FORT WORTH, Texas — The average college football fan has probably wondered more than once why the most successful coach in the state of Texas is so content at TCU.
Gary Patterson, fresh off a fourth consecutive win over Texas and with his No. 6 Horned Frogs barreling toward a Saturday showdown with No. 5 Oklahoma that will have major implications in both the College Football Playoff and Big 12 races, has wondered the same thing himself. He keeps coming to the same conclusion, thanks in part to some advice Gary Darnell offered him more than 30 years ago, when Patterson was coaching linebackers under Darnell at Tennessee Tech.
“He told me, ‘Gary, you want to get to a place where you have to say no more than you say yes,’ and that’s what I’ve found here at TCU,” said Patterson, whose Frogs have been the winningest FBS program in the state of Texas (157-54) since his first season as head coach in 2001.
Over its past 30 Big 12 games, TCU is 22-8. The only school with a better record during that stretch is Oklahoma, which is 25-5. The two teams will play what is effectively a College Football Playoff elimination game Saturday in Norman. “We’ve got everything we need right here to keep moving this program forward and keep winning big football games, and that’s what we’re working toward every day to do,” Patterson said.
What he won’t say is what he hears too many of his coaching peers say.
When asked whether he ever sees himself leaving TCU, where he’s been for two decades — the last 17 years as head coach — Patterson leaned back in his office chair and answered without hesitation in the hoarse voice he always speaks with this time of year.
“It would have to be something you just couldn’t say no to, but here’s the thing with me: I never say never, because I always get pissed off at those coaches when they say, ‘This is my last stop,’ or they sign a new contract and change jobs the next year,” Patterson said. “For me, it’s not only TCU, but Fort Worth is a special place.
“It’s very few times anybody in their life ever gets a chance to mean something to a group of people. My investment in this community runs a lot deeper than just football, and it’s a community and a city and a university that have been equally good to me and my family.”
That doesn’t mean Patterson’s phone won’t be ringing nonstop these next two months, as the head-coaching carousel has already begun to spin. It also doesn’t mean he won’t at least listen.
Since Gary Patterson’s first season in 2001, TCU is the winningest FBS program in Texas (157-54). Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY Sports
But listening and leaving are two entirely different things, or as Patterson’s brother, Greg, puts it, “When you’re from where we’re from — Rozel, Kansas — loyalty means something.”
Patterson, 57, is smart enough to realize he has a pretty good thing going at TCU, which is far from the “little old TCU,” as it was once mockingly referred to by many of its neighboring rivals. Patterson has guided TCU to conference titles in three leagues (Conference USA, Mountain West and Big 12), and Kansas State’s Bill Snyder is the only active coach with more wins at his current school than Patterson.
Just as impressive is the way TCU has invested financially in its facilities and coaches, spearheaded by athletic director Chris Del Conte. He has made possible a $164 million renovation to Amon G. Carter Stadium and seen to it that Patterson and his assistant coaches are paid top dollar. Patterson received an extension before the 2016 season that increased his annual salary to the $4.7 million range with incentives that could take him over $5 million.
If that’s not enough, Patterson has his own bronze statue in the plaza outside the basketball arena, just far enough away from the football stadium that Patterson doesn’t see it often. Patterson wasn’t thrilled about having a statue erected while he was still coaching and jokes that he didn’t want to have to walk past it every day. He finally relented when longtime donor Bill Parrish provided funding for three statues, the other two of TCU national-championship-winning former coach Dutch Meyer and TCU Heisman-winning quarterback Davey O’Brien.
Parrish was in declining health at the time and wanted to be able to see all three statues before his death. Parrish has since died but was able to attend the unveiling in April 2016.
“Coach P wins games and does it his way. He’s entrenched here,” TCU quarterback Kenny Hill said. “You think of TCU and Fort Worth, and Gary Patterson is the first thing that comes to mind. People here understand. Whenever you build something as special as Coach P has, people get it.”
Patterson, who’s been known to show up and play his guitar around town during the offseason, lives up on a bluff overlooking the TCU campus. He can see the football stadium and downtown Fort Worth from his backyard. He says it takes him two minutes to get to his office, which is especially important when you wear both the head coach and defensive coordinator hats and work marathon hours.
Patterson said he’s never truly been close to leaving TCU, though there have been and will be more tempting opportunities along the way. Case in point: If Texas A&M parts ways with Kevin Sumlin, would the Aggies make a run at Patterson? He was in that mix in 2012 when they hired Sumlin and knows the state of Texas like the back of his hand.
