“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 who were not recruited by the top-tier universities, to outplay the Goliaths?
Now, in the never-ending game of coaching musical chairs, the 51-year-old is invariably mentioned when a position opens up at an elite program, such as Ohio State this past summer. And, say many college football insiders, Patterson surely must be tempted to move to a school with a huge fan base, multimillion-dollar television contracts, and giant marketing and recruiting budgets. This year, despite its Rose Bowl victory, TCU will again be featured only twice on ESPN and not at all on the major broadcast networks. Even in Texas, which is dominated by Longhorns, Aggies, and Red Raiders, TCU still has trouble getting attention. As spring practice was in full gear, for instance, the state’s biggest story had nothing to do with Patterson and the Frogs. It was whether Mack Brown and the University of Texas could return to prominence after a disastrous 2010 season.
But Patterson insists he’s staying in Fort Worth. He has helped lead a $143 million fund-raising campaign to renovate the university’s creaky 81-year-old stadium into a 43,000-seat state-of-the-art showplace, and he’s also successfully pushed for the school to join the Big East Conference, which is part of the BCS, in 2012. That move will bring the program one step closer to a chance to play for a national championship, something it hasn’t done since the mid-thirties, when Sammy Baugh and Davey O’Brien were the stars of the team. “I’m here to win it all,” Patterson says. “And as hard as that might be for some people to believe, I’m telling you it can happen.”
I will be the first to admit that I laughed out loud at the idea of TCU winning a national championship, and I’m a TCU alum. I attended the university in the late seventies, when the football team was the doormat of college football, never winning more than two games in a season. In 1978 I covered the Horned Frogs for the campus newspaper, the Daily Skiff, and I got so bored watching them lose that I ended up spending all my time in the press box with my binoculars trained on a beautiful cheerleader named Jan Tucker, who’s now a member of TCU’s board of trustees. “Back in our day, the whole stadium would be nearly empty by the end of a game,” she says. “Now we’ve got tailgaters in the parking lot hours before kickoff. It’s remarkable what Coach Patterson has done.”
What’s equally remarkable is that Patterson doesn’t feel the slightest compunction to talk on and on, like other coaches do, about his accomplishments. When I tell TCU’s director of media relations, Mark Cohen, that I want to do a long interview with Patterson to give Texans an opportunity to get to know him, Cohen gives me a patient smile and says, as he says to all reporters who ask, that Patterson is very busy and will give me only thirty minutes. I walk into Patterson’s office on a Monday morning and he’s hunched over his desk, deep in thought, staring at a sheet of paper. He never looks up, and for a moment, I wonder whether I should back out the door. I finally say, “Hi, Coach. How are you doing?”
He sighs. “Well, once I get all of these two-a-days done, I will be doing a lot better,” he says.
When he realizes I have no idea what he is talking about, he points to the paper on his desk and tells me he is putting together the schedule for the Frogs’ practices that will be taking place in August—a full five months away. The schedule is right down to the minute: twenty minutes to practice a blitz drill at 4 p.m. during the eighth practice session, followed by twenty minutes to practice a defensive pass formation at 4:20, and so on. My eyes then drift over to a hefty computer printout sitting on a corner of the desk. It’s a list of every single offensive play that the Baylor Bears, whom the Frogs will be playing in their opening game on September 2, used in their games last season. “We’ve broken their offense down so that we know the plays they called with certain personnel groups on the field, the plays they called when they lined up in particular formations, the plays they ran when they were close to their own end zone and when they were close to midfield and when they were close to an opponent’s end zone,” Patterson tells me.
“And you’ll do this again for the next eleven teams you play after Baylor?” I ask.
I stare at him. “This is insanity, you know.”
Patterson shrugs his shoulders. “Most people think that football is a game where you just roll out the ball and you go block and tackle people. It’s not that way anymore. It’s high-tech and computer-oriented. It’s a multimillion-dollar business. And it’s a very instant-gratitude business. If you’re not successful, then you’re not going to be doing this for very long.”
