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The House of Dream Chasers
September 12, 2011
Twenty-five years ago TCU coach Gary Patterson was a tumbleweed assistant clinging to a Division II job. No one expected he would rise to the top of his profession—not even the author, who lived with him then
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September 12, 2011

The House Of Dream Chasers

Twenty-five years ago TCU coach Gary Patterson was a tumbleweed assistant clinging to a Division II job. No one expected he would rise to the top of his profession—not even the author, who lived with him then

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After a stint as Sochor's successor, Foster left Davis in 1993 and coached defense at Cal, Oregon and Colorado before retiring two years ago. The quarterback in '86, Chris Petersen, is now the coach of Boise State and just one in a long line of Aggies disciples who have run major programs: Paul Hackett, Mike Bellotti, Dan Hawkins. "Davis was way ahead of its time," Patterson says. "They taught players to be coaches. They taught guys to overcome. They said, 'There's no such thing as no—it's just going to take us a little bit more time to get the answer.' All those things have carried forward with me."

In 2010, TCU set an FBS record by leading the nation in total defense for the fifth time in the last 11 years. (Alabama and Auburn each did it four times—in a 73-year span.) Patterson's refinement of the 4-2-5 defense into an all-purpose scheme—the so-called nickel package, or five defensive-back alignment, was used before mostly in pass situations—is considered one of the top coaching innovations of the last two decades and one of the few good answers to the spread offense. But more than half of the Horned Frogs' defensive playbook (and much of its blitz terminology) came from Foster. Davis gave Patterson his blitz packages and first exposed him to the idea of five DBs. The roots of his 4-2-5, he says, began there.

But none of us, back then, looked at Patterson and predicted that he'd make it big. When he talks about Pasadena, his eyes redden. "I didn't know if I'd ever get a chance," he says. "I never thought I would be up on the podium at the Rose Bowl, with all the confetti coming down."

Foster is 70 and lives in southern Oregon. In 1991, his third year as the Davis coach, his team scored just 12 points as Sonoma State—with Patterson at defensive coordinator—ended the Aggies' record title streak at 20. Foster still gets the itch when watching a defensive battle, and he loved how smaller, smarter TCU outlasted Wisconsin in the biggest game of Patterson's life. A few afternoons later, his phone rang. Foster hadn't spoken to his long-ago assistant in more than a decade. "I want to thank you for that year," Patterson said, "and how much I learned from you." Foster cried. It felt good.

I am waiting outside Patterson's office. The door is open this Tuesday morning, and I can see his face but not the TCU player he is taking apart. Patterson is leaning across his desk with a shark's grin. He's been telling the kid how he has been conning teachers and coaches with his "cheery face" all summer, operating like a "weasel," and now the kid mumbles something about "just chillin'." Patterson's eyes flare. "Well, we're warming you up now," he says. "It's time for some hot chocolate. There's no chilling no more."

The meeting ends. Out walks Gary's 39-year-old wife, Kelsey, who like many a coach's spouse is a key part of the program, running his foundation and playing good cop to Patterson's bad. It's a smart call: Gary can seem on the verge of leaping out of his shoes, and his temper is sharp. Early on he tried to ratchet back, act like a classic CEO coach, until losing persuaded him to be himself. The first time Kelsey's dad saw his future son-in-law was on TV, raging. "Well," Dean Hayes said, "he doesn't look very nice."

Patterson likes to tell banquet audiences that the week before he and Kelsey got married, in 2004, he told her, "If you can live by two rules this can work. Number one: If my phone rings between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., I probably have to go. And two, if you're mad at me and a Texas high school coach is mad at me, I'll send you flowers, but I'm going to go see him." That gets a good laugh, but it's not too far from true. Kelsey is Gary's third wife, and it's safe to say that the first two weren't prepared for his monomaniacal work habits. Patterson dated his first wife while we lived together on Eighth Street, and I never got the sense that she understood she was marrying the game along with the man. They had a son, Josh, and divorced after a few years; Josh lived in California until the fifth grade, then lived with Gary's brother and parents in Rozel through high school. Gary's second marriage lasted seven years, until 2002, and produced two more sons, Cade and Blake, who live in Utah with their mom.

Patterson knows the mistakes in the marriages were mostly his, and his ambition cost him time with his sons that he'll never get back. His younger boys visit for extended periods now. Josh, 23, is enrolled at TCU after serving in the Army, patrolling Iraq for 13 months. "And I think, here's where I'm going to try to make all this up, get more time with him, help him more," Gary says. "The road's not ended with him, with all my three boys. This is how our life went; I can't do anything about that now. But look on the opposite side: Being successful, I'm able to go back and help my mom and dad—or my sister, or Gisele [an administrative assistant] down the hall; she lost her husband, was going to lose her house, and I paid it off for her. The key is, you try to do right by the kids."

Kelsey had worked with the Texas football program as a student, marketed the Southwest Conference after graduating. She was aware of what she calls "all the dirty laundry" of being a coach's wife. I'm sitting next to her, in the same place the weasel sat a few hours before. Gary listens for a few minutes, stands, wanders into the hall in a halfhearted bid to give us privacy, then hurries back to his desk. He picks up an article about TCU and tries to focus on it.

It's a kind of torture, my being here. Patterson keeps an extremely tight grip when it comes to the media—parceling out players' interviews, hypersensitive to criticism. As New Mexico's defensive coordinator in the mid-'90s, he raged for weeks after a reporter for the college newspaper mistakenly wrote that a walk-on tailback had gained 200 yards during a no-contact rehearsal against Patterson's defense. "We teased Gary that he was so livid at the school paper, how stupid reporters can be," says Dennis Franchione, the Lobos' coach then. "But Gary was worried about what people would think."

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