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Patterson also has a knack for predicting not only which high school players can grow into FBS starters but also which can be groomed to play new positions. He expanded his portfolio by running TCU's off-season conditioning program and overseeing its academic advisory program. Still, when Franchione bolted in 2000 to coach Alabama, TCU barely considered Patterson. He and his second wife were separated, and he hardly projected the smooth leader-of-men look so beloved of chancellors and players' moms.
Franchione, meanwhile, dangled the coordinator's job in Tuscaloosa and told TCU officials that he wasn't sure Patterson was ready to be a head coach. The search committee interviewed 10 other candidates and seemed to have narrowed the choice down to Alabama-Birmingham coach Watson Brown and Kansas State defensive coordinator Phil Bennett when it called in TCU's chief academic officer, provost William Koehler, a former chemistry professor who worked out with the players and had seen Patterson's impact up close.
"I'm wondering why we would be looking at a defensive coordinator from another university when ours just posted the best defense in the nation," Koehler told the committee. "I'd bet my life on Gary. See you, guys." Koehler walked out, and that turned the tide.
Since then Patterson has won 98 games—more than all but five FBS coaches over that last 10 years—and student applications have quadrupled. With its entry into the Big East next season, TCU won't have to beg for a chance to play for a national championship; it'll just have to win out. Which, in perhaps the most telling twist of all, people in Fort Worth now expect the Horned Frogs to do.
"I came to the university in 1969 and watched coaches recruit by sending out postcards," says Koehler, who retired in 2004. "I watched teams go zip-and-10 year after year. Has it surprised me what he's done? Absolutely. We haven't cheated, we keep the kids in school, we don't abuse them. I always believed it would be a great program. I don't know that I ever imagined we'd be in the top 10 and have fans get angry if we're not way ahead at halftime."
The turnaround has given Patterson rock-star status in Fort Worth, and it sure doesn't hurt that his country-shrewd persona reflects the city's idea of itself. Pianist Van Cliburn has hosted a party for Patterson, and there's a great art museum downtown, but oil rules more than ever in these days when gas can run $4 a gallon, and TCU's bust-to-boom rise is a tale any wildcatter can relate to. Everybody loves him now, but Patterson trusts that only so far. Plenty of people blanched when he was hired, and more reached for torches and pitchforks when he lost that first year to Northwestern State. "I'd say 99 percent of the people were not happy about him being the coach," says Eric Hyman, TCU's athletic director then.
Hyman says that even Dick Lowe, the booster who pushed hard for Patterson behind the scenes, grew so incensed after a 2001 loss to East Carolina that he howled at Hyman to can the coach. (Lowe denies this. "S--- no!" he says.) But that story, not to mention the one about Franchione's cool assessment of his readiness to run a program, long ago reached Patterson's ears, and though he considers both men friends who've helped him time and again, well, he can't help but wonder.
Lowe's is a particularly sticky case. The former Horned Frogs lineman exiled himself from the program for some 15 years after readily confessing to having masterminded the payments to players that landed TCU on NCAA probation in 1986. He went broke, recovered, hit it big as a founding partner of Four Sevens Oil Co. (which sold its production arm in 2006 for $1.3 billion) and then, openly penitent and tossing around money like used tissue, sidled back into a position of influence. Patterson and Lowe had one conversation about cheating: The coach said, "I want to do everything the right way."
"If I ever find out that you're doing it the wrong way," Lowe replied, "I'll turn you in myself."
In recent years few people have been more effusive in support of Patterson. With his business partner Hunter Enis, Lowe, 83, has contributed $22.5 million toward the new stadium and athletic complex—and he expects some privileges. Last spring he brought a posse to watch practice from the sideline, and Patterson twice urged him back behind the line of scrimmage. Lowe wouldn't listen. Finally, here came tailback Waymon James with two DBs in pursuit. All three hurtled into Lowe, sending him crashing to his back, heels flying, elbows scraped raw.