Gary Patterson focused on football
FORT WORTH, Texas -- To his apparent chagrin, Gary Patterson has a visitor.
It's a November Friday, and Patterson's Texas Christian Horned Frogs have a big home game the next day. There is stuff to do. And here is this reporter sitting in his office, every bit as helpful to the daily work schedule as termites are to a wooden desk.
The reporter asks questions about TCU's unbeaten season. Patterson gives distracted answers while scribbling notes on his depth chart.
The reporter asks about growing up in small-town Kansas. Patterson offers some glimmers of insight before his gaze falls to the afternoon practice plan in front of him.
After about 20 minutes, the reporter is ushered out to tour the TCU facilities. Patterson is released from the uncomfortable world of public relations and personal revelations. He can go back to his comfort zone -- back to depth charts and practice plans and fixating on how to beat San Diego State.
This monomania does not shock those who know Gary Patterson.
"Super intense," is the description of his boss, TCU athletic director Chris Del Conte.
"In high school, he didn't pay a lot of attention in our upper math classes," said childhood friend Annette Reece. "He was a good student, but all he wanted to do was be a coach."
Patterson actually has had more interests in his life than many of his one-dimensional coaching peers. He was lead singer and guitarist in a band as a teenager, and he was a gifted enough performer in the productions at Pawnee Heights High School that he had a drama scholarship offer to Wichita State.
But he didn't want a drama scholarship. He wanted to play football, then coach it. And he approached that vocational goal the way everyone in Rozel, Kan., approached their daily chores: unflinchingly, and with total dedication.
You start talking about iconic figures like Bear Bryant, Darrell Royal, Joe Paterno. He's become our iconic figure.” -- TCU athletic director Chris Del Conte
His father, Keith, leveled land for farming irrigation. Patterson called him "one of the more intelligent men I've ever been around" and said his dad built the family home. But what trickled down the most to Gary was a classic prairie work ethic.
"You learned how to work seven days a week," Patterson said of his upbringing in a no-stoplight town of 182 in the middle of nowhere. "We went to church, and we even worked on Sundays."
This is why it's difficult to stop working when reporters come into your office. There's always more to be done, and never a good enough reason to stop.
Patterson's obsessive devotion to his craft has obviously paid dividends. This is his seventh season of double-digit victories in 10 full seasons as head coach, and it is so far the best. TCU is unbeaten, third-ranked and facing Wisconsin on Jan. 1 in the Rose Bowl, of all locales.
For a small school (undergraduate enrollment of roughly 7,800) from a non-AQ conference that wandered the defeatist desert for decades, this is heady stuff. TCU was a national power before World War II, then endured 30 losing seasons from 1961 to 1997, including a particularly horrific eight-year run in which TCU never won more than two games. Now Patterson has the true old-timers comparing this run to the Sammy Baugh-Davey O'Brien glory days.
"You start talking about iconic figures like Bear Bryant, Darrell Royal, Joe Paterno," Del Conte said. "He's become our iconic figure."
Those iconic figures all stayed for decades at the schools they took to glory. So far, Patterson has been willing to do the same and hunker down at TCU. He has interviewed for several jobs in the past, but nothing has moved him off the compact, tidy campus south of downtown Fort Worth.
"He responds to loyalty," Reece said. "He seems at peace there."
Del Conte and everyone else who wears purple are promoting the peace-of-mind theme. It's currently in vogue in college football coaching, if you look at the willingness of Chris Petersen, Kyle Whittingham and Patterson to stay moored at schools outside the power elite of their sport.
"There's been a lot of people in college football who left for where they think the grass is greener," Del Conte said. "They're chasing ghosts. For every Urban Meyer, there's nine guys that caught the train on the way down and say, 'I should have never left.'
"If you continue to build it up, and you invest in people, you realize the grass is greener here."
TCU has done its best to keep its grass PGA Tour green for Patterson. He's well-paid ($1.6 million according to a USA Today survey of salaries, second-highest of any coach at a non-AQ school), and the school is on a facility-building tear.
A $7 million indoor practice facility was finished in 2007. A $13 million athletic building was finished at one end of Amon G. Carter Stadium the following year, housing many of the offices and meeting rooms for the football team. And the creaky old stadium (opened in 1930) is undergoing an ambitious facelift.
Then there is TCU's jump to the Big East, which makes much more sense in football terms than it does geographically. The Horned Frogs have been able to clear the BCS outsider hurdle on their own each of the past two years, but starting in 2012, they no longer have to do anything more than win their conference to play in a big-time bowl.
"When you go through 50 years of misery, we've got to the point where we can taste the champagne," Del Conte said. "We want to maintain that, and Gary obviously is vitally important to that.
"He is that guy for us who can become a JoePa. Everyone knows him -- his strengths and his weaknesses. Gary's strength is that he is true to himself -- honest, super intense, genuine. It's him against the world to prove, 'Hey, I am a dang good coach.'"
Patterson-against-the-world resonates with the players TCU recruits. The coach says the Frogs go after "all the stars" in Texas, but most of them matriculate to Texas or Oklahoma or other glam locales. So it's more a matter of finding the right -- and highly motivated -- leftovers.
Patterson described his hierarchy of attributes in a recruit: personality, toughness, athletic ability.
"We want mindset more than ability," he said.
Patterson's particular mindset is also part of the firm fit for him at TCU. He's not Mack Brown when it comes to face-of-the-program schmoozing. Scribbling on your depth chart and poring over the practice plan don't play well at booster functions. Or at programs where the spotlight is unceasing.
His second wife, Kelsey, has helped lighten him up a little bit. They've taken up scuba diving, exploring the turquoise waters of Hawaii, the Virgin Islands, Cozumel, Aruba and other locales.
"It's one of the few things I can do that takes my mind off everything else," Patterson said. "Even hitting a golf ball, I'm thinking about football."
Seems it takes an oxygen tank and total submersion to cleanse Gary Patterson of his coaching immersion.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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