Patterson’s TCU success is rooted in hard work

FORT WORTH, Texas – The Patterson Brothers Co. of Western Kansas was always long on work and short on labor. It leveled land for irrigation, a hard, hot, mundane task that required endless hours and left, in its wake, nothing but pancake flat topography. A glamour business it’s not.

Gary Patterson, like every other Patterson, began working in those fields for his grandfather’s company at a tender age, in his case not long after turning 7. If he wasn’t attending school or playing football, he was alongside his father or his uncles or his cousins.

“Seven days a week,” Patterson said. “On Sunday, you’d go to church and then you’d be working in the fields in the afternoon. All the kids, that’s what we did. As soon as you were old enough you were going out into the field. You got up and you did what you did. Everybody back there did. There are a lot of wheat farmers, a lot of corn farmers, cattle. Great people.

Gary Patterson is always moving forward, not taking much time to admire his work at TCU.
(Matt Strasen/US Presswire)

“It taught me a lifestyle of understanding that people get up every morning and just work.”

Patterson said this as the buzz of another football victory faded. He’s the head coach and chief architect of the Texas Christian Horned Frogs. The kid who once leveled everything in sight is now a builder. His program is a juggernaut, 8-0 on the season. The average margin of victory is 30.9. The defense has allowed 10 points total in the last four games. They’re ranked No. 4 nationally.

In 1997, TCU fans stormed the field when a winless season was avoided in the final game. Now 10 years into Patterson’s reign it’s a legitimate national title contender for the second consecutive season. The 50-year-old has taken a one-time dormant, doormat program and has gone 61-11 since 2005, including a current 33-3 tear. There’s even a $105 million stadium renovation set to begin next month that promises to turn ancient Amon Carter Stadium into “the Camden Yards of college football.”

These are heady days at TCU, yet the man everyone agrees is most responsible for it doesn’t have time to enjoy it.

“I don’t think you ever get a chance when you’re climbing the mountain to look back down and say, ‘look how far we’ve come,’” Patterson said.

His team had just bulldozed a good Air Force club, 38-7. Patterson wasn’t going to celebrate his 21st consecutive regular-season victory though. His hair was a mess. His shirt rumpled. He somehow looked both exhausted and energetic.

It was late Saturday night and he said he was going to bed so he could get back in the office early. Unless, of course, he decided to fire up the computer late and begin watching UNLV film.

“Right now, I’ve switched gears,” he said, not 45 minutes after the win.

Intense is the word everyone uses to describe Gary Patterson. His will is unbending, his commitment to the hardest of tasks unbreakable. Create a national contender at TCU? He didn’t just think it was possible, once he did it he immediately kept pushing for more.

When TCU reached the Fiesta Bowl last year in a breakthrough moment, Patterson took the lead in raising money for the new stadium. What TCU lacks in quantity of fans here in this pro sports market (stadium capacity: 44,358), its makes up for in sheer wealth. So with Patterson as the school’s “closer,” it took just 34 donors to raise the $105 million needed. For good measure an extra $25 million came in too.

And you wonder why TCU is so stocked with talent. The guy can recruit.

“He’s authentic,” said Chris Del Conte, TCU’s athletics director. “That’s what makes him so successful. He is true to himself. He knows himself. And in today’s world how many people are truly authentic? They always pretend to be someone else or they take bits and pieces.

“Gary is Gary. Everyone knows what they are dealing with, who they have. There is not a day that goes by he isn’t thinking about the enterprise.”

Patterson said he’s never ruled out leaving TCU but the more BCS conference jobs he turns down, you get the feeling he isn’t going anywhere. Sure, coaching Texas or Oklahoma would be one thing. Everyone else? Probably not.

He may have been the only one who viewed TCU as a sleeping giant; but now that it’s awake, the potential here is clear. Nothing portends success in college athletics like proximity to talent. It can be overcome (see Nebraska), but if you have it, you’re always dangerous.

TCU sits in the middle of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, one the three greatest talent bases in America. The other two (Los Angeles and South Florida) each has a local, private university that has won multiple national titles.

“What we want to be like is the USC or the Miami of Texas,” he said. “We’re the private school, you get a great education. You can play here.”

Southern California has been big-time for half a century. Miami is the better example. In the 1980s it was an upstart the establishment tried to write off because it feared the Hurricanes potential. Miami never even had an on-campus stadium to recruit with; in the end, kids want to play near home. It eventually kicked down the door to power.