Patterson, who was just two years removed from winning the Rose Bowl back then, wasn’t interested in going into details but acknowledged that he’s talked with high-profile schools in the past. He interviewed with Nebraska in 2008, when the Huskers hired Bo Pelini, and also interviewed with Tennessee in 2009 after Phillip Fulmer was fired and the Vols hired Lane Kiffin.
“Tennessee didn’t think I could handle the big stage,” Patterson said. “My wife and I went to dinner with them, and I could tell they had already decided on Kiffin. It was the same with Nebraska. I interviewed and could tell they had already decided on Pelini. I think a lot of these ADs now are more interesting in hiring guys who’re going to win the podium than they are in hiring football coaches, and there’s a lot more to it than that if you’re going to win championships.”
Patterson smiled when asked whether he would have taken either the Tennessee or Nebraska job had he been offered.
“It’s sort of like the old Garth Brooks song. Sometimes the best prayers are unanswered prayers,” Patterson said.
The funny thing with Patterson is that, before TCU, he had never stayed anywhere longer than three seasons. He grinded his way through the ranks at programs like Sonoma (California) State, UC Davis, Cal-Lutheran and Tennessee Tech.
Gary Patterson was reticent about allowing TCU to build a statue for him while he is still at the helm, but he eventually relented. Max Olson
“Back in the old days, I learned from a lot from my mistakes at Sonoma State,” Patterson said. “So in front of 200 people, I make a mistake and nobody cares. You had all these places that nobody paid any attention to, so you learned how to be a head coach, and not just playcalling. Anybody can call plays. The key is: Can you run a whole program?”
The fit at TCU couldn’t be better for Patterson. He’s a keen evaluator, and maybe even a better developer, of talent. He’s had 42 players drafted in the past 16 years, and it’s not as if TCU has been a fixture in the top 25 of recruiting rankings during that span.
“People give me too much credit,” Patterson said. “The biggest thing is that you’ve got to trust yourself, and you’ve got to have patience. Most people, they don’t have enough patience, or the people they’re working for don’t have enough patience. I’ve got enough patience that I know I can grow guys up, and I may need them to grow up in a year, but sometimes it’s going to take two years.”
Patterson’s message to young players has been the same as far back as he can remember.
“They all say, ‘Coach, I want to play,’ ” Patterson said. “I say, ‘No, you don’t want to play. You want to play well. Just playing doesn’t do any of us any good. It gets us beat. Until you get to a point that you’re playing well, you’re not playing.'”
Patterson has also built up enough equity at TCU that he can survive a season similar to the one a year ago, when the Frogs finished 6-7, and avoid the proverbial hot seat the way some coaches can’t elsewhere. Of course, it helps that Patterson is now a combined 31-3 coming off of his only three losing seasons at TCU.
“There’s only one way you can stay somewhere 20 years,” Patterson said. “You either have great years or reinvent yourself, but you get along with people and you give back. You have to grow roots. Nobody in our profession works on growing roots anymore, at least not very often.”
And while Patterson is grateful for every one of the TCU boosters who has stepped up financially, he’s not shy about making it clear that it’s not a democracy when it comes to his football program.
“I like being somewhere that I can really get to know the boosters and let them know how appreciative I am for their commitment to this program, but I also want them to know that just because they’re making that kind of investment doesn’t mean they’re going to have a stake in my program,” Patterson said.
Too many times, Patterson said, schools fall into the trap of thinking more money always means more wins.
“The problem a lot of these places have is they think they can buy a championship,” Patterson said. “It’s hard to do that. That’s why I have a lot of respect for the way New England does it. Guys who are a problem, they pick them up for a year or two years and they don’t seem to be a problem with the Patriots.
“The quick fixes are hard. Our best players are the ones we feel like we do a good job growing up. We’ll take a junior college guy or a transfer that fills a hole, but we wouldn’t just take anybody. You’ve got to have confidence in yourself as a program that you can grow a guy up and that he’s going to become a better player if you give him time. And that’s what we’ve done here.”
Del Conte, whose office window looks directly out at Patterson’s statue, quips that he gets to look at Patterson’s backside every day as if somebody were trying to tell him something.
“You see a lot of grass-is-always-greener-on-the-other-side guys in the coaching profession, but Gary’s not one of them,” Del Conte said. “I think a lot of that goes back to where he was raised and that nothing was ever given to him. He went to junior college and then walked on at Kansas State. And look at all the [coaching] stops he made. In a lot of ways, he is TCU and has taken us places a lot of people never thought possible.
“The best part is we still have places to go.”