Hypnotoad electrifies TCU fans as team heads to CFP championship game

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In retrospect, all of this could have been orchestrated by the Hypnotoad.

A sporadic character in Matt Groening’s animated science fiction sitcom, “Futurama,” the Hypnotoad is a toad with glowing, oscillating eyes that emits a droning hum as it hypnotizes people and animals.

The Hypnotoad was ancillary to the main characters in the show but popular enough to achieve meme fame and to inspire its own 4/20 marathon. The character first appeared on the show during a 2001 episode, but 21 years later it has penetrated the minds of TCU fans during their team’s run to Monday’s College Football Playoff championship game after the school repurposed the amphibian into a spiritual avatar alongside its official reptilian mascot. , the Horned Frog.

Clayton Regian, TCU’s director of athletics video production, was a fan of Groening’s “The Simpsons” and naturally began watching “Futurama” from its 1999 inception on Fox while growing up in Fort Worth. “Futurama” had an easy enjoyability to it, and soon enough Regian became a “Futurama” sleeper, winding down as the show played in the background.

“I’m sure once or twice I fell asleep to Hypnotoad and that revving-engine sound effect,” Regian said. “I’m sure that made an impact on my mind.”

Around 2013, Regian, a TCU graduate, stumbled upon an online fan forum where one participant posted an image of a purple Hypnotoad emblazoned with the TCU logo. He thought it was hilarious, and the image stuck in his mind. He hoped to incorporate it into his creative work for the school, but the opportunity didn’t present itself until 2015, when then-TCU director of athletics marketing Drew Martin returned from a game against the University of Minnesota.

During Golden Gophers home games, the school projected the prairie dog from the popular dramatic chipmunk GIF onto its video board to try to distract opposing kickers during field goal attempts. During that 2015 game against TCU, it seemed to work.

Martin wanted TCU to adopt a similar practice and solicited ideas from his staff, and Regian suggested the Hypnotoad.

“I’d been trying to incorporate it, but I never found a good reason other than it’s funny. But that seemed like the perfect opportunity to do so,” Regian said. “There was no pushback on it. Quite the opposite—it was encouragement. And I was lucky that Drew actually knew what Hypnotoad was as well, which was funny, so it wasn’t really me needing to convince anybody.”

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Regian said the Hypnotoad made sporadic appearances at football games that season and in subsequent ones, mostly when opposing kickers prepared for field goal attempts in the direction of the large video board on the north side of Amon G. Carter Stadium. The screen would fade to black, and a deep voice would bellow “The Hypnotoad” before the creature appeared in front of a spiraling backdrop. Regian said the display usually received a muted response.

Ahead of the 2016 men’s basketball season, Regian and his team recast a trippier version of Hypnotoad more akin to the iteration used today — one that accompanies a manic mishmash of television and film snippets. The video was meant to distract free throw shooters, but over the years it became more prevalent at football games, summoning the crowd ahead of important plays.

It wasn’t until this past fall that the Hypnotoad became a viral sensation when first-year football coach Sonny Dykes set social media ablaze after he was photographed wearing a Hypnotoad hoodie in October.

Fans appealed for Hypnotoad merchandise, the athletic department’s video production team began creating zany postgame videos to celebrate victories, and ESPN occasionally used the Hypnotoad in place of the Horned Frog during Saturday broadcasts. During home games, the Hypnotoad received a more feverish response.

Regian describes TCU’s Hypnotoad as a “mastermind — a bringer of all chaos to all situations, surrounded by movie and television clips to create a hype atmosphere.”

“Once we did that, we just sort of built off those foundations, and it kept getting wackier and crazier and just more fun,” he said.

Dykes said he first noticed the Hypnotoad last basketball season. But two months into TCU football’s 12-0 start, it became his team’s unofficial mascot, energizing fans and players throughout the Horned Frogs’ unexpected run to the national championship game, in which they will play Georgia on Monday.

“I was at some basketball games, and all of a sudden on the highlights there’s this strange, weird thing happening, and it’s got Gene Wilder from ‘Young Frankenstein’ on it. So I was like, ‘Okay, this is kind of cool; this is interesting,’ ” Dykes told the Athletic of his initial encounter with the Hypnotoad. “It just got weirder and weirder, but it seemed to pump the crowd up. And then, obviously, it carried over to football. In a couple of games where it was close, they played it on the board, and we kind of seized control of the game, and all of a sudden it became a thing.

“Our marketing people have done a really cool job of creating a buzz around it. It’s something that, again, it’s funny, our players kind of believe in it, and I’m starting to become a little bit of a believer myself.”

Disney in 2017 bought the majority of assets under 21st Century Fox, which means it owns the rights to “The Simpsons” and “Futurama.” TCU approached Disney about a partnership that would enable the school to utilize the Hypnotoad’s image, but Julie Austin, the school’s associate athletic director for marketing and licensing, said the company “is not allowing that.” Austin declined further comment, and Disney did not respond to a request for comment.

Still, Austin said the school has found other ways to capitalize on the Hypnotoad hype. It repurposed the hypnotizing swirl that backed the Hypnotoad on the video board, adorning it in purple and white and its own logo and imprinting that onto rally towels to capture a similar feel. It also uses the term “Hypnotoad,” which Austin said Disney does not own, on official merchandise.

“It’s been fun to put our own spin on it — with what we can — and not overstep,” Austin said. “Fans are making banners and shirts and stickers and pins, and there’s so many different GIFs on social media, so it’s just really blown up since [Dykes] wore that hoodie.”

Regian said he never expected TCU’s Hypnotoad, which is also featured at volleyball and women’s basketball games, to go viral. He felt the idea had potential, but it has been validating to see the accompanying excitement this season.

He said TCU’s on-field success has been the best part of the Hypnotoad’s rise. As the team prepares to compete for a national title, he’s hopeful for what comes next.

“I never would have thought a ‘Futurama’ character would have been the reason for so much attention being brought to our department,” he said. “It’s definitely been a wild ride, and I can’t wait to see what’s next.”