“Which one is he?” I ask a couple of sportswriters who are standing on the sideline at Amon G. Carter Stadium. It’s mid-March, and more than eighty TCU football players are swarming all over the field for spring practice, racing through various drills at full speed. In one corner, linemen throw themselves to the ground, jump up, and run in place before throwing themselves to the ground again. In another corner, tailbacks carrying footballs attempt to dance past teammates who jab at them with oversized pads, trying to knock them down. Just a few yards away, linebackers slam into one another, over and over, the way cattle do when they are trapped in a pen.
“Which one is who?” says one of the reporters as a wide-eyed receiver heads straight at us, running for his life, desperate to catch a 50-yard bomb tossed from the end zone. Though he has to know he has absolutely no chance of making the play, the receiver flings himself at the ball, crashing onto the turf and sliding into a bench. He then immediately gets up and trots back to the end zone to try again.
“Gary Patterson,” I say, peering toward the middle of the field. This is where the head coach of a major college football team is usually found during practice, arms crossed, thoughtfully studying all that’s unfolding before him, and I had assumed it was where I’d find Patterson. These days, just about all of the prominent college football coaches look like CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, their hair perfectly parted and their shirts and pants crisply pressed. They occasionally clap their hands and shout, “Let’s go!” And like all good chief executives, they check their watches to make sure practice stays on schedule. But no one like that was anywhere on the field.
“To be honest with you,” I add, still looking around, “I’ve only seen him a couple of times on television.”
The writer points to the 25-yard line, where three safeties are frantically backpedaling, trying to get into position to stop a receiver. Suddenly, from out of nowhere, a stout, bespectacled, middle-aged man, slightly crouched over, starts strutting after them the way Yosemite Sam used to go after Bugs Bunny. The man has a purple TCU visor jammed down on his head, and his shirt is so stained with sweat that it looks as if it’s been covered with syrup. “Move! Move! Move! ” he screams. “You’re acting like walk-ons ! Show me something!”
Three more safeties line up to do the drill, and the man immediately jumps all over them. “You’ve got to think !” he bellows, his mouth inches from one of the players’ face masks. “Get your head in the frickin’ game !”
“Seriously?” I ask, pulling out my notebook as the man continues to chew out the safety about what seems to be some minor procedural detail.
“Actually,” the sportswriter says, “this is one of his calmer days.”
He is, by all accounts, one of the most intense head coaches in college football—“the kind of guy you always think is going to run out on the field in the middle of a game and tackle someone,” says Tank Carder, TCU’s star linebacker. In one game, played in 100-degree heat, Patterson got so carried away bellowing instructions at the top of his lungs, waving his arms in the air, and stomping up and down the sidelines that he forgot to drink water and suffered from dehydration. In another game, he sweated not just through his shirt but clear through the back of his khaki pants, giving fans seated behind the Frogs’ bench a partial view of his posterior. “Gary’s simply not like any coach I’ve ever been around—nothing close to Darrell Royal or Bear Bryant or Joe Paterno,” says Fort Worth resident Dan Jenkins, the legendary 81-year-old sportswriter who for more than half a century wrote about college football for publications like Sports Illustrated. “They all had style and control. Gary’s a ball of fire. I wonder how any kid who plays for him can understand what he’s talking about, because he’s babbling so fast and sputtering about three things at once.”
Yet, Jenkins pointedly adds, whatever it is Patterson is saying to his players, they are hearing him loud and clear. Since the start of the 2008 season, the Horned Frogs have lost only three games. Last year, after going undefeated during the regular season for a second straight year, they were invited to the Rose Bowl, where they faced Wisconsin. The game should have been a blowout for the co-champions of the Big Ten, a college football powerhouse with a monstrous offensive line that outweighed TCU’s defensive linemen by an average of more than fifty pounds. TCU is a member of the Mountain West Conference, one of those small, non- BCS conferences that don’t have a direct bid to play in a premier bowl game or the national championship. Their only national television exposure had been on ESPN, which had broadcast two of their regular-season games. As a result, when asked about TCU, almost every college football fan, including many in Texas, replied, “ TC who?”
The Frogs wasted no time answering that question. Patterson’s squad didn’t commit a single turnover and had only 20 yards in penalties. Perhaps most amazing was that its swarming defense, which was drawn up by Patterson himself, held Wisconsin’s outstanding group of running backs in check, holding them to their lowest point total of the season. TCU’s 21–19 victory, and its subsequent number two national ranking in the end-of-season polls, became one of the most surprising sports stories of the year. How, people asked, had Patterson put together such a great team at a tiny private school with an enrollment of only 7,853 students? Had he gotten lucky? Or was he some sort of football genius who knew exactly which buttons to push to get his team of Davids, made up almost entirely of players