After tumultuous 2012, TCU ready to compete for Big 12 title
One reason Gary Patterson has been able to sustain such a high level of success in his 13 years as TCU's head coach is that he always prepares for the worst. "When everything's going great is when he starts to think about everything that could possibly go wrong," said his boss, athletic director Chris Del Conte. So in January 2011, amid the euphoria following the Horned Frogs' 13-0 season and Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin, the Rozel, Kan., native issued a dire yet colorful warning to his staff.
"'I don't know how many of you grew up in the Midwest,'" Patterson told his assistants, "'but the Rose Bowl is like an 85-degree day in January in Kansas.' They looked at me like I was crazy. The bottom line is, if you have an 85-degree day, the worst storm of your life is coming."
The two and half years since the Rose Bowl have had their hiccups, but they've hardly been catastrophic for TCU. On the contrary, they've included several more important milestones. Still, a storm is an apt description for the rapid torrent of change the program has recently experienced. Its stadium went through a two-year, $164 million makeover. It left the Mountain West for the Big East and then -- before ever playing a league game -- decided to join the Big 12.
In February 2012, just as the Horned Frogs ramped up for their first season in a power conference, a campus drug bust led to the arrests and dismissals of four players, three of whom were starters. Four games into the season, star quarterback Casey Pachall -- who had previously failed a team drug test ordered by Patterson shortly before the police sting -- was arrested for DWI and left school to enter a rehab program for drug and alcohol addiction. TCU also lost its top three running backs either before or during an eventual 7-6 campaign.
In both a concession to the adversity they overcame and a sign of respect for Patterson's program, the Frogs, despite coming off their worst season since 2004, are widely expected to contend for the Big 12 title this fall. They were the highest-ranked team from their conference in Andy Staples' post-spring Top 25.
"Just go back and look at all the different changes. There were a lot of reasons for everybody to throw up their arms here in the last year and a half," said Patterson, who has gone 116-36 at the school. "... I think TCU showed that the foundation of the university and the program were pretty strong to fight through it and get back to a bowl game."
The Frogs endured a staggering amount of attrition in 2012. Among those dismissed in last February's drug bust were linebacker Tanner Brock (the leading tackler on that undefeated 2010 team), All-Mountain West defensive tackle D.J. Yendry and starting safety Devin Johnson. TCU was set to bring back three 700-yard rushers from the previous season, but last May, top running back Ed Wesley left the team for reported family reasons and entered the NFL supplemental draft. Waymon James, the next in line, suffered a season-ending knee injury in TCU's second game. Third back Matthew Tucker dealt with an ankle injury for most of the year.
In turn, Patterson trotted out the youngest team in school history, playing 16 true freshmen, tied with Texas for the most in the nation. Nearly 70 percent of players who saw the field were freshmen and sophomores, and the results were accordingly choppy. In his first start, redshirt freshman Trevone Boykin -- who went from practicing at running back on a Wednesday to replacing Pachall at quarterback on Saturday -- tossed three interceptions in a home loss to Iowa State. However, he turned around and threw four touchdowns the following week in a win at Baylor. The Frogs won at West Virginia and at Texas on Thanksgiving night, but they also got blown out at Oklahoma State and lost to 6-6 Michigan State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.
Given the circumstances, those close to the program considered the Frogs' debut Big 12 season a success. "While the record wasn't the same on the field, I think last year was [Patterson's] finest coaching job," said Del Conte. "You have a really young team, some things that happened were out of our control. The success we had last year, the fact we were able to bounce back and have the wins we had, speaks directly to the type of program he's built."
Patterson's hallmark at TCU has been elite defense, and that trend continued even in the notoriously high-scoring Big 12. The Frogs led the conference and finished 16th nationally in total defense (323.92 yards per game); they gave up 43 yards per game fewer than the next-closest Big 12 team (Texas Tech). That unit returns nine starters, led by All-America cornerback Jason Verrett, and is expected to be one of the nation's best again in 2013.
Still, the biggest source of optimism in Fort Worth is Pachall, who returned to school in January following a three-month rehab program and participated in spring practice. Though he's currently listed as the co-No. 1 quarterback alongside Boykin, it's hard to imagine anyone other than the 6-foot-5, 230-pound Pachall emerging as the Week 1 starter if he stays clean. The 17-game starter is the nation's career active leader in pass efficiency (163.1). He had thrown 10 touchdowns against one interception last season at the time of his arrest.
Patterson and his program endured heavy criticism last year given all the drug headlines, but it's hard to condemn the coach's handling of Pachall post-arrest. His exile was less punitive than a means to get his player help.
"The easiest thing for me would have been just to suspend him for a couple of games, and he comes back, because you're worried about wins and losses, or you kick him out of the program," said Patterson. "I didn't think that either one of those was the best answer for the young man's life. When he came back after rehab, he was like the kid that came [here] as a freshman -- the color back in his face, the way he spoke, how he did things."
In addition to Pachall, TCU will welcome back a healthy James and B.J. Catalon, who wound up leading the team with 582 rushing yards as a true freshman. Nebraska transfer Aaron Green, a five-star recruit in 2011, should also help bolster a backfield that found limited success last season. The Frogs need to find new playmakers at receiver following the early departure of three-year standout Josh Boyce to the NFL, but a pair of transfers could help: Ja'Juan Story (Florida) and Josh Doctson (Wyoming) will likely be factors.
Drama hasn't completely dissipated for TCU, though. A few weeks ago, Patterson announced the two-game suspension of star defensive end Devonte Fields (10 sacks in 2012) for an undisclosed violation of team rules. That means the Frogs will be without the reigning AP Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year for their opener against LSU at Cowboys Stadium. It won't, however, impact TCU's Big 12 title pursuit.
With defending co-champs Kansas State and Oklahoma replacing star quarterbacks and most of the league defensively challenged, TCU with Pachall under center is an intriguing proposition. Perhaps a conference title seems presumptuous for a team that went 4-5 in league play last year, but the fact that it's being discussed as a realistic goal shows just how much has changed for Patterson's program.
TCU, which has competed in five different conferences dating to the Southwest Conference's demise in 1995, was the plucky underdog for most of Patterson's first decade at the helm, finally crashing the BCS in 2009 (losing to Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl) and finishing No. 2 in the polls a year later. The Andy Dalton-led Frogs went 36-3 from 2008-10.
Meanwhile, work had already begun on the disruptive but ultimately breathtaking transformation that turned Amon G. Carter Stadium into a 45,000-seat venue nicknamed the "Camden Yards of college football." If the Big 12's Texas schools had thumbed their noses at the Horned Frogs before, they couldn't possibly ignore them when Texas A&M and Missouri left for the SEC in 2011.
"If you don't win the Rose Bowl, you don't already start building the stadium, the way perception of TCU had changed, you probably don't get the ask," said Patterson. "The way college football is, it doesn't make you any better, but as a university we sit in a lot better position right now than what I see in the forecast ahead if were standing on the other side of the fence."
The only remnants of the program's 15-year stint in mid-major limbo is the fact that its stadium is still the smallest in its new conference. But even then, TCU's season-ticket list has exploded from about 14,000 four years ago to a sold-out 32,000-plus. TCU fans are no longer rooting for a team where a 10-2 season means a trip to the Poinsettia Bowl. Entering 2013, they're cheering for a legitimate Big 12 title contender.