With 9:47 left in the fourth quarter, as TCU attempted to stage a comeback against Kansas State in the Big 12 championship, Horned Frogs quarterback Max Duggan prepared to take a snap under one of the largest video boards in the world.
The AT&T Stadium screen wasn’t showing action on the field or highlights from the game. It instead projected a montage of fans holding up their phones to display psychedelic images of a cartoon amphibian.
Since the late 1800s, TCU has been associated with the Texas horned lizard, or horned frog, with the accompanying costumed mascot being introduced in 1979. But more recently, the TCU fan base has adopted a more trippy kindred spirit to help rally its teams.
This is the story of the Hypnotoad.
During the third season of the animated series Futurama, an episode entitled The Day The Earth Stood Stupid featured a toad with oscillating eyeballs emitting a dull hum—hypnotic powers that he uses on sheep and the judges of a pet contest in order to win.
He’s appeared in multiple episodes of the show over its 140-episode run and had his own special feature on a straight-to-DVD Futurama movie called Everybody Loves Hypnotoad, in which the credits attribute everything from the creation to the production and acting solely to the Hypnotoad. He also appeared in the intro to an episode of The Simpsonswhich Futurama creator Matt Groening also launched. Groening has said on the DVD commentary of the original episode that Hypnotoad is one of his favorite running gags. It’s also one of Eric Kaplan’s favorite characters—he created Hypnotoad while he was a writer on it Futurama. The director of the episode, Mark Ervin, once explained how he designed the character:
The script just called for a huge toad with hypnotic eyes, and I based him on an Argentine Horned Frog, which I’d seen in a coffee table book I have about frogs. So, he’s not actually a toad at all. As for his eyes, I looked at those oddly-shaped eyes that a frog has and based it on that. Also, I’d previously worked on The Simpsons episode “Boy-Scoutz ‘n the Hood,” where Bart and Milhouse get all amped up on Squishees and have these crazy eyes. It was a bit of a nod to that.
Hypnotoad has his own cult following in the fandom universe of Groening’s TV shows. The TV channel Syfy once ran a marathon of Futurama episodes on April 20, 2018, featuring “Futurama episodes selected for maximum trip-enhancing effect and Hypnotoad-centricity.” But that following has broken into general internet intrigue, churning out images and videos all over the internet in the service of Hypnotoad’s glory.
“Superman doesn’t really fight crime; he’s just a cartoon. He only fights cartoon crime, but Hypnotoad really hypnotizes people in real life, so his power is able to break the wall, separating reality from cartoons,” Kaplan says. “That’s just a tribute to how powerful he is. I’m glad [TCU’s] having a lot of fun, and I think it’s entirely appropriate. I think they’ve been hypnotized to love the team by the Hypnotoad.”
TCU director of athletics video production Clayton Regian and his staff are a big reason why. In 2015, Regian’s boss came to him asking whether they had a version of Minnesota’s in-stadium tactic of distracting the road team’s kicker with a dramatic chipmunk on their jumbotron. Regian, a Futurama fan and TCU alum, had an idea.
“When we actually used it in those situations, you would get a lot of people who were laughing and some cheering,” Regian says. “My objective back then was just to get it on the board. Little by little, my staff and I wanted to incorporate Hypnotoad wherever we could. It was only this season when it took off, because the winning season occurred.”
Eventually, Hypnotoad made its way to men’s basketball games, serving as a distraction while the opposing team shot free throws. Sonny Dykes, who took over as head football coach in November 2021, noticed it during his first few months on campus.
“[I] saw the Hypnotoad deal at halftime of the game and I was like, What in the world is this?Dykes recently said. “It was just weird enough that it appealed to me and I really thought it was cool. We have a lot of really young people who do a great job branding our program. It was something different and something that our fans really, really love.”
This season, the football program’s embrace of Hypnotoad took on a life of its own, going from field goal distraction to full-on hype video material during countdown videos at Frogs home games. It was also part of a zany mash-up of Willy Wonka movie clips in the fourth quarter of the win against Tech.
It’s been known even to psych out TCU’s players.
“One time I looked up in the fourth quarter, I’m looking at [the Jumbotron] and it’s messing me up, so I know the other team’s getting messed up,” TCU receiver Quentin Johnston said. “After the game, I’m like, ‘Coach, what in the world is this they are showing? I don’t think we can show this anymore.’ They finally broke it down and told me what it was. I know now not to look at it.”
Dykes has been spotted at practices and press conferences with a Hypnotoad hoodie that has become a hot item of its own. One football staffer told Sports Illustrated he received a $300 offer for one, and Twitter bots replied to many TCU tweets with bootleg versions of it, as it’s not officially for sale anywhere.
Kaplan says he’d love to see a bodysuit for the Hypnotoad mascot, just like TCU’s plush Superfrog. During a fire drill field goal victory against Baylor, Fox’s Jason Benetti punctuated the moment by saying, “Hypnotoad in a hurry” as the field goal team scrambled on and kicker Griffin Kell sealed the victory.
