A Q&A With Skip Hollandsworth
The executive editor on attending TCU, following the Horned Frogs, and why Gary Patterson may be the best college football coach in Texas.
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In the September issue, executive editor Skip Hollandsworth profiles little-known TCU head coach Gary Patterson, who led the Horned Frogs to a surprising number two national ranking last season after a Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin. Here, we ask Hollandsworth about his impressions of Patterson and the impact he’s had on college football.
You admitted in your story that you attended TCU. Was it hard for you to be objective writing about the success of your alma mater’s football team?
Not in the least. As I also admitted in the story, when I covered the TCU football team for the school’s newspaper, The Daily Skiff, I found the cheerleaders far more interesting than the games themselves. In the story, I mentioned the cheerleader Jan Tucker, who is now on the school’s board of trustees. I didn’t have space to mention another cheerleader named Elizabeth Strother. During one game in late autumn, she ran onto the field during a timeout to do a cheer, and I watched, barely able to breathe, as the last of the late afternoon sun caught her blonde hair and smiling face, illuminating her like perfectly placed museum lights illuminate a painting.
Thirty-two years later, I can’t remember a single Frogs’ game during my college days. But I can still remember that moment when Elizabeth came across the field.
Still, as the years passed, you had to be proud of the resurgence of the Frogs’ football program?
Okay, in all honesty, I just didn’t really notice. I’m not exactly a Frog fanatic. I haven’t been to a TCU football game in maybe fifteen years. Nor did I pay any attention to Gary Patterson or what he was doing with the program. Yes, I did notice how the Frogs were moving up in the national rankings, but I thought, “Oh, for God’s sakes, they’re playing no-name teams from Utah.” I didn’t even watch the Frogs when they were occasionally featured on ESPN. In essence, I was like the typical sports fan who ignored TCU.
Then, this past New Year’s night, I went over to my friend Joe Bittner’s house to watch the Rose Bowl. He went to Wisconsin, and as he opened the front door, he was grinning with delight, already talking about how the Badgers were going to kill the Frogs. I didn’t argue with him. I figured the score was going to be 72–0 Wisconsin, and the only reason I was there was because his wife is a good cook and I was starving. So, while I was standing by the dining room table, eating everything in sight, chatting about politics with some other people, I suddenly noticed that Joe was screaming in rage at the television set, saying certain profane words I’ve never before heard him say—and right in front of his own children, to boot. I literally thought he was going to fall over from a heart attack because this little group of guys in purple were stopping the massive Wisconsin offense on almost every play.
Then, at the end of the game, I got my first good look at Patterson standing on the sidelines. The clock was ticking down and there was no question the Frogs were going to win, but he was still yelling at players and waving his arms as if it was the first quarter. He was coaching so hard he apparently didn’t hear the sound of the final buzzer. And when his players dumped the obligatory bucket of Gatorade over his head, he seemed shell-shocked, as if he had no idea what was happening. He bent over and began running across the field like a man shot out of a cannon. I thought, “This guy is the head coach of the TCU football team?”
What was your impression of Gary Patterson when you finally met him?
Well, the whole opening of the story is me watching him during a spring football practice. It was truly flabbergasting. He was running back and forth among the defensive safeties, shouting out instructions about how they needed to move one way or the other, doing the things that I always thought were the responsibility of the assistant coaches. He’s the classic football rat—it’s all football, all the time. I kept trying to figure out a moment when he doesn’t think about football, and his wife, Kelsey, told me she thinks it happens when they go on one of their infrequent scuba diving vacations, which happens maybe once a year. But even then, she admitted, when he’s under the water, staring at pretty fish, she sometimes suspects he’s pondering how he can stop some other team’s offense.
What I realized about Patterson is that he’s driven to do the next thing. For him, the Rose Bowl victory was great, but it was only one more step to getting to a national championship. The Rose Bowl trophy itself—a trophy that hundreds of coaches would kill to win—stands unassumingly on a coffee table in Patterson’s office.
