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.
This is an article from the Sept. 12, 2011 issue
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?"
For years what I'd think when I thought about Davis were the faces inside that downtown bar or the careless laughter echoing in its parking lot. There was the rich smell of soil, all that surrounding farmland broken and turned, the punishing summer heat. By noon Davis felt like a kiln. Come closing time, though, the air above the still-warm asphalt was refreshingly cool. Walking home felt something close to perfect.
Here, though, is a mean fact about young men on the cusp: All towns are the same. All towns are a bed and a roof, just a place to pass through when you're between school and settling down and you have the steam to work 19 hours a day but still can't tell if that will be enough. Fear makes even a place of Davis's charm disposable. Because we weren't rooted. Young men come and go.
Patterson arrived there in the summer of '86. He was 26, toothy and trim, already a coaching tramp with little to recommend him. During his three years in charge of outside linebackers, Tennessee Tech went 3--29. Jobless after the '85 season, Patterson headed home to tiny Rozel, Kans., worked construction, spent the spring tearing a roof off a barn. He almost stayed. But some words spoken years before by a friend's dad had dug under his skin like a barb. "Quit chasin' your dream," the man said. "You're just a small-town boy. Come back and be a high school coach here in Kansas, get a job, make a living. Quit chasin' it."
As he stripped off shingles, Patterson kept seeing that man's face. To stay felt like surrender. He packed his guitar and flew to California. He worked the Offense-Defense Football Camps in Riverside and Sonoma, de facto coaching conventions for hundreds of assistants hoping to network and desperate not to seem desperate. Patterson was known as the guy who sang, whose Offense-Defense Blues became the camp's add-a-verse standard on beer-soaked nights: Of-fensive, De-fensive ... Blues/Four-Oh/Bring eight/F--- you!
If anyone thought he was still working at Tennessee Tech, Patterson let him believe it. Then he hit it off with someone just as tireless and tightly wound. "Don't tell anybody," he told Davis linebackers coach Dennis (Deke) DiCamillo, "but I'm not coaching anywhere."
DiCamillo finagled Patterson a tryout with Davis coach Jim Sochor and defensive coordinator Bob Foster at their summer camp. When the week ended, Foster essentially told DiCamillo, You want Patterson? He's yours. The linebackers job would be split: co-coaches. Deke didn't blink. Patterson's pay would be $1,500—for the year. (Little did DiCamillo know that his $3,000 salary had been reduced to the same amount.) Patterson raced home to Kansas, loaded up the backseat of his battered silver Chevette, returned in July without lining up an apartment. It took a few paydays before someone told him that he wouldn't see a dime until season's end, in December.
The house at 619 East Eighth Street belonged to the Belenis family, owner of Mr. B's Sports Page, the downtown restaurant and bar that served as a college social hub and a back-channel booster club for the football team. Over the decades George Belenis had kept many a coach and player afloat with a job at B's, and when he died, in 1985, his son, Jim, an Aggies special teams coach, kept the tradition alive—and then some. When Patterson arrived, Jim offered up the one empty room in his home.
The tenants were an odd mix. Along with Deke, there was Jim's 52-year-old uncle Nicky, sweet-natured and born with Down syndrome; me, a New Englander covering the NBA; two constantly barking Dobermans, Mr. P and Gina, who would crap on the patio, step in it, then paw frantically on the sliding-glass doors; and Jim himself, who had lost four fingers in the B's restaurant meat grinder as a one-year-old, then twice overcome Hodgkin's disease. He ran B's with his sister, Liz, and unlike me, Jim sensed that Patterson needed all the help he could get.
The house wasn't pretty: A slovenly assault by five boy-men allowed the furniture to fray and mice to settle in every cupboard. We played late-night basketball games and drank beer. But it wasn't like college life; Gary, Deke and I were too frantic for that. Our internal clocks ticked. We'd wedged a foot in the door of places we feared might be too good for us. Davis was in its heyday as a D-II power, its students well-scrubbed, middle-class sophisticates; we had no money and no cushion if things didn't pan out. Gary had a bachelor's degree from Kansas State, where he had been a walk-on linebacker and safety, and a master's in education from Tech. He ate oranges off the backyard tree. He bought crackers and supersized tubs of peanut butter wholesale; when Nicky polished one off by mistake, a month of lunches was gone.
Gary's room had neither heat nor air-conditioning, but it "was like the Taj Mahal to me," he says. He tried selling muffins to convenience stores, started substitute teaching. At 4:30 a.m. I'd hear the phone ring for that day's $60 assignment at Vacaville High; he would bang out the door, teach until 2, then hustle back to coach blitz packages.