According to Patterson’s wife, Kelsey, a former marketing director for the Fort Worth Zoo who regularly attends TCU’s practices wearing cute tennis togs, her husband is definitely sane. But in the next breath, she admits he is “so insanely driven that he lies on the bedroom floor late at night with his laptop propped on his chest, watching game film, drinking Cokes to stay awake. One night, he woke me up shouting, ‘I’ve got it! I’ve got it!’ Apparently, he had figured something out that was going to keep some opponent from scoring a touchdown.”
Even the one hobby he enjoys outside football—he’s a music nut, with 7,348 songs on his iPod, everything from Alan Jackson to Earth, Wind and Fire—has come to play a role in his coaching. On one of the days I was watching spring practice, he had a song called “Raise a Little Hell,” by the seventies band Trooper, blaring out of some speakers set up next to the field. “There are a whole bunch of songs that I use to get the kids going,” he tells me. “If we are working on blitzing, we are probably going to have fast rock and roll music. If we’re working on base defense”—that is, not blitzing—“we’re probably listening to country.”
I stare at him again. “That’s the strangest coaching technique I’ve ever heard,” I finally say.
Patterson stares right back, utterly unperturbed. “I believe that if a team doesn’t have enthusiasm, then it’s my job to raise the level of enthusiasm. If you are running fifteen practices in the spring and the players don’t come out ready, then I have to get them up and moving.”
In fact, Patterson runs his three-hour practices with an almost desperate sense of urgency, never letting his players take breaks. And if you get tired, woe unto you. One day during a spring scrimmage, I watched Patterson order everyone on the team to do twenty pushups because a defensive back hadn’t chased after a receiver at top speed. On another day, I watched him get so angry at one kid that he threw him out of practice, shouting, Lady Macbeth–like, “Out! Out! ”
Kelsey, who was set up on a date with Patterson in 2002 and later married him after what she calls “two seasons” of dating, takes great joy in needling her husband, telling me he yells so much at his players that he gargles different liquids at night, looking for the one magic formula that will keep his voice from going hoarse.
“You think you get used to coaches yelling at you back in high school, but nothing prepares you for Coach Patterson,” adds Bart Johnson, a Brownwood native who started for three years at wide receiver before graduating last December. “I’ll never forget the first time he got after me, chewing me out, his spit flying everywhere and his face turning sort of purple, about the same color as our uniforms. I thought, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ ”
“At my very first practice, I screwed up on some drill and Coach Patterson came after me at a full sprint—well, let’s just say it was a full sprint for his legs,” says Carder, who grew up in Sweeny, south of Houston, and whose happy-go-lucky personality seems to have come straight from Billy Clyde Puckett, the fictional former TCU football star who narrated Dan Jenkins’s bawdy, best-selling 1972 football novel, Semi-Tough. “He yelled at me for ten seconds, which felt like ten minutes, and I thought, ‘Wow, this guy needs to get ahold of himself.’ ”
Just to be clear, Carder now worships Patterson. All the TCU players and ex-players I have met gush about him. Well, let me take that back. They talk about their love for him when he’s off the field. “You have to realize that this is a coach who never let up on me at a single practice from my freshman to my senior season,” recalled Jason Phillips, a former all-conference linebacker from Waller who started all but one game during his four years at TCU and who, after graduating in 2008, was later drafted by the Baltimore Ravens. “I was preseason All-American before my senior year, and it didn’t matter at all to him. Day after day, he’d tear me apart, telling me I had a standard to maintain and that I’d better do my job or he’d bring someone else in.”
Patterson admits that whenever he walks onto a football field, he is burdened by what he describes as “a perfect picture” of his team doing everything just right. As a result, whenever he sees a single player not exactly in the right place during a practice, he becomes obsessed with getting that person to correct his mistake. “You’re only as good as your weakest link,” he explains.
But why, I ask, does he feel the need to jump all over a player who has screwed up? Patterson sighs again, this time like a parent who’s about to have a talk with a confused child. “The only reason to play football is to play well,” he says. “And my goal is that when you step on the football field on game day, you are ready to play—that nobody sitting in the stands with your parents will turn to them and say, ‘Hey, who is number 57? He’s not very good.’ If your kids are going to be embarrassed, I want them to be embarrassed at practice and not in front of 90,000 people.”
