Gary Patterson built TCU football into a winner, and now he's trying to end its dream season

Gary Patterson built TCU football.

Now, as a “special assistant coach” at Texas, which hosts the Horned Frogs Saturday, he’s tasked with, well, not necessarily destroying the program he led brilliantly for nearly 22 seasons only to be essentially fired just a year ago, but at least ending its dream season.

TCU is 9-0 and No. 4 in the latest CFP rankings under new coach Sonny Dykes. It controls its path to not just the Big 12 championship, but a spot in the College Football Playoff.

It’s an achievement that was unfathomable back in 2000, when Patterson took over in Fort Worth.

From 1960-1997, TCU went 136-262-13, a meager .330 winning percentage. It was one of the worst programs in the country and got left behind when the Southwest Conference broke up. Its fate appeared to be just another mid-major also-ran, spinning like a tumbleweed from one non-power conference to the next.

Then Patterson took over for Dennis Franchione, who got TCU to 10 wins but promptly left for Alabama. Not only did Patterson make the Frogs even better, he stayed. There were 11 10-win seasons, including a 13-0 Rose Bowl championship team and two top-three finishes in the polls.

TCU began to matter to fans in Fort Worth, to recruits in the Metroplex and to the monied alums who raised over $100 million to turn aging and limited Amon G. Carter Stadium into the so-called “Camden Yards of collegiate football.”

All of it was enough to gain membership in the Big 12, or, in other words, access to the big time.

It’s why no single figure in recent college football is as important to a single school as Patterson is to TCU.

He is TCU. Or was.

On Halloween 2021, after a loss to Kansas State dropped TCU to 3-5, the school told Patterson he could finish out the season, but his time was up. The program had slipped into mediocrity. Patterson, 62, promptly resigned from a school that had years prior erected a statue of him on campus.

In January, he joined the staff of Steve Sarkisian at Texas, the school he obsessed over beating maybe more than any other.

Former TCU head coach turned Texas special assistant Gary Patterson, left, goes up against his former team led by Sonny Dykes, right, in a matchup that will have College Football Playoff implications. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)
Former TCU head coach turned Texas special assistant Gary Patterson, left, goes up against his former team led by Sonny Dykes, right, in a matchup that will have College Football Playoff implications. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)

TCU defeated Texas in seven of its last 10 matchups under Patterson, who not only despised the Longhorns and their power and money, but knew nothing built credibility, especially in recruiting, like defeating the state’s flagship program.

And now … it’s Dykes who is trying to not just extend his perfect start at TCU and keep the Frogs on pace for the playoffs, but enjoy his own statement victory down in the state capital. It’s a night game (7:30 ET) on national television. The ESPN pregame show will be there. The Frogs are betting underdogs (+7) but at least partially the hunted for a change.

And it will be Patterson, a defensive genius with deep knowledge of many of TCU’s best players, who will play a role in stopping a high-powered offense (43.1 points per game) led by quarterback Max Duggan (24-2 TD-to-interception), running back Kendre Miller (1,009 yards and 12 TDs) and a deep receiving corps.

“Gary works 24-7 to beat anybody,” Sarkisian said with a laugh Monday when asked if Patterson was staying up to stop the Frogs. “He's got an unbelievable work ethic about him … This week hasn't been any different. He does a great job of advanced scouting for us, of getting ahead for opponents that are on the come. He does a great job of relaying his thoughts and information to the defensive staff.”

At TCU, it’s an odd situation, but just another hurdle to clear.

“I don't know what Gary’s role is there,” Dykes said Tuesday. “It's hard for me to evaluate that. Gary is a very good coach. … I know he obviously knows our players. I don’t have any idea how that is going to affect the game.”

It may not, but it’s a delicious subplot nonetheless.

Dykes certainly knows what is at stake. His father, Spike, was a legendary high school coach in Texas, including at powerhouse Midland Lee (now known as Legacy High). He spent 14 years as head coach at Texas Tech. Sonny was an assistant at Tech after his father retired and later a head coach at Louisiana Tech and Cal before spending four seasons at SMU over in Dallas. He even spent a year, in 2017, as an analyst on Patterson’s TCU staff.

He jumped at the chance to take over, a full believer that the program could go even higher in the talent-rich Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. Seventeen of TCU’s 20 current recruits hail, not surprisingly, from Texas. The next breakthrough is if TCU can not just beat Texas or Oklahoma regularly on the field, but for recruits as well.

The 9-0 start is part of that. So is all the attention, the big crowds, the local excitement. A playoff bid (the first for a school in Texas) would be next level. It’s a byproduct of Dykes refusing to set limitations on this first season post-Patterson.

“We might have exceeded expectations externally but we haven’t internally,” Dykes said. “I don’t think anyone is all that surprised.”

In Fort Worth, the dream seasons for an upstart program churns on, only with its old architect looming Saturday down in Austin.