Stop me if you’ve heard this: Gary Patterson is about to leave TCU for a better job.

It has been three years since fans have heard public speculation about Patterson being courted by another program.  23-3 in the Big 12 has calmed the calls from outsiders that he should take a top level job.  TCU fan will point out he has one.  Yet, the curious question remains: why didn’t Coach Patterson climb the latter that could have landed him at the bluest of blood programs?

Gary Patterson has climbed the ladder, he’s just done it at one program. His nomadic years of serving as a Defensive Coordinator, position coach, staff member of a now defunct arena league have ended.  Yet, he has continued climbing the ladder. Since becoming the head coach at TCU, Patterson is held four different jobs, solidifying his status as one of the best five coaches in the country.

2001-2004: Entry Level Mid Major

When Gary Patterson became the head coach at TCU the program seemed cemented as a mid-major, still carrying fresh wounds from the death of the Southwest Conference. While the 2000 season allowed Frog fans to breath rare air, it disappeared as fast as it arrived during a painful night against SfJSU.  After Fran left for Alabama and flashed his crimson tie on national television, Frog fans began to fret.

The bi-polar nature of the 2001 season began to recalibrate the expectations of TCU fans.  A bowl loss to Southern Miss in his first game as head coach, followed by a six and six season with a loss to the Aggies in the Galleryfurniture.com bowl generated a few whispers.  Fans simply wanted a competitive program that could make a bowl game, yet members of this board will recall that the Patterson era began 6-8.

If you are not sitting down please do so when you read this sentence: I remember listening to serious conversations with people who thought of themselves as program insiders on whether or not it was a mistake to hire Patterson over Phil Bennett.  These same people also told me invest in alpaca farms.

2002 and 2003 were the high water marks of this Entry Level Mid Major era.  The Frogs were a combined 21-4.  They claimed the Conference USA title in 2002 and flirted with a BCS run late into 2003 until it ended during a loss at Southern Miss.  (Remember when Southern Miss was consistently a Mid Major Powerhouse?)  During this run it became clear that Patterson was settling into his own as a head coach.  He learned to recruit players to his system.  Game day preparation shined.  And most importantly, it became an assumption that TCU was going to beat teams that TCU fans believed they should beat.

While the Frogs missed a bowl in 2004 due to a wave of injuries, Patterson was prepared to take his career to the next level.  This step did not involve relocation, but it was a next level job.

2005-2011: The Birth of a Mid Major Power House

Labor Day weekend of 2005 launched TCU from a competitive Mid Major that belonged in a minor conference, to a Mid Major Power House that belonged in the top 25 each season.  Opening on the road at Oklahoma in front of 83,000 fans, the Frogs defeated the Sooners 17-10.  It is difficult to describe the impact this win had in redefining the heights that TCU believed they could reach.  This win was at a time when the Sooners simply did not lose at home.  The Big 12 was the best conference in college football, with OU clearly at the top.  The Big 12 South was the original SEC West.

Beating Oklahoma launched a 5 year run that watched the Frogs rack up a 64-11 record.  They won 4 Mountain West titles, going undefeated in conference play in each title run.  The Frogs defeated an undefeated Boise State team twice.  They hosted Game Day.  The made back to back BCS Bowls, back when you literally had to be undefeated to even be considered for an invitation.  And of course they won the 2011 Rose Bowl.  If not for a loss at Utah in 2008 and a loss at home to SMU in 2011, the Frogs would have played in 4 straight BCS games.

This rise as a Mid Major Power House also gave birth to the annual ritual of other programs preparing to “throw a ton of money” at Patterson to become their coach.  They seemed to assume he was making minimum wage in Fort Worth.  Kansas State, Minnesota, Tennessee and Auburn, were rumored to have pursued Patterson.  The substance of those conversations are folklore.  We don’t really know, and I don’t really care.  Because Patterson stayed.

