Soon Jim refused to take his rent. He gave Gary one bartending shift a week, and there always seemed to be a plate of food waiting. "I need your opinion," Jim would say. "We're trying out a new dish."
"Jim just took care of me because I didn't have anything," Patterson says. "Without him I would have had to come home. That's why all of us should always help people."
Struggling assistants have long been a part of coaching lore, but no one better exemplifies the lifer's road than Patterson. He toiled 18 years at 10 schools, coast to coast, before taking over at TCU in 2000. Each stop had its lessons and hardships—on a Tennessee Tech recruiting trip he spent one night out of 30 in a hotel, often sleeping in his car; at Sonoma State, in Rohnert Park, Calif., the coaches laundered the uniforms, bought groceries at Costco, cooked the team meals, even built the press box. But that one short year on Eighth Street did more than any other to make Patterson the coach he is now.
"Davis changed my whole mind-set about how the game could be played," he says. "There was a magic to it. I had never been around anything like that before."
I didn't know. Who east of the Sierra Nevada did? In the early 1980s college football was still Alabama, Ohio State, Nebraska, Oklahoma: smashmouth Saturday dynasties, never mind what the upstarts in Miami were trying to pull. When the Jets drafted Davis quarterback Ken O'Brien before Dan Marino in 1983, Dolphins coach Don Shula said, "Who's he?" I rolled in a year later, laughing: Here was this boutique agricultural school, known for science and winemaking, carrying itself like some kind of major program. The Aggies had never won a national title, yet the players and coaches and students were actually arrogant about their football.
Then, bang-bang, Davis sent safety Bo Eason and defensive end Mike Wise to the NFL, and a mystique took hold. In 1985, Cal coach Joe Kapp offered Foster the defensive coordinator's job—Division I-A! Foster figured he had to go, until Cal athletic director Dave Maggard pulled him into an office and asked how he could leave a cozy machine like Davis for a Pac-10 also-ran. "He basically talked me out of it," Foster says. "That was the nicest thing."
It wasn't just that the Aggies were in the midst of their NCAA-record 20 straight conference championships. It was how they played. Davis gave no scholarships, and its players were always undersized; North Dakota State's fullback dwarfed every Aggies defensive lineman in the '82 national semifinals, and Davis still won. Sochor's West Coast offense emphasized brains and speed, and Foster's embrace of Tom Landry's ever-shifting 4--3 Flex defense—refined by 10 years of visits to the Cowboys' offices—combined to make Davis a kind of football Caltech, held in high regard by the game's leading minds.
"We ran the 4--3 Flex better than anybody in the country, college level, no question—because we were one of the few who did it," says Foster. "Some dabbled, but we went whole hog."
Davis's defensive playbook was eight inches thick; Patterson dived in. At times Sochor's cerebral style, his Zen admonition to "just be"—whistles were banned, players used coaches' first names and began practice on their own—drove the old-school Patterson crazy, but he bulled ahead. "Gary was a perfectionist, and he outworked people who weren't used to being outworked," says Jim Belenis, now a financial adviser in Davis. "He was like, This is how we do it in the Midwest. You stay over there with your wine-and-cheese thing: I'm going to get this done."
"I'd been there three years and had kind of lost it," says DiCamillo, now the assistant AD and football coach at Southlands Christian High in Walnut, Calif. "Gary brought a different temperament, and that changed me. I was fired up."