FORT WORTH, Texas -- Gary Patterson's voice was midseason hoarse, and despite the intoxicating smell of freshly mown green grass and crisp, spring air tantalizing the TCU campus, the Horned Frogs' coach was well past overheating.
His team had just wrapped up another workout with a day to spare before its spring game, one that the athletic department for the first time was billing as a come-and-see event.
Patterson, though, had more pressing issues on his mind than marketing a glorified scrimmage. He had just been given the news that standout linebacker and defensive leader Tank Carder would need surgery on a shoulder damaged in an earlier practice and that he might even miss the start of a tricky nonconference schedule (it turns out he will be back for fall camp).
As Patterson continued to patrol practice, he grew less and less patient with players with two good shoulders. Before dispatching them to the showers, Patterson gathered the boys around for a 15-minute heart-to-heart. The head coach did all the talking.
"Defensively, the offense went straight down the field and scored Tuesday and they did the same thing today. I mean, we've been the No. 1-, No. 3- and No. 15-ranked red zone defense in the country, and in seven plays our offense scored twice," Patterson groused. "But then they come back and they just tried to run it in and they got their ass kicked. I mean, they've got to finish, and defense is going to have to start getting pissed off because right now they're not."
Surely in any program players are prone to mistakes and attention lapses in the springtime?
"No, not around here," Patterson bemoaned. "I'm one of those guys that I'm not going to lie about it and roll it over and just wait until the fall. Right now, we're a 6-6 football team."
Of course, this is the same man who at this time last year downgraded his defensive unit as "terrible." So terrible, in fact, that it finished TCU's landmark season as the No. 1-ranked defense in the country. It should be in good hands again in 2010 with seven starters returning. The offense, led by senior quarterback Andy Dalton, is in even better shape with nine returning starters.
Patterson, though, scoffs at numbers.
"You lost some great leaders. You lost two first- or second-round draft choices," said Patterson, referring to defensive end and sacks leader Jerry Hughes and linebacker and tackles leader Daryl Washington. "You lost two offensive tackles. Right now, we don't have a starting right tackle, somebody that plays at the level we played at last year."
During spring practice, which wraps up Thursday, last year has been a resounding theme. As in, last year is last year, so drop it. The Frogs' 2009 season is well-chronicled. There was the 12-0 regular season that became hotly debated as deserving of a shot at the national title. TCU appeared in its first BCS game, the Fiesta Bowl, and played -- unfairly, some suggest -- fellow BCS-buster Boise State, which won 17-10. The Frogs finished No. 6 in both national polls and broke all previous barriers.
Much of Patterson's job this spring has been to strip it all away.
"I think it is pretty difficult to do," senior safety Tejay Johnson said. "When you've played on a team like that and you've had that success, then it's kind of hard to let it go and start over again. What you have to realize is you always have to start over from the beginning because last season is gone."
Yet in many ways, this Horned Frogs team will constantly be reminded of last season. Because of it, TCU will start the 2010 season ranked higher in the national polls than ever before. It will give the Frogs a greater opportunity to work their way into legitimate national title contention -- as long as they win, of course.
One thing the Frogs know well is that playing outside of the power conferences affords no slips. One loss and all BCS and national title hopes are buried. Last season's prowess and this season's upcoming high ranking will smack a bull's-eye on them bigger than they've ever seen.
"Especially starting off with Oregon State," Dalton said. "They're a great team, and playing at a place like Cowboys Stadium, that's going to be a great atmosphere for the game. Then we come back and we've got Tennessee Tech, Baylor and SMU. Early on, it's going to be a challenging schedule playing some good teams."
Baylor returns dual-threat quarterback Robert Griffin and has hopes of a breakthrough season under Art Briles. SMU is riding a first bowl victory in a quarter-century and heightened expectations under June Jones. The Mustangs will be primed for the Iron Skillet battle in Dallas (Sept. 24), a Metroplex matchup that will be as hyped as any in decades. So much so that ESPN picked it up.
"You've got to win one game before you can go undefeated," Patterson said. "Right now, three out of the first four ballgames, you have a Baylor team that has Griffin back, you have an Oregon state team that will be ranked in the top 20, you have an SMU team that went to a bowl game, and then you have Tennessee Tech.
"So you got a chance, worst-case scenario, being 1-3. Maybe you're 3-1, maybe you're 4-0, but if you don't come and get ready to play, you could be 1-3."
Which is why Patterson is working on erasing 2009 from the Frogs' memory.