When it comes to recruiting, Patterson is a realist. "As a general rule, no one beats Texas [in recruiting] in the state of Texas," he says. But making do with the table scraps left by the Longhorns, TCU has won 11 games in four of the last six seasons. With September road victories over Virginia and Clemson, the Frogs have won 13 of their last 16 against teams from BCS conferences.
How is this happening? How has a program from a private school with fewer than 3,700 male students become a fixture in the Top 25? Patterson's formula has been to employ a conservative but opportunistic offense, mix in strong special teams and, most important, play swarming, confusing lights-out defense. And more key than his schemes are the guys he finds to run them. His players tend to fit a certain mold. They are:
• Fast. You can be short. But if you can't fly to the ball, TCU isn't interested.
• From Texas—of the 21 players in TCU's 2009 recruiting class, 20 are from in-state—and acutely aware of having been overlooked by Texas. Patterson, says Dallas Cowboys linebacker Stephen Hodge, a former Horned Frog, "wants guys with a blue-collar work ethic and a chip on their shoulders."
• Low maintenance. Patterson seeks self-starters, guys who watch video during their lunch periods, who don't have to be lassoed into the weight room. "It doesn't matter how bad I want it if they don't," he says.
• Not overly attached to the position they played in high school. In 2006 five of the 11 players on the defensive line were former high school running backs. Hodge, a strong safety for the Frogs, was a prep quarterback, as were three recent starting tight ends, two of whom ended up in the NFL. Another transplanted QB: Jason Phillips, a four-year starter at linebacker who's now a rookie with the Baltimore Ravens.
"When Coach Patterson asks you to change, you listen," says Phillips, who also played linebacker in high school. "His track record is pretty good. Plus, it usually means you're going to get on the field quicker."
A fullback during his redshirt year in 2004, Phillips was dragooned into service as a linebacker the following August, injuries having depleted the Frogs at that position. He picked it up quickly—"I played pretty good during two-a-days," he recalls—and ended up starting in TCU's opener. Does he remember who the opponent was?
"Oklahoma," Phillips replies. "They had Adrian Peterson." But Phillips and his mates held Peterson to 63 yards rushing on 22 carries as the Frogs shocked the fifth-ranked Sooners, 17--10.
Showing up at every game in 2006—from Las Vegas to West Point—were the parents of a freshman who didn't play much, which bothered Pam and Jerry Hughes not in the least. "We'd be excited just to see him get on the field for a few plays," says Pam. She and her husband have been to every game in their son's college career as he has emerged as one of the nation's premier pass rushers. "All this is much more than we expected," she says. "We didn't see this coming at all."