Soon Jim refused to take his rent. He gave Gary one bartending shift a week, and there always seemed to be a plate of food waiting. "I need your opinion," Jim would say. "We're trying out a new dish."
"Jim just took care of me because I didn't have anything," Patterson says. "Without him I would have had to come home. That's why all of us should always help people."
Struggling assistants have long been a part of coaching lore, but no one better exemplifies the lifer's road than Patterson. He toiled 18 years at 10 schools, coast to coast, before taking over at TCU in 2000. Each stop had its lessons and hardships—on a Tennessee Tech recruiting trip he spent one night out of 30 in a hotel, often sleeping in his car; at Sonoma State, in Rohnert Park, Calif., the coaches laundered the uniforms, bought groceries at Costco, cooked the team meals, even built the press box. But that one short year on Eighth Street did more than any other to make Patterson the coach he is now.
"Davis changed my whole mind-set about how the game could be played," he says. "There was a magic to it. I had never been around anything like that before."
I didn't know. Who east of the Sierra Nevada did? In the early 1980s college football was still Alabama, Ohio State, Nebraska, Oklahoma: smashmouth Saturday dynasties, never mind what the upstarts in Miami were trying to pull. When the Jets drafted Davis quarterback Ken O'Brien before Dan Marino in 1983, Dolphins coach Don Shula said, "Who's he?" I rolled in a year later, laughing: Here was this boutique agricultural school, known for science and winemaking, carrying itself like some kind of major program. The Aggies had never won a national title, yet the players and coaches and students were actually arrogant about their football.
Then, bang-bang, Davis sent safety Bo Eason and defensive end Mike Wise to the NFL, and a mystique took hold. In 1985, Cal coach Joe Kapp offered Foster the defensive coordinator's job—Division I-A! Foster figured he had to go, until Cal athletic director Dave Maggard pulled him into an office and asked how he could leave a cozy machine like Davis for a Pac-10 also-ran. "He basically talked me out of it," Foster says. "That was the nicest thing."
It wasn't just that the Aggies were in the midst of their NCAA-record 20 straight conference championships. It was how they played. Davis gave no scholarships, and its players were always undersized; North Dakota State's fullback dwarfed every Aggies defensive lineman in the '82 national semifinals, and Davis still won. Sochor's West Coast offense emphasized brains and speed, and Foster's embrace of Tom Landry's ever-shifting 4--3 Flex defense—refined by 10 years of visits to the Cowboys' offices—combined to make Davis a kind of football Caltech, held in high regard by the game's leading minds.
"We ran the 4--3 Flex better than anybody in the country, college level, no question—because we were one of the few who did it," says Foster. "Some dabbled, but we went whole hog."
Davis's defensive playbook was eight inches thick; Patterson dived in. At times Sochor's cerebral style, his Zen admonition to "just be"—whistles were banned, players used coaches' first names and began practice on their own—drove the old-school Patterson crazy, but he bulled ahead. "Gary was a perfectionist, and he outworked people who weren't used to being outworked," says Jim Belenis, now a financial adviser in Davis. "He was like, This is how we do it in the Midwest. You stay over there with your wine-and-cheese thing: I'm going to get this done."
"I'd been there three years and had kind of lost it," says DiCamillo, now the assistant AD and football coach at Southlands Christian High in Walnut, Calif. "Gary brought a different temperament, and that changed me. I was fired up."
After a stint as Sochor's successor, Foster left Davis in 1993 and coached defense at Cal, Oregon and Colorado before retiring two years ago. The quarterback in '86, Chris Petersen, is now the coach of Boise State and just one in a long line of Aggies disciples who have run major programs: Paul Hackett, Mike Bellotti, Dan Hawkins. "Davis was way ahead of its time," Patterson says. "They taught players to be coaches. They taught guys to overcome. They said, 'There's no such thing as no—it's just going to take us a little bit more time to get the answer.' All those things have carried forward with me."
In 2010, TCU set an FBS record by leading the nation in total defense for the fifth time in the last 11 years. (Alabama and Auburn each did it four times—in a 73-year span.) Patterson's refinement of the 4-2-5 defense into an all-purpose scheme—the so-called nickel package, or five defensive-back alignment, was used before mostly in pass situations—is considered one of the top coaching innovations of the last two decades and one of the few good answers to the spread offense. But more than half of the Horned Frogs' defensive playbook (and much of its blitz terminology) came from Foster. Davis gave Patterson his blitz packages and first exposed him to the idea of five DBs. The roots of his 4-2-5, he says, began there.
