Gary Patterson could not foresee the success his destiny would bring him. Most coaches come from lesser known schools in their professional adolescence, for Patterson it was a graduate assistant position at Kansas State, followed by linebackers coach at Tennessee Tech in the early 80’s. Years would pass and he would climb through the ranks as a young assistant, position coach
ing, until finally breaking into the upper-floor of the coaching suite.
Ever since his arrival to that penthouse, the journey of Patterson and the Texas Christian football program has truly been one of a storied legend.
Many fans forget that Patterson’s time at TCU did not begin in 2000. He was brought on by friend and mentor Dennis Franchione to be the school’s defensive coordinator in 1998. The Horned Frog program was reeling in the mid-90’s. Prior to Franchione/Patterson’s arrival, TCU had won only 10 games in the previous three seasons combined. Not to mention that TCU had been cast aside in the ruin of the old Southwest Conference, joining the lesser Western Athletic Conference while they watched their rivals in Austin, Lubbock, College Station and Waco feast in the Big 12. In 1997, fans saw TCU only win one game. Times were tough for the Ft. Worth faithful.
Along came the ’98 season. Improvement and success were immediately apparent. Despite an early, heartbreaking loss to Oklahoma and a mid-season four game losing streak, TCU found themselves with a date against the USC Trojans in the Sun Bowl. Patterson’s defensive genius shined brightest as the Horned Frogs held the Trojans to a Sun Bowl record -23 yards rushing. TCU won the game as well as notching their first bowl victory in 41 years.
The Franchione era in Ft. Worth culminated in a 10-1 regular season finish before he headed east for Tuscaloosa. With the head coaching spot now vacant, the spotlight was on Patterson who had built a respected defense over his three seasons as defensive coordinator. With the promotion, Patterson unfortunately began his head coaching career with a loss in their bowl game as well as losing the likes of LaDanian Tomlinson to the NFL the following April.
His first full season as head coach, was 2001. TCU fell back down to earth dealing with the loss of Tomlinson and a senior-laden roster. 6-6 was the result, but not a sign of things to come.
The next few seasons saw TCU return to double-digit victories. Regardless, the Horned Frog football program was still seen as an irrelevant force due to their conference affiliation. Something significant was needed. Returning with their conference brethren was as far-fetched as college football with a playoff system in the early days of the Patterson administration. A marquee win on a national stage to announce that TCU was still here.
Then came September 3rd, 2005, a sunny afternoon in Norman, Oklahoma.
The Sooners had been to two straight national championships and returned stud running back Adrian Peterson for his sophomore campaign. It was to be the beginning of the Peterson Heisman glory run. No one gave TCU a chance to upset the Sooners.
A few hours later, the country looked towards the heartland and remembered the TCU Horned Frogs. A 17-10 upset of Oklahoma was the proof that TCU was no early-season canon fodder for the larger programs. Despite Franchione’s success a few years prior, Patterson’s star began to shine brighter. 2005 catapulted TCU to new heights with a top 10 finish in the Coaches Poll and a 11-1 record. The seeds of legitimate candidacy for conference realignment for TCU’s case may have been planted on that sunny afternoon in Norman.
With Patterson’s success, the TCU program became nomads on the conference landscape. Leaving the WAC in 2000 for Conference USA and then the Mountain West in 2005. The desire to be seen on the same level as their former conference foes in the SWC was at the heart of TCU’s journey. Patterson’s recruiting, coaching and attitude became the vehicle to steer the program towards major conference affiliation.
TCU’s climb to the top found the best success in 2010 when they defeated Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. TCU — a program left for dead in the wake of the fall of the SWC had won perhaps the most storied bowl game in college football. The marquee wins over Oklahoma and in the Rose Bowl would finally bear fruit two years later.
Finally in 2012, the 13 years of hard work Patterson had bled into Ft. Worth paid off. They were welcomed with open arms into the Big 12 with old foes and geographical rivals like Oklahoma and the old Big 8 schools. Some believed — despite the overwhelming body of success Patterson had accrued over his tenure — that TCU was still small time.
“The Big 12 will eat them alive.”
“Playing one big school on your schedule is not the same as playing six or seven on a weekly basis.”
These were the lines that echoed across Big 12 country as the pessimists doubted their new conference ally. 2012 and 2013 further fed the skeptics as TCU struggled to find themselves in a stronger conference.
Then, in perhaps Patterson’s greatest coaching move, TCU caught up with the Big 12. The defensive first, run-the-ball-mindset had shown its ceiling. Certainly defense is still the first priority for Patterson, but he realized to win the Big 12 that you had to score points. He hired the offensive minds of Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meachem as co-offensive coordinators and transitioned his offense into the pass happy air raid that had enveloped the conference. With that one move, TCU had reached a level not previously seen. Not only was TCU in the conference title discussion, but now they were in the national title discussion.
The job Patterson has done with TCU is remarkable. From the depths of the WAC to the Power-5 penthouse. He did it with grit, determination and even showed the ability to open his mind and adapt in order to survive. They are not a program that hopes to have a great season once every five seasons but instead have become a school fans and media look to
for sustain success. Success that has to be credited to the foundation Patterson laid for the program in those early years. Patterson may not have known that in 1998. The rest of the country knows that now in 2016.