FORT WORTH, Texas — Gary Patterson’s soon-to-be-tricked-out office already has a fireplace that glows purple. Soon, his lair will have oversize chairs that can accommodate even the beefiest defensive tackles. It will feature pedestals that tell the story of Patterson’s 17 years at TCU. One thing Patterson doesn’t have? A remote control door like the one Alabama’s Nick Saban uses to silence the outside world.
“You know what I do have a remote for?” Patterson says, reaching for his desk. He finds what he’s looking for and clicks a button. Suddenly, the shades begin dropping.
“I can shut ’em all out,” Patterson says, smiling.
Except he can’t.
At times, it seems Patterson would prefer the Horned Frogs play in an underground bunker. That way, they wouldn’t have to deal with the perceived disrespect of being ignored or the sudden rushes of attention when they burst into contention. We all wanted to know a little more about TCU after the Frogs went to Stillwater and beat Oklahoma State 44–31 on Sept. 23. The bye week seemed like the perfect time. But Patterson took all the questions, leaving his players out of the spotlight. He did this because of a lesson he learned in 2005.
Just as they were this season, the ’05 Frogs were coming off a losing season. The ’04 campaign was Patterson’s first losing season at TCU, and just as he did this season, he knew the group he returned would be much, much better. That ’05 team opened the season by beating Oklahoma. Patterson flung open the doors, welcoming the publicity that rode on the vapor trail of a win against a blue-blood program. “We never got our kids’ heads out of the clouds,” Patterson says. “We got beat by SMU, and that was our only loss of the year… You just have to understand people handle failure a lot better than they handle success. You have to be careful telling them too much, because that’s what they start believing.”
That will be Patterson’s challenge this week as his Frogs prepare to face West Virginia. ESPN’s College GameDay will begin rolling into Fort Worth on Thursday, and by Saturday morning TCU will be the center of the college football universe. No remote has been invented that can lower the blinds on a production of that scale. And Patterson doesn’t prefer playing from this position. “I’ve been probably a better underdog,” he says, “than I am a front-runner.”
Patterson says TCU has been through this before—when it went 36–3 from ’08 to ’10. But that was when the Frogs were in the Mountain West and the spotlight didn’t shine as bright from week to week. The oldest players on this team will remember ’14, the first year the Frogs truly competed since joining the Big 12. That spotlight grew intense as the season went on and the Frogs remained near the top of the College Football Playoff selection committee’s rankings, but a veteran team handled the attention fine.
Patterson has another such team this year. After going 6–7 in ’16 with a team that had only eight scholarship seniors, TCU now has 21. The ingredients are there for a season just like the two that followed Patterson’s other losing seasons at TCU. In ’05, TCU improved from 5–6 to 11–1. In ’14, TCU improved from 4–8 to 12–1. But Patterson worries every day about his players becoming invisible. Though it might sound as if he’s concerned about the outside world forgetting his team, it actually goes the other direction. “What’s invisible mean? When you think you can say anything because of who you are or do anything and nothing’s going to happen to you,” Patterson says. “As you find out in this day and age, that’s not true anymore. … That’s how they fall. You get knocked off the mountain.”
Patterson would prefer not to give the Mountaineers any more reason than they already have to try to knock the Frogs from the top of the Big 12 standings. Dana Holgorsen’s team has an offense that averages 7.4 yards a play (seventh in the nation) and a quarterback in Will Grier who averages 9.5 yards an attempt (11th in the nation).
Of course, TCU just beat a team that averages 7.9 yards a play (second in the nation) with a quarterback in Mason Rudolph who averages 11 yards an attempt (second in the nation). The Frogs held the Cowboys in check by intercepting them three times and by recovering a Rudolph fumble. TCU turned two of those turnovers into touchdowns, and Darius Anderson’s 160 yards on 26 carries allowed the Frogs to eat clock and keep Oklahoma State’s offense off the field.
Patterson hopes this team’s maturity will help it deal with the attention coming its way. Three starters in the secondary (cornerback Ranthony Texada and safeties Nick Orr and Ridwan Issahaku) are in their fourth year in the program. Fifth-year senior quarterback Kenny Hill only feels like he’s been in college since the turn of the century. Hill backed up Johnny Manziel as a true freshman at Texas A&M, then was essentially handed the Heisman after his first start as a true sophomore. He finished that season on the bench and in the doghouse of Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin. Hill transferred to TCU, sat out ’15 and won the starting job last year. But he tried to do too much, and it harmed his accuracy and his command of the offense. “Last year was hard,” Hill said in March. “It was not anything like I expected. I didn’t expect to come in and dominate, but I expected to be better than what I was and lead us better than I did.”
This season, Patterson says, Hill has stopped trying to throw the ball over the defense’s head every possession. He’s taking the easy completions. That pleases Patterson, a defensive-minded coach who switched to the Air Raid offense in ’14 but never lost the never-go-broke-making-a-profit common sense from the days before teams routinely scored 35-plus points a game. Hill has completed 72.6% of his passes this season, and he averages a respectable 8.2 yards per attempt this season. That average is nowhere near Rudolph’s, but Hill got the thing that mattered most when the two dueled in Stillwater.
The other major difference this season has been in Patterson, who couldn’t be as hands-on as he’d prefer at practice before he underwent knee replacement surgery in January ’16 following TCU’s Alamo Bowl win against Oregon. Last year, he wasn’t back at full speed. Now he is. “I’ve been a lot more involved,” Patterson says. “I’ve been able to use a lot more energy.” That energy remains fueled by an anger over every point his defense has allowed.
Since becoming the head coach at TCU, Patterson has used a white pyramid poster in the team meeting room to chart the success of each squad. Each category of games has a theme, and every win gets colored in purple. The theme for the non-conference schedule was “Leave No Doubt.” The theme for the conference road games is “Don’t Back Down.” The theme for the conference home games—including Saturday’s against West Virginia—is “Draw The Line.” At the top of the period is a national title, but the Frogs need to earn a lot more purple to get there. Patterson has spent every day since the Oklahoma State win trying to drive home that point. All he needs to do is point to the tiny triangle of purple that represents the win against the Cowboys.
“You want to know how important the rest of the season is and what Oklahoma State was?” Patterson asks. “See that small sliver? See all the rest of this in white? There’s a lot of work to do.”