Patterson has stated many times that “fit” is essential.  Simply taking the next perceived upgrade does not guarantee fit.  And regardless of message board insiders, backing up the Brinks truck does not mean you will land the coach you desire.  How many coaching jobs in the Big 10 as constituted in 2009 were a better job than TCU or even Utah?

During this historic run an odd trend developed.  TCU became a stronger brand outside of The Lone Star State than within.  National respect, in both the media and your average college football fan, began to grow.  While Big 12 fans and message board trolls were quick the fire up the usual arguments that TCU played in a weak conference, national perception strengthened.  So in October of 2011 when TCU fans received the news that had been waiting for since 1994, everyone was about to find out the true strength of the program.  The Frogs were moving to the Big 12.

2012-2013: Fighting Perception in a Strong Conference

While fans were ecstatic to renew SWC rivalries, no one was quicker to damp down expectations than Coach Patterson.  He knew the transition to the Big 12 would not generate instant success.  As the 2012 season prepared to kickoff, Patterson kept repeating that it would take 3 to 5 years to transition to the Big 12.

While the 2009 and 2010 teams could surely have held their own against any top 10 team in the country, 2012 and 2013 revealed a lack of regular season depth.  Off the field issues on both sides of the ball made matters worse.  TCU went 6-12 during their first two years of conference play, going a combined 2-10 against Texas, Baylor, Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Kansas State.  Patterson was unfortunately correct.

It was in December of 2013 that Patterson made the difficult decision to take yet another job, one he could not have earned without the latter climbing process of the previous three.  Demoting two long time assistants that had served as Co-OCs during 2012 and 2013, room was made for two new coaches who moved TCU and Coach Patterson to a new level.  Enter Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie.

2014- 2015: Becoming a National Program

“To be what you’ve never been before you must do what you’ve never done before.”

Patterson made a change that long time fans knew made his skin crawl: surrendering control of the offense to two new offensive coordinators who planned to spread the field and throw the ball.  Meacham and Cumbie are direct branches of the Leach, Holgo and Gundy tree.  It is an offensive identity that had taken over not only the Big 12 but Texas High School Football.  This bold move was not only to bring about results on the field, but to open doors to recruits who wanted to play the brand of ball they’d grown accustomed to since fifth grade.  This seismic shift yielded the results Frog fans had been anticipated since Chris Del Conte drank DeLoss Dodds into submission.

This is the coaching genius of Gary Patterson: he expressed a flexibility that most coaches of his stature lack.  He was willing to let go of what had served him well.  Look at coaches that reached their peak and then petered out: Les Miles, Mark Richt, Larry Coker and Mack Brown.  Three of these coaches have won a National Championship and Richt was one tipped pass from likely winning a title.  Three were later fired, with Miles still on the hottest of seats.  Yet, Patterson refused to allow January 1st of 2011 to be the high point of his career or the TCU program.  In fact, the heights have not yet been achieved.

The results of these changes speak for themself.  Two straight top ten finishes.  Wins over Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl and Oregon in the Alamo Bowl.  All Americans and Heisman worthy highlights.  A Big 12 title, followed by a 2015 season that displayed the depth Patterson said was needed to simply compete.  31 redshirt or true freshmen saw action on a team that went 11-2 in 2015.  February marked the highest ranked recruiting class of the Patterson era.  While Coach Patterson stills holds the same title he did in December of 2000, he surely does not have the same job.

There is a statue being built of Coach Patterson that will soon be placed in front of Amon Carter Stadium.  Generations of fans will come to get their picture taken in the shadow of the man who led TCU from the waste land of mid major mediocrity to national prominence.  I am sure the plaque will read “TCU Head Coach Gary Patterson 2000-2026.”  Horned Frog fans will comment there was once a time when men like Patterson practiced loyalty and stayed at one job for a lifetime.  Patterson is loyal to TCU, but do not let anyone fool you into believing that he held the same job for 26 years.

 

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