Patterson’s football obsession began when he was a boy in Rozel, Kansas, a no-stoplight, agricultural town with a population of 175. He would draw up football plays on a piece of paper and then try to reenact them on an old-fashioned electric football game, where the players moved across a vibrating board. When the board broke, he’d tap on it to get the players to move, regularly adjusting them so they would go exactly where he wanted.
In high school, he was the lead singer and guitarist in a band that played everything from polka music to Three Dog Night at high school dances and at Veterans of Foreign Wars events. He was also a talented actor who earned a drama scholarship to attend Wichita State. But Patterson dreamed about becoming a college football player. An all-state fullback and linebacker, he wound up playing at Dodge City Community College before transferring to Kansas State as a walk-on. He never lettered in his two seasons there, so he figured his destiny was coaching.
For the next decade, Patterson lived the anonymous, vagabond life of an assistant football coach at such colleges as Tennessee Tech, UC Davis, California Lutheran, Pittsburg State, and Sonoma State. One year, he worked part-time as a substitute teacher at a public school to pay his bills, then he’d race over to the college in time for practice.
Finally, in 1992, he got his chance to go to a Division I-A school. A longtime friend from Kansas State, Dick Bumpas, had become defensive coordinator at Utah State, and he offered Patterson a job to coach the defensive backs. “What made Gary so unique as a coach was not just his passion,” Bumpas says. “During all those years moving from one school to another, he had developed an extremely cohesive thought process about how football works. It sounds simplistic, but the reality is that where you position your players on defense is vitally important to stopping an offensive play, and Gary had a curious knack, after studying game film of another team’s offense, to know just where to put his players.”
After another stint with Bumpas, at the Naval Academy, Patterson was hired in 1996 by Dennis Franchione, then the head coach of the University of New Mexico, to be his defensive coordinator. Two years later, Franchione accepted TCU’s offer to be its head coach, and Patterson came with him. It was a low point for the school. By then the Southwest Conference had broken up, and though TCU had been a member of the SWC since 1923, it pointedly had not been invited into the newly formed Big 12, which welcomed Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, and even Baylor. For diehard fans it seemed as though TCU would be forever doomed to college football’s hinterlands.
Franchione helped begin the turnaround. A fantastic recruiter with a slick, captivating personality and a mind for offense, the silver-haired coach was one of the up-and-comers in college football. In his first season, the Frogs went 6-5 and received an unexpected invitation to the Sun Bowl, where they knocked off the University of Southern California. But a mere two years later, at the end of the 2000 season, the University of Alabama went after Franchione, convinced that he could bring the Crimson Tide back to glory. When Franchione again asked Patterson to come with him, Patterson turned him down: He wanted to be TCU’s next head coach.
It was hard to believe he had a chance. Because Franchione had never let his assistants do interviews with reporters, most TCU fans weren’t sure who Patterson was or what he looked like. All they knew was that he was a defensive guy, a career assistant who had never before been the head coach of anything. Who cared, grumbled some fans, that the defenses he put on the field had stifled many of TCU’s opponents? Weren’t the best coaches in the game men like Coach Fran, who had built great offenses?
TCU’s athletics director at the time interviewed at least eleven candidates before finally giving Patterson the job. One influential alum who took up his cause was Dick Lowe, a Fort Worth oilman who played guard for the Frogs in the forties. Lowe insisted all along that Patterson was the second coming of Dutch Meyer, the fierce TCU coach who had led the Frogs to two national championships in the thirties. “I’d watch him in practices and think, ‘This son of a gun is tougher than Dutch,’ ” says Lowe, who’s 83 years old and a multimillionaire thanks to all the wells he’s drilled in the Barnett Shale. “People would throw out a bunch of bullshit about him not being like Coach Fran and I’d ask, ‘Have you ever considered the possibility that Patterson was the reason Fran won all those games?’ ”
During the first four games of the 2001 season, Patterson tried to be stoic on the sidelines, the way he thought a head coach should be. But after a lackluster 2-2 start, he went back to his old ways, getting in players’ faces and carrying on as if he were about to burst into flames. At practices, he let his offensive coordinators handle the offense while he mostly huddled with the defense. When a Fort Worth Star-Telegram reporter asked Patterson about his coaching philosophy, Patterson replied, “If they can’t score, they can’t beat you.”
