FORT WORTH, Texas -- After TCU won the Rose Bowl in January 2011, coach Gary Patterson hit his assistants with an apt analogy. "The Rose Bowl," Patterson said, "was like an 85-degree day in Kansas -- in January." Why January?
"If it gets that warm in January in Kansas," Patterson said, "I'll promise you one of the worst storms is coming."
The sunny weather stayed for a while. It lasted through a "rebuilding" season in which the Horned Frogs went 10-2, won the Mountain West and secured an invitation to the Big 12. But, as Patterson predicted, the storm eventually came.
It arrived Feb. 15 with a deluge of served warrants. Four Horned Frogs were arrested on charges of marijuana distribution as part of a larger operation that netted 18 total arrests. The players had sold pot to undercover cops. Cornerback Devin Johnson was formally charged this week. The other three, linebacker Tanner Brock, defensive tackle D.J. Yendrey and offensive tackle Ty Horn, have yet to be formally charged.
None of the four are on the football team anymore. Officially speaking, they have been "separated" from the university, meaning they are barred from even setting foot on campus. They've already done enough damage. In an arrest affidavit, a Fort Worth officer reported that Brock had revealed that Patterson had ordered a surprise team drug test that day -- Feb. 1, better known as National Signing Day -- that would result in "about 60 people being screwed." Johnson told officers that 82 players had failed. That affidavit went viral within hours, and everyone took the word of bud(ding) entrepreneurs in the middle of drug deals that TCU's football team was awash with drug use.
When the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported later that a TCU source revealed only five players failed that particular drug test, the story was widely regarded as spin from an embarrassed program. What's the truth? Without seeing the test results, we won't know. A look at the track record of the players during Patterson's tenure suggests the newspaper report probably is closer to the truth than Brock's estimate. When SI investigated whether major college football programs performed background checks on recruits, TCU was one of the few that did. A search of the archives of local media sources reveals that before the four were arrested last month, five other TCU football players had been arrested since Patterson became head coach in December 2000. That's nine in a little more than 11 years.
Compare that to Urban Meyer's six-year tenure at Florida, which included more than 30 player arrests. Compare it to Mark Richt at Georgia, who has had both his starting cornerbacks arrested (one for marijuana possession, one for domestic violence) in the past two months and who has had several dozen players arrested during his 10-year tenure in Athens. Some of the accounting can be chalked up to the difference in municipalities -- programs in small college towns tend to accumulate more ticky-tack arrests because police have less to worry about than their big-city counterparts -- but in terms of serious crimes, Patterson's players have stayed clean at a more-than-acceptable rate.
That's why Patterson didn't hide after the arrests. That's why he didn't shoot down questions about them. Patterson knows recruits and their parents will be watching and reading, and he wants them to know the arrests were an anomaly.
"This is a problem everywhere," Patterson said. "The people that know us -- the high school coaches -- know us, and they know how we do things. If they truly believe we are the only people that have this problem, maybe they don't want to come here because we will do something about it."
Drug use is an issue on every campus. In an NCAA survey of 20,474 athletes from the 2009 school year, 22.6 percent admitted to having used marijuana. Some perspective: In 1985, 27 percent of a group of 2,000 NCAA athletes surveyed admitted to having used marijuana. It wouldn't be shocking if a decent-sized chunk of any college football team tested positive if given a surprise test today. It's a bit surprising that four players appeared to be in business selling pot -- and the police documents indicate the possibility of more arrests on the TCU campus -- but the idea of at least a player or two slinging weed shouldn't shock anyone who has spent significant time around large groups of 18- to 22-year-old males.
Still, the arrests sucker-punched Patterson. Even a few weeks later, the pain seemed fresh. "I live 30 seconds from here," he said. "No one watches all this stuff more than I watch it. It just goes to show you, people, when their own kids fool them... Parents, I mean. I have 130 [kids]. I don't have four. ... Those are still four of my kids. Those are still kids I care about. I wish I would have made a difference. I wish it hadn't happened. I wish I would have known so I could have stopped it."
Though they make plenty of money to win football games, most coaches at the highest level of college football still take the in loco parentis part of their job seriously. Patterson is one of them.
"That's what we promised," he said. "We promised when a kid goes to college, we're going to be an extension of the parents. Sometimes, we are the parents if they don't have any parents. How are we going to grow them up? We give them management skills. We give them work ethic. There's a degree hopefully that they can get so they can go on and do something else with their lives."
The arrests have taken the spotlight off a spring practice that should excite everyone in purple. The Horned Frogs return three excellent backs and a budding star in quarterback Casey Pachall. The defense remains fast, aggressive and well-coached. If any program is ready for the jump from a mid-major league to a BCS AQ league, it's TCU. The Horned Frogs were already out-recruiting some Big 12 programs without the benefit of the AQ designation. Now, they are a major-conference program located in one of the nation's largest metro areas. That should terrify the other members of the Big 12. Sure, TCU now must beat Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas, but the coaches at those schools, to a man, would be quick to point out one thing: Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas have to beat TCU.
"The riff before was, 'Well they are not in the Big 12.' Well now we are," Patterson said. "So now they ask can they win in the Big 12? That's the next thing we've got to prove. So it allows us to keep that chip on our shoulder."
The updated anti-Frog recruiting spiel will almost certainly mention the drug bust, so Patterson will have to fight the negativity by trotting out the facts. He can't change the fact that four of his players sold drugs to undercover cops, but he can shine a light on the 100-plus who didn't. He can point to TCU's federal graduation rate -- how many players receive degrees within six years of enrollment -- which at 75 percent is the highest in the Big 12 and 11 percentage points ahead of second-place Texas Tech.
Patterson accepts that negativity will come, and he doesn't believe TCU's jump to the Big 12 increased attention on the arrests. "I didn't think that was a fair shake," he said. "Not for the four kids that screwed up, but for the 90 percent of the kids that are trying to do it right. ... It blows up just because it's college athletics. TCU, we've been on a string where everything we did just happened to turn out right. Then when you finally have something go wrong, everybody wants to jump on it. But that's OK."
After Patterson rattled off a list of the things his program has done right, he warned against placing him on any pedestal. The arrests simply reinforced his belief that all programs and all coaches are susceptible. The storm can come at any time and strike anywhere. What matters is how prepared a coach is for bad weather and how quickly he can clean up the mess.