“This season altogether has been incredible to see unfold,” Regian says. “This, of course, I consider a pretty small detail of the season, but I think the fan base gets excited for Hypnotoad just because our team is doing really well. Hypnotoad itself is just something I am really proud of just because at the beginning, even if it was just a couple of people on Twitter who would say, ‘Hey, Hypnotoad was at the game,’ even if it was just me laughing in the booth as it was playing that would be worth it to me. I knew deep down that I think it was pretty good meme material that it could actually blow up at some point and I feel a little validated that it actually did.”
Hypnotoad is an important part of the TCU meme industrial complex, but it’s only the beginning of a rabbit hole. To get to the bottom, or at least closer to it, you have to go inside the mind of Jon Petrie, TCU football’s coordinator of creative video.
After the double-overtime victory over Oklahoma State while working on their other projects, including the Carter Boys digital show they produced for ESPN+, Petrie had been playing around with a side project. His boss, TCU director of football creative media Jason Andrews, posted a euphoric video after the victory, sparking an absurd social media snowball.
“I threw it up there, didn’t really know what was going to happen,” Andrews says. “And obviously from then on we had to do one every week, because it was just like people were dying for it. [Petrie] sits right beside me so I can look over and be like, ‘What the heck is he doing today?’ Like I said, we do the Carter Boys, so I got to make sure he is doing the real stuff. But then it’s like, I know the meme is real, too, but at the same time it’s not normal work. You look over and you’re like, ‘What are you working on? Why is there a frog with a mariachi band behind him?’ I don’t get it.”
No one likely does, and that’s part of the point. TCU’s postgame victory videos are what happens when a college football team embraces the true depths of internet-driven creativity, not just posting score graphics and locker room videos. Petrie jokes that he is irony-poisoned and internet-addicted—both are the impetus for this brand of creativity, which uses, among other things, “deep fried memes.” It’s digital surrealism, which makes sense given that some of the images Petrie uses are generated by the Craiyon, an online AI image generator where users can input any combination of terms via text and get a computer-generated image in seconds. (The tool was formerly called Dall-e, which is a combination of Wall-e (the eponymous robot from the 2008 Disney movie) and Salvador Dalí, a 20th-century artist who pioneered surrealism in paintings.)
Petrie attributes the popularity of the videos to the fact that Regian’s team had already introduced the fanbase to this style of content with their own Hypnotoad videos. Now, the ideas come flooding in.
“Now, on a daily basis, people send me frog videos and tweets,” Petrie says. “And anything with a frog in it, I get it now from players on the team, friends, family. They’re like, ‘You got to use this.’”
While the football creative team works with athletic marketing on many projects, Petrie made the initial video weeks before a game against Oklahoma State on Oct. 15 and was holding it until the right time, adding the game’s result and the team’s record after it was over.
Over the rest of the season, the videos get even trippier than Barack Obama’s initial unveiling of a portrait of TCU’s 6–0 record set to a Techno Crazy Frog song beat.
There are the 0.5 selfies of multiple players in a compilation set to heavy metal:
Frogs photoshopped in cowboy hats:
Horns down after beating Texas…
… and dunking on Baylor set to a mash-up of the Hello video-game theme music and the ringing of the Taco Bell commercial bell (featuring a certain hypnotic toad in the background). That one has more than 1 million views on Twitter.
TCU features most of the same key players at key positions as it did last year. There have been changes to the X’s and O’s, but if you ask anyone around the program what’s really changed, they will point to a radical shift in the vibe behind the scenes from former coach Gary Patterson to Dykes. You can’t quantify it like a retweet, but it’s real to those in purple and white. Things are more open now and more relaxed. Players arrived at spring practice to hear music blaring during practice, which was actually open to fans with the creative team on hand with cameras to document things, much to their surprise.
“Once they caught on to the fact that we’re going to post their personalities, they really bought in and loved it,” Andrews says. “And that’s been the most rewarding part of the job, is being able to show our fan base, show our players, basically pull back the curtain a little bit and show them access to our program. Because it’s their program, it’s our fan base’s program. It’s a former player’s program. Why shouldn’t they be able to see it?”
Patterson built the program to where it is today with an old-school style. Dykes represents a more modern CEO approach. Dykes may not understand everything the creative team is doing, but he doesn’t question it. He gives them the freedom to create and show off the program. Want to mic up QB Max Duggan? If the signal-caller was OK with it, then Dykes was, too. He let it be the player’s call. If this sounds abnormal for a high-level football program, that’s because it is. It’s a radical departure from even the last two decades of TCU football.
“I think a lot of times, I don’t know if it’s coaching staff or whatever, they tend to really want to hold on to control their look, but that’s why you hire people,” Petrie says. “And I find it funny, because Coach Dykes lets us do whatever you want, and that’s kind of beautiful. I think the fear in regards to being like that on the internet, is that you’re going to offend someone or someone’s sensibilities or something, and the opposite is true. I think because you see lots of people think I wasn’t a TCU fan before this and I saw this and I’m like, I’m in. That’s awesome that a meme can make someone a fan of a football team. And I think a lot of coaches will probably start waking up to that. I would hope they would start waking up to that. It’s the new reality.”
The team doesn’t win because they post, but they do post because the team wins. You don’t see many dank memes coming from 3-9 teams, but TCU is in the College Football Playoff, and that isn’t something you have to be hypnotized by the Hypnotoad to believe.