. Or were handcuffed by television executives dictating schedules.

He worked when athletic directors were still athletic directors rather than fund raisers, facility managers and high end sales managers.

“I have been crying all morning; you don’t know the impact that someone had on you until maybe they’re gone,” Larkin said. She was hired at TCU for her current job by Windegger in 1994. “I didn’t realize the opportunity he gave me until much later on. He was a coaches’ coach, because he had been a coach. He had been an athlete. He was a coaches’ AD.

“Back then, we might have met as a staff once a year, if that. If you walked up to his office, he was in it. There were so few of us then. He always had your back.”

Among the quality hires Windegger made included football coach Jim Wacker, basketball coaches Jim Killingsworth and Billy Tubbs, women’s basketball coach Mike Petersen, swimming/diving coach Richard Sybesma, soccer coach Dave Rubinson, baseball coach Lance Brown, Larkin, men’s golf coach Bill Montigel, and track coach Bubba Thornton. For a brief period, football coach Pat Sullivan, too.

They all made their respective programs relevant, sometimes nationally, despite the obvious obstacle of spending. Because TCU was such a small school, about half the size it is today, it was common for administrators to meddle in the affairs of an athletic department, often on a weekly basis.

“It was a totally different market then and I think we had a great chancellor then but his national championship was to have the largest endowment, so you’re not putting ‘you’re all’ into athletics,” Thornton said Saturday. “Frank was making magic with what he had. He did a great job without the parts.”

Windegger also survived multiple rough moments, most notably when the football program was hit with major NCAA infractions in 1986 stemming from a slew of penalties committed during Wacker’s tenure. It was a three-year probation that was nicknamed, “The Walking Death Penalty.”

The department also was often ranked near the bottom of the NCAA’s annual Title IX progress reports.

While the first three years of Sullivan’s tenure worked, and resulted in the team’s first bowl appearance in 10 years, the final three years flopped. Those three years are often cited as the reason why TCU was not invited to join the new Big 12, in 1996.

Windegger received an unfair share of the blame when the school instead accepted an invitation to the Western Athletic Conference.

“He was told one thing and he trusted what he was told and it didn’t happen,” Thornton said. “Politics got involved, and TCU was not in the politics business.”

The cold reality was TCU was behind on several fronts in trends of higher education, specifically its attitude towards the rapid evolution of Division I college athletics, and football. Windegger had friends all over TCU, but he did not wield enough power to change the direction of a board that was not quite aligned on where it had to go.

Windegger retired in the spring of ‘98, the highest profile change as the university essentially pushed out all of the “old guard” in the board’s vision to modernize the school.

Windegger survived for so long in large part because he had been in the game for decades, and everyone knew him. He had more respect nationally than maybe he did locally. He was active on several different NCAA committees, and near his retirement he lamented one of the great regrets of his tenure was the inability to construct a playoff for football.

He was able to see that dream come to fruition, when the playoff was formed in 2014; he followed it when TCU made the playoffs in 2022, and reached the national title game that season by defeating Michigan in the Fiesta Bowl.

“They have done a great thing and it’s a great thrill to see this,” Windegger said in an interview in Jan. of 2023. “Anything in life is possible, and you have to live with that kind of hope and adage.”

The last time he watched a TCU home football game in person was the fall of 2022. By that time, he often needed a wheel chair. The poor man’s body had been through hell; at one point he guessed he had more than 30 surgeries to repair various ailments, including several on a back that never cooperated.

A member of the TCU Athletics Hall of Fame, Windegger was thrilled for TCU’s success, but he also acknowledged it was no longer the same place that had been such a big part of his life for decades.

In 2013, Windegger was named the 46th recipient of the James J. Corbett Memorial Award; it’s the highest honor someone can achieve in collegiate athletics administration. Frank was inducted into the Southwest Conference Hall of Fame that same year.

Frank is survived by his wife Barbara, daughters Sherry Mitchell and Dana Dirksen, their husbands and several grandchildren.

A service is scheduled for 2 p.m., March 19, at University Christian Church. Expect a large gathering to show so they can all tip their cap to the man they called, “Coach Windegger.