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So, do you think I've changed?" Gary Patterson asks, almost shyly, the words coming from so far out of nowhere that I know he's been wondering awhile. This is a good sign: He wouldn't ask if he didn't care, and not caring anymore is a tip-off when you meet someone with whom you haven't spoken in decades—especially if he's grown rich and powerful and famous. Often such people become so used to being interviewed, to seeing their own image blazing on TV screens, that the surreality of it fades and they begin to like it and think the world does, too, and soon every chat with them becomes a monologue about their wondrous views. And you, sitting there fighting the urge to drive a pen into your eye, can only conclude that, Lord, the guy you once considered a friend has become an utter tool.
But no, and here's another sign: I ask if he has watched many replays of the 2011 Rose Bowl—at which Patterson, as the coach of Texas Christian, sealed a 13--0 record, the No. 2 national ranking and a BCS-tweaking victory "for the little guys everywhere," as the announcers kept stressing—and his mouth twists.
"You ever listen to yourself talk?" Patterson says, and off he goes about how he's haunted by this teaching-clinic film he made as an assistant 13 years ago. The damned thing gets played every time high school coaches visit, and when he hears his flat-as-Kansas rasp coming down the hallway he wants to duck under the nearest desk. Fans are always coming up to say how good, how real, he was on ESPN after that stunning 21--19 win over Wisconsin in Pasadena, "but I look at myself and think, You're a f------ fatass!" he says. "I think, What can I wear so I don't look like that? I want to look different."
But then, who past 50 doesn't? Success, be it Patterson's five 10-win seasons in six years or his salary of nearly $3 million or his reputation among his peers as a defensive genius, can obscure a lot of flaws. But there's no stopping whatever thickens a body over time, and there is, no doubt, more of us both than there used to be.
"What has it been?" he says. "Twenty-five years?"
Yes. In 1986, Patterson was a low-rung assistant coach for Division II UC Davis—the Hayseed, as his fellow staffers called him—eating bulk-rate tuna out of a can. I was a rookie NBA reporter at The Sacramento Bee, in over my head. Both of us had lucked into cut-rate rooms in the same house in Davis; I was in the converted garage, he in the alternately roasting and freezing shoebox over the kitchen. I didn't think much about him—not professionally, anyway—because I was writing about Reggie Theus, Michael Jordan and Larry Bird, inside stories about comebacks and feuds and self-made winners, and thought I had an infallible sense of what all that looked like.
Talk about change. Late on a summer night in Fort Worth, Patterson and I are sitting in his office. The cabinet behind his head is crammed with the nine national coaching awards he earned in 2009, when TCU went 12--1, won the Mountain West Conference and went to the Fiesta Bowl, the Horned Frogs' first BCS game. The Rose Bowl trophy gleams on the coffee table. The office has a private bathroom twice the size of Patterson's bedroom in Davis. "Come on," he says.
Out we go down the hall, down the stairs within the newish, $13 million end zone complex, complete with an amphitheater team meeting room, a players lounge, an academic center, six luxury suites and a high-end dining facility. The rooms are empty and dark as he hurries past; he wrenches a steel security bar off a pair of doors. You can barely read the words on the tunnel wall—FIGHT 'EM TIL HELL FREEZES OVER ...THEN FIGHT 'EM ON THE ICE—uttered by Dutch Meyer, who until Patterson rings up 12 more victories, is TCU's alltime winningest coach. That may take a while; Patterson says he was worried about the 2011 team "as soon as I got off the podium" at the Rose Bowl. Twenty seniors were leaving, including four starters in the secondary and all-everything quarterback Andy Dalton, and it was clear—long before that 50--48 opening loss at Baylor last Friday snapped the Horned Frogs' 25-game regular-season winning streak—that this year would be a near-total rebuild.
We walk through the soupy evening to the 50-yard line. From there the sky-high skeleton of the west grandstand looms like a giant frozen wave, the next piece in a $160 million reconstruction of Amon G. Carter Stadium. Some $143 million has already been raised, and Patterson is acknowledged as the man who not only sewed up most of the donations but also made the project possible. He turns slowly. Black clouds loom, lightning flashing. And it's then that I realize that a quarter century ago I was onto the best sports story I'd ever know—and I almost missed it.
"Can you believe," Patterson says, "the size of this thing?"