He put together good enough teams—in 2002 the Frogs were ranked number 23 in the nation and won the Liberty Bowl—but because they didn’t play in a BCS conference, they were mostly ignored. In Dallas–Fort Worth alone, the media attention remained so fixated on the Dallas Cowboys and the Big 12 schools that TCU stories were bumped to the back of the newspapers’ sports sections. It didn’t help that Patterson had no talent for celebrity, unlike Mack Brown or Texas Tech’s Mike Leach. “Gary didn’t care about spinning long yarns to impress you,” says Bud Kennedy, a popular columnist for the Star-Telegram. “He didn’t try to be a spellbinding speaker or have the perfect soundbite for his post-game press conferences. He really seemed oblivious to everything except winning and wanting to win.”
In 2005 the Horned Frogs shocked Oklahoma, the fifth-ranked team in the country, by beating the Sooners 17–10 in the season opener in Norman. It was TCU’s biggest upset in 44 years, and Patterson did it with a squad that he alone had recruited. Almost all of them were athletes from smaller Texas high schools. Patterson had transformed several of those players, who had been running backs or quarterbacks in high school, into linebackers or free safeties. A couple of running backs were even turned into defensive linemen. “For his defense to work, Gary needed quick, smart players, the best athletes on the team,” says Bumpas, who so believed in his former pupil that he agreed to come to TCU in 2004 to work for him as a defensive coach. “And because he knew he wasn’t going to land the six-foot-five defensive lineman from high school who could run like the wind, he had to develop his own defensive players in a hurry.”
In 2006 the Frogs struck again, stunning Texas Tech, another heavily favored team. Under Leach, the Red Raiders had developed one of the most potent pass offenses in the country, easily able to run up fifty points against an opponent. After losing to TCU 12–3, an irritated Leach told reporters that his team had just played badly that day. Patterson, who usually said little of interest during his postgame press conferences, let loose. “People have been underselling our kids for years,” he snapped. “All they ever want to do is talk about the Big 12. We’re not the Big 12—just a Texas team playing with Texas players—and beating every Big 12 team that shows up on [our] schedule . . . I get tired of being treated like the stepchild in this state and in this town.”
Soon, a reporter from Sports Illustrated arrived in Fort Worth to write about Patterson. The New York Times published a story about TCU with the headline “That Other Texas Team Craves the Spotlight.” In 2008 TCU led the nation in total defense and became a top-ten team in the final polls, its highest end-of-season ranking since 1959. The next year, the Frogs again led the nation in total defense, went unbeaten during the regular season, reached number three, and received an invitation to play in the Fiesta Bowl against Boise State, another non-BCS conference team that was ranked sixth. The Frogs lost 17–10 after Boise State pulled off a thrilling fake punt in the fourth quarter to score the go-ahead touchdown, and Patterson was devastated, blaming himself for not seeing the fake coming. “When we got home, he told us we had a lot to prove,” says Carder. “And we hit the ground running. And then we ran some more.”
Patterson got his chance the following year. Despite a second consecutive undefeated regular season, the Frogs were overlooked for the national championship game, but they drew the invitation to play Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. Patterson not only brought his players to Pasadena earlier than expected to prepare for the game, but he also invited Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, the Notre Dame walk-on who was the inspiration for the 1993 film Rudy, to talk to them about the joy of being the underdogs.
The game became an instant classic. The Frogs jumped out to a 14–10 lead after the first quarter, and then the defenses settled in. With TCU leading 21–13 with two minutes left in the game, Wisconsin scored a touchdown. The Badgers’ bruising running backs finally seemed to be finding holes in the TCU defense, and Wisconsin lined up for the two-point conversion to force the game into overtime. But when the quarterback attempted to throw a pass toward a wide-open receiver in the end zone, Carder leaped up from the line of scrimmage and knocked the ball down, prompting commentator Brent Musburger to gush, “It’s the play of the game!”