Patterson has never wasted much time recruiting five-star talents whom UT or OU wanted. What he’s excelled at is finding the three-star gems from around here that turn into LaDainian Tomlinson.

There’s a map of the state of Texas in the football office that’s been carved into seven regions, each assistant getting a slice. They then work the same high schools relentlessly, year after year after year. One assistant recruits the other 49 states. Patterson handles a bit of everywhere.

The TCU two-deep for Saturday night featured 47 players, 43 of whom hail from Texas. It’s a roster full of Odessa, Tyler, Copperas Creek, Brownwood, Irving, Midland and seemingly ever other football factory down here. There’s a lot of Dallas and Fort Worth and Houston too.

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Dan Wetzel and Jeff Passan write for Yahoo! Sports, the most-read sports site on the Web. Josh Peter, a former Yahoo! Sports reporter, is a freelance writer. Wetzel has coauthored four books, including the New York Times bestseller “Resilience: Faith, Focus, Triumph” with Alonzo Mourning, and lives in Michigan. Peter is an award-winning investigative journalist who has earned national attention for his reporting on the Bowl Championship Series. In 2005, he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for a series on race and high school football in the South. He lives in Los Angeles. Passan has won multiple Associated Press Sports Editors awards and lives in Kansas.

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Not only does proximity allow TCU to load up on talented players – his offensive line was down three starters Saturday and still dominated – it allows Patterson to concentrate a little extra on actual coaching. There are years he has just a handful of overnight recruiting trips while coaches from far-flung “bigger programs” live out of suitcases for weeks on end.

Somewhere in there, his players believe, is where his genius as a tactician comes from. The man is a pure coach, all football, all the time. The Air Force option attack is notoriously tricky, which is why Patterson works on stopping it in spring practice. His players notice. And while they don’t dare ask how he knows more than other coaches, they believe he does.

“We talk about how good he is sometimes, like when he calls a blitz right into a run,” safety Colin Jones said. “He puts us in position. We just have to do our job. We know he’ll have us prepared.”

Because of the Bowl Championship Series the talk about TCU is always focused on how far it can go forward, namely does it deserve to play for the championship? What that’s done is rob everyone of appreciating how far it’s come.

Forget about the silly BCS politics. TCU is an incredible story. And with so much to work with – new stadium, old recruiting turf – why can’t it get better? And why would he leave?

“There are many people who have won national championships at programs that someone else built,” Del Conte, the AD said. “There are very few people that can become iconic. No matter who is at Alabama, it’s still the house that Bear built. All the success that’s happened at Texas, it is still Darrell Royal.

“Gary Patterson is that iconic figure for us. I think at some point you start to just chase ghosts. Colleges around the country are littered with people who thought the grass was greener. Very few people say, ‘I’m going to stake it out on my own.’”

Patterson is excited about the new stadium because it will generate revenue and turn the heads of recruits. It will include larger weight and locker rooms, plusher facilities and all the bells and whistles everyone else has. It should help attendance and atmosphere. Architecturally it will fit into the smallish (8,000-student), but pretty campus.

There are even reports of interest from the Big East, which would give TCU a BCS automatic qualifying calling card. Patterson shrugged off the talk because he’s too busy trying to win the Mountain West. He said he’ll worry about it in January. He’s liable to flip out if the BCS shuns the Frogs again, but mostly things are good.

“I don’t know a lot about it because I’m trying to win football games,” he said. “But you always have to look at your options and find out whether something gives you a better chance moving forward. And I don’t know if the Big East does or doesn’t.”

What he really wanted to talk about was leveling those Kansas fields as a kid and how it relates to raising up his players. Not everyone gets that sense of family, commitment and work ethic instilled in them at the age of 7. So come to TCU and Patterson will give it to you at 18.

“I always talk about ‘one point,’” he said, mentioning a motivating phrase about how much he wants to win by. “One point to me is you get up every day and you (win the day). Because no one lets you tie anymore. Not in football and not in life. If you’re 40 points up in the stock market or 40 points up in the ballgame that’s great, we’ll enjoy it.

“But I want to teach my guys that every day they have to get up because the world is hard. Not just the football game, the world is hard. And we’re trying to teach them that when you get to the end of the day, 365 days a year, if you can be up one point, then you can be pretty successful because I don’t know many people who do that.”

A school that once went 35 seasons between conference championships is again eyeing a shot at a national one

He had to get to sleep. He couldn’t wait for another morning to dawn here in Texas. He couldn’t wait to get back to work.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Oct 24, 2010