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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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As a stupid reporter, of course, I usually dismiss such coaches as genetically unsuited for the big stage. But having lived with Patterson young, I know he suffers the moneyless kid's eternal fear that everything—career, home, health—could be gone tomorrow. It doesn't shock me, a few weeks later, when he tells a roomful of people, "I've always been scared to death." That's the downside of by-the-bootstraps success. You never quite shed the idea that, by God, if you can just maintain the same grinding formula that got you here, keep your eye on everything—from the new pocket schedules to the trash left behind in the players lounge—you might survive.

At the same time Patterson is known for his solicitude for hometown folk and people who knew him when; forgetting where he came from is the sin he can't commit. So he's given me time and inside dope, allowed me to talk to his sons and wife, thrown open his calendar. But he can't decide whether I come as an old housemate or a journalist, and the uncertainty makes him uneasy.

"It's like Mr. Del Conte here," he says, slapping the article in his hand. Kelsey and I stop talking. Gary's got that shark's grin going again. He's referring to TCU's flamboyant athletic director, Chris Del Conte, who arrived in Fort Worth in 2009 well-coiffed, ever quotable and determined to raise the program's profile. This morning has published a piece on TCU containing a dig at Dallas by Del Conte—never mind that Patterson has long crisscrossed Big D, hitting up millionaires for contributions and building grassroots support. "I've spent 14 years trying to take all of the Metroplex in," Patterson says, "and he says, 'If you want to go to Dallas, go to Atlanta. If you want to go to Texas, come to Fort Worth.'"

"I know," Kelsey says.

"Wait till I talk to him tomorrow."

Patterson hands me the article, the offending quote marked in neon green. "I mean, damn!" he says. "Guy comes in and in two years, I mean. ..." Two days later I mention this to Del Conte. Dressed in seersucker, he grins and confirms that, yes, Gary did come banging on his door. Then he repeats the Dallas rip word for word and tells how he explained to his angry coach that the quote was but one of a series extolling TCU's virtues. "But that's what Gary does: He grows weeds to pull 'em," Del Conte says. "He'll come down and walk out 10 minutes later saying, 'I got it. That's us protecting the enterprise.' I just take it a bit out there. We do the things we have to do to sell a ticket."

Before Patterson arrived at TCU in 1998 as defensive coordinator under Franchione, nobody was talking about Horned Frogs football as an enterprise—or selling many tickets. Dutch Meyer's two Depression-era national titles had long been overshadowed by a mid-1980s recruiting scandal and a losing culture that spawned cheers like, Two-four-six-eight! Score before we graduate! Even after Franchione took over a 1--10 team, won six games and earned a trip to the Sun Bowl, the shame lingered: The chair of TCU's board of trustees attended the bowl win over Southern Cal but chose not to wear the school's purple and white.

Franchione wasn't worried. The school had committed at long last to upgrade the program, and its region was awash in football talent. Besides, he had a secret weapon: Patterson.

Franchione had been the wide receivers coach when Patterson played linebacker at Kansas State and had worked with Patterson at Tennessee Tech, but he really took note of Patterson's fire when he hired Patterson in 1988 to coach linebackers at Division II Pittsburg (Kans.) State. Franchione ran a rudimentary 4-2-5 defense there, and in 1996, midway through his stint at New Mexico, he knew he'd need it again to survive in the pass-happy Western Athletic Conference. Patterson pressed his old boss for an interview. He'd been tinkering with the 4-2-5 ever since Pittsburg State, and a three-year stint under defensive coordinator Dick Bumpas at Utah State had convinced him he could go further, using the speed of three safeties to cut down space and funnel ballcarriers into traffic; combining ever-shifting coverages (zone on one side of the field and man-on-man on the other); and boiling what appeared to be a highly complex scheme into bite-sized assignments. "Multiplicity," he called it, "but simplicity."

Patterson "is as fine a defensive coach as I have been around in my 40 years of coaching," Franchione says. "He knows [the 4-2-5] inside and out, and every year he's tweaked it, done things to stay ahead of the curve."

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