And what did Coach Patterson do as his defense ran off the field? “Oh, we knew exactly what he was going to do,” says Carder with a chuckle. “He started jumping on our safety, Alex Ibiloye, for letting Wisconsin’s receiver get open. I’m not kidding. Coach Patterson was more pissed off at Alex, the one guy out of position, than he was happy with me for blocking the pass and saving the game. Pretty classic, huh?”
Back in Fort Worth, Patterson is now the city’s most celebrated citizen. When he and Kelsey walk into Del Frisco’s steakhouse for their weekly “date night” on Thursdays after practice, diners look up at him, awestruck. At Halloween, kids have started to dress up like Patterson, wearing his signature mock turtleneck, khaki pants, visor, and glasses.
Even Fort Worth’s previous most famous resident, Van Cliburn, is a Patterson fan. That’s right, the elegant and definitely non-sports-oriented pianist who came out of nowhere to win the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in 1958 at the age of 23 is so fascinated with the football coach that he has not only thrown a dinner party at his home for him and Kelsey but has actually gone to a TCU game, standing up and gently applauding with his long piano fingers.
“This might come as a surprise to some people, but the ferocity one sees in Gary is really not all that different than the ferocity one finds in the finest classical musicians,” the 77-year-old Cliburn tells me in his sonorous baritone voice. “They are relentlessly driven, and if there’s one missed note or one phrase slightly out of place, they literally can’t think about anything else. It’s an obsession, but a magnificent one. I should know. I’ve been afflicted with it all my life.”
When I tell Patterson that Kelsey claims he enjoyed the Rose Bowl victory for all of two days before he started to work on the next season, he said, “One day.” I ask him why in the world he wouldn’t give himself more time to celebrate. He gives me one of his steely-eyed looks. “We haven’t won the national championship yet,” he says tersely.
He knows the odds are heavily against him this year. Patterson has lost 26 seniors who played on the Rose Bowl team, including his star quarterback, Andy Dalton, who has been drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals. But TCU’s administrators have so much faith in his ability to deliver the school to college football’s promised land that they have given him a two-year contract extension and a juicy pay raise that reportedly ups his base salary from $2.4 million to $3 million. (As an indication of just how quickly fortunes can shift in college football, Texas State University, in San Marcos, announced earlier this year that it had hired Franchione, who had flamed out at Alabama and then at Texas A&M, to coach its little-known football team for $350,000 a year.)
And with TCU’s entry into the Big East Conference in 2012, the chances are much better for a shot at the title. Although Patterson would have been more than happy to have joined the Big 12, which recently suffered defections by Nebraska and Colorado, the remaining schools don’t want to have anything to do with the Frogs. The athletics directors of Big 12 schools say that because they already have the lucrative Dallas–Fort Worth television market locked up, TCU wouldn’t contribute anything to the bottom line. It’s a good argument, but no doubt a major reason they passed on TCU is that they don’t want to give any more attention to a school that could not only beat them on any given Saturday but also steal their best recruits. As a matter of fact, when Texas Tech had to cut one nonconference opponent for this season, it quickly dropped its matchup with the Frogs.
Regardless of how much the Big 12 schools ignore TCU, Patterson continues to muscle in on their territory. This off-season, he signed three highly touted Texas high school players. (Two scouting services ranked his 2011 recruits as one of the top 25 recruiting classes in the nation.) And it’s more than likely that in the near future, TCU, as the Big East champion, will go against the Big 12 champion in a future bowl game. When I ask Patterson if he’d like to take on the University of Texas, with everything on the line, he attempts to blow me off, saying only, “If I could, we’d play a couple of the local high schools.” When I laugh out loud, he tries not to smile. He knows I’m not believing a word he’s saying.
Suddenly, Patterson looks at his watch, surprised. He’s given me an hour, thirty minutes more than he normally allows. “That’s all right,” he said, glancing down at his two-a-day sheets. “I’ll just work later tonight.”
I try to ask him one more question, but I can tell he’s not listening. In his mind’s eye, he’s looking at that perfect picture of his football team doing everything just right, finally getting the respect he thinks they deserve.