You mentioned that he was so busy working on football that he only would give you thirty minutes for an interview.
And this was in April, in the heart of the off-season—four full months before August two-a-day practices began. Maybe that gives you some idea about the kind of coach that he is. But I did want to say to him, “You know, Gary, if you would give some reporters some extra time, and let them tell your story, TCU would get a lot more media attention.” But I’m not sure he cares. For him, the only thing that matters is the score at the end of every game. It’s about winning.
Lots of coaches work hard. But what do you think is Patterson’s particular genius when it comes to coaching?
There are plenty of stories about his defensive mind and the defensive schemes he creates to stop offenses that are considered unstoppable. But what struck me was his ability to see talent in players that were passed over by the other major colleges. Because the star high school recruits in Texas tend to go to the bigger Big Twelve schools, Patterson has had to build teams from the leftovers. But he has found some gems, many of whom are overlooked athletes in Classes 2A and 3A. What’s especially significant is that he takes those who thrived as offensive players in high school and then develops them into becoming top all-conference defensive players.
The group of seniors who won a record 44 games at TCU and who graduated in 2010 were not highly evaluated at all four and five years ago when they were in high school. Andy Dalton, the team’s quarterback, played in a high school system that didn’t throw the ball much, and he had scholarship offers only from UTEP and Memphis. Tank Carder, the star linebacker who saved the Rose Bowl victory for the Frogs, was barely a blip on the recruiting screen, unable to get an offer from anyone. But Patterson saw something. He loves guys who were like he was in high school—driven to work hard and to succeed. He once said, “We want mind-set more than ability.”
What’s something you found interesting about Patterson that didn’t make it into your magazine article?
In the story, I wanted to emphasize his intensity as a coach. But off the field he really can be very relaxed and incredibly interesting. Earlier this year, at an alumni function in Austin at the Broken Spoke, he got on stage with a guitar and sang a George Strait tune with the band. (By the way, at his own wedding reception, he sang a song that he dedicated to his wife, Kelsey: “Brown Eyed Girl” by Jim Morrison.) And I find it simply amazing that he and Van Cliburn are buddies. It’s surely one of the most unpredictable friendships you could ever imagine: a major college football coach and a legendary classical pianist. One night this past spring, he and Kelsey were having dinner at a Mexican restaurant and Cliburn suddenly called and asked them to meet him over at Saint-Emillion, Fort Worth’s top French restaurant. They go over there—Kelsey is in one of her tennis outfits and Patterson is in a golf shirt—and they spend the evening talking about such subjects as the migration of wildebeests in Africa. I am not kidding.
And no matter how hard he rides his players, they love him. When I was at TCU working on the story, there were all kinds of former players dropping in to say hello to their old coach.
You pointed out that despite the Rose Bowl win, it’s still hard for TCU to gain recognition.
Think about TCU’s challenge in Dallas–Fort Worth alone. The number of TCU alumni in Dallas–Fort Worth from the University Texas, Texas A&M, and Texas Tech far out-number the 31,000 former Frogs who live there. The news media in the two cities have to play to those fans and give their schools a huge amount of coverage. Plus, you’ve got the three-ring circus that always surrounds the Dallas Cowboys. And then you’ve got the Texas Rangers and the Dallas Mavericks. It’s easy for the Frogs to get lost.
Which would lead one to think that Patterson is going to be tempted to move to a major college football program that gets major attention.
But there’s something Patterson once told a reporter that I find very significant. He said, “No matter who’s at Alabama, it’ll always be Bear’s house,” referring to coach Bear Bryant, who created the great football program there. I think Patterson doesn’t want to go and win a national championship at a program that someone else built. He likes the idea of winning the championship at a program he built himself. It would be a singular achievement that only few coaches in history can claim to have done.
But here’s the big question: Can he do it?
That’s way beyond my pay grade. But I promise you, this time around, I will be watching the Frogs to see what happens.