Leveling the Field
How coach Gary Patterson turned TCU Into a football powerhouse.
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September 17, 2004, marked one of the most important days in the life of Texas Christian University head coach Gary Patterson. On that dusty, windswept afternoon on the Lubbock plains, he experienced the most humiliating defeat of his career. The Horned Frogs had entered the 2004 season filled with promise and purpose. The year before, only a late season loss at Southern Mississippi had kept them from a likely BCS bowl game. As 2004 began, the Frogs were once again heading down the road to their BCS destination.
But they smashed into a dead-end in Lubbock. After TCU opened the game with a 21-0 lead, Texas Tech stormed back and embarrassed the Horned Frogs 70-35. Patterson’s defense convulsed and collapsed under the surge of Mike Leach’s spread offense. The game marked the first time in fifty years a Red Raider team had scored seventy points.
After the game, the coach sat alone on the bus as it meandered through the Lubbock streets toward the airport. “It was a like a funeral on that bus,” recalled a staff member. Shocked and saddened, the players said nothing. But the silence was soon pierced by the sound of the coach opening his bag, logging onto his computer, and watching film for next week.
Six years later, Patterson is sitting in an overstuffed leather chair in the John Justin Athletic Center at TCU. His office is adorned with gridiron décor—signed photos of fellow coaches adorn the walls while coaching awards and bowl game trophies are perched on a table. Curiously, he gets most animated when pointing to a photo book on African wildlife. “This year was my first safari,” he says. “I want to go back. I love adventure. I love new things.”
The coach is dressed simply: a white golf shirt, khaki shorts, and brown Cole Haan shoes with no socks. He looks more prepared for the golf course than the football field. But looks deceive. In conversation, an intensity creases his face. He nervously takes his glasses on and off. And his raspy voice squeaks more than talks.
Patterson doesn’t seem like a man who has lived half a century. His face is bordered on top by youthful blond hair and accented by blue eyes. He shows every indication of still being the fiery, stocky, 5’10” player who walked on at Kansas State. At any moment, he seems ready to burst across his desk and make a tackle.
“I’ve always had to work harder and smarter,” he says. Growing up in Rozell, Kansas, Patterson spent his summers helping his dad grapple with uncooperative farmland. Starting before dawn, he would flatten soil and level bumps. He made smooth the rugged earth so that crops could bloom and be harvested. In some ways, he continues to level the field today, turning adversity into advantage.
“That game in Lubbock changed everything,” Patterson says, remembering his humiliation from six years ago. “That game told me that people had caught up with me. I had to change.”
Patterson first arrived at TCU in 1998 as the defensive coordinator on coach Dennis Franchione’s staff. After leading TCU to three bowl games in as many years, Fran left for greener gridirons at Alabama. His defensive coordinator was promoted to head coach at TCU. No one knew it at the time but the Crimson Tide had hired the wrong man.
For years, Franchione’s programs had been known for recruiting and defense. Unfortunately for Alabama, those were two areas where Fran had leaned on Patterson. Without his best assistant on staff, Fran floundered at Alabama and was later fired at Texas A&M.
As a head coach, Patterson is nothing if not a paradox—an old school coach who is looking constantly for new ideas and innovative strategies, a hard-nosed disciplinarian who still finds time to invite players to his home once a week for pizza.
This fusion of fire and ice is displayed every day at practice. Dressed in a sweat-stained black shirt and shorts, with a tweed safari hat sitting uneasily on his head, he relentlessly drives his players. Yelling. Clapping. Gesturing. Always moving.
“I would love to see you finish a practice as hard as you start one!” he needles freshman safety Antonio Graves. But in the next instant, he is calmly teaching the same player how to keep his feet moving and backpedal. He scolds, but he molds too.
More than anything else, Patterson’s success at TCU has been defined by his ability to recruit talent and coach defense.
As a recruiter, he employs a unique method to mine for players in Texas, a state that represents perhaps the richest quarry of high school talent in the country. To compete against recruiting gurus like Mack Brown and Bob Stoops, he has developed a penchant for taking fast offensive players and transforming them into fast but muscular defensive players. Jerry Hughes serves as the most prominent example. A quick running back at Fort Bend High School, he muscled up and developed into an All-America defensive lineman at TCU and the Indianapolis Colts’ first round draft pick.
“It’s not rocket science what we’ve done on recruiting,” Patterson says. “In Texas, high school coaches play their best athletes at two positions: quarterback and running back. So we look there first. If we see some talent, we look for ways to get the kid on the field, and that often means defense.”
College football experts have taken notice. “You can’t say enough about the job Gary’s done at TCU,” says CBS Sports college football analyst Archie Manning. “To have to recruit against Texas and OU and yet your school isn’t even in a BCS conference? That’s a huge disadvantage. Yet great players still come to TCU.”
And once they come, they begin to learn about Patterson’s zealous devotion to defense. Like an evangelical pastor, the coach can quote chapter and verse of his defensive gospel. He runs a unique defensive scheme called the 4-2-5, which only a handful of other college teams run. The novelty of his system allows TCU to confuse other teams and achieve more with less. It helps the Frogs compete with bigger, more talented offenses.
“The basic idea of the 4-2-5 defense is speed,” he preaches. “We want to keep the ball inside of and in front of our defenders at all times.” To do this, Patterson deploys three safeties and often leaves the two cornerbacks in man-to-man coverage. By moving around the safeties, he can disguise when and where he will bring pressure. And he also can create an eight-man front, making it difficult for the opposing team to run the ball—always a defense’s primary goal.
But in 2004 in Lubbock, Patterson realized that stopping the run wouldn’t work if the other team was spreading out his secondary and torching it. And so he did what he so often does—he returned to the lab and began experimenting. In time, he found new ways to cover more receivers in open space.
“That next year, the defensive scheme looked the same but operated differently,” says TCU radio announcer and former player John Denton. “Once the ball was snapped, Gary found ways to drop more players into coverage. I remember defensive linemen dropping into coverage and intercepting passes. It was wild. But it worked.”
By 2009, his experimentation had paid off and the 4-2-5 defense was stopping both the run and the pass. That year, TCU ranked first in the nation in total defense, third in run defense, and sixth in pass defense.
Even now, Patterson continues to tweak his defense. “He is always experimenting,” says his wife, Kelsey. “He’ll come home at 9:30 at night and then go into our office. He lies down on the floor, opens up the laptop and starts watching film while our two Golden Retrievers lay next to him. He’ll stay in there for hours. He never stops working.”
Many nights Kelsey has been awakened by the sound of a raspy shrill.
“I’ve got it!” her husband yells as he bursts into their bedroom. “I figured out how to cover their slot receiver when he’s in motion!”
“That’s great, Gary,” she responds. “Can we talk about it in the morning?”
On September 17, 2006, Texas Tech played TCU in Fort Worth. The memories of the 70-35 thrashing from two years before were fresh on the minds of the Frog players. Many even watched the video of that nightmare as motivation. They didn’t need it. The revised 4-2-5 defense shut down the vaunted Mike Leach offense and held Tech to 242 yards total offense—one of the worst offensive performances of Leach’s tenure at Tech.
Since avenging Tech, Patterson has taken TCU to the precipice of a national championship and come to embody his program—the overachieving coach of the overlooked school, the little guy going up against the big boys.
As the 2010 season begins, the Horned Frogs are ranked in the preseason Top Ten. Can they win a national title? In large part, it depends on the coach, who will be up every night, typing on his laptop, looking for a new way to tweak his defense and level the field.