But none of us, back then, looked at Patterson and predicted that he'd make it big. When he talks about Pasadena, his eyes redden. "I didn't know if I'd ever get a chance," he says. "I never thought I would be up on the podium at the Rose Bowl, with all the confetti coming down."
Foster is 70 and lives in southern Oregon. In 1991, his third year as the Davis coach, his team scored just 12 points as Sonoma State—with Patterson at defensive coordinator—ended the Aggies' record title streak at 20. Foster still gets the itch when watching a defensive battle, and he loved how smaller, smarter TCU outlasted Wisconsin in the biggest game of Patterson's life. A few afternoons later, his phone rang. Foster hadn't spoken to his long-ago assistant in more than a decade. "I want to thank you for that year," Patterson said, "and how much I learned from you." Foster cried. It felt good.
I am waiting outside Patterson's office. The door is open this Tuesday morning, and I can see his face but not the TCU player he is taking apart. Patterson is leaning across his desk with a shark's grin. He's been telling the kid how he has been conning teachers and coaches with his "cheery face" all summer, operating like a "weasel," and now the kid mumbles something about "just chillin'." Patterson's eyes flare. "Well, we're warming you up now," he says. "It's time for some hot chocolate. There's no chilling no more."
The meeting ends. Out walks Gary's 39-year-old wife, Kelsey, who like many a coach's spouse is a key part of the program, running his foundation and playing good cop to Patterson's bad. It's a smart call: Gary can seem on the verge of leaping out of his shoes, and his temper is sharp. Early on he tried to ratchet back, act like a classic CEO coach, until losing persuaded him to be himself. The first time Kelsey's dad saw his future son-in-law was on TV, raging. "Well," Dean Hayes said, "he doesn't look very nice."
Patterson likes to tell banquet audiences that the week before he and Kelsey got married, in 2004, he told her, "If you can live by two rules this can work. Number one: If my phone rings between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., I probably have to go. And two, if you're mad at me and a Texas high school coach is mad at me, I'll send you flowers, but I'm going to go see him." That gets a good laugh, but it's not too far from true. Kelsey is Gary's third wife, and it's safe to say that the first two weren't prepared for his monomaniacal work habits. Patterson dated his first wife while we lived together on Eighth Street, and I never got the sense that she understood she was marrying the game along with the man. They had a son, Josh, and divorced after a few years; Josh lived in California until the fifth grade, then lived with Gary's brother and parents in Rozel through high school. Gary's second marriage lasted seven years, until 2002, and produced two more sons, Cade and Blake, who live in Utah with their mom.
Patterson knows the mistakes in the marriages were mostly his, and his ambition cost him time with his sons that he'll never get back. His younger boys visit for extended periods now. Josh, 23, is enrolled at TCU after serving in the Army, patrolling Iraq for 13 months. "And I think, here's where I'm going to try to make all this up, get more time with him, help him more," Gary says. "The road's not ended with him, with all my three boys. This is how our life went; I can't do anything about that now. But look on the opposite side: Being successful, I'm able to go back and help my mom and dad—or my sister, or Gisele [an administrative assistant] down the hall; she lost her husband, was going to lose her house, and I paid it off for her. The key is, you try to do right by the kids."
Kelsey had worked with the Texas football program as a student, marketed the Southwest Conference after graduating. She was aware of what she calls "all the dirty laundry" of being a coach's wife. I'm sitting next to her, in the same place the weasel sat a few hours before. Gary listens for a few minutes, stands, wanders into the hall in a halfhearted bid to give us privacy, then hurries back to his desk. He picks up an article about TCU and tries to focus on it.
It's a kind of torture, my being here. Patterson keeps an extremely tight grip when it comes to the media—parceling out players' interviews, hypersensitive to criticism. As New Mexico's defensive coordinator in the mid-'90s, he raged for weeks after a reporter for the college newspaper mistakenly wrote that a walk-on tailback had gained 200 yards during a no-contact rehearsal against Patterson's defense. "We teased Gary that he was so livid at the school paper, how stupid reporters can be," says Dennis Franchione, the Lobos' coach then. "But Gary was worried about what people would think."
As a stupid reporter, of course, I usually dismiss such coaches as genetically unsuited for the big stage. But having lived with Patterson young, I know he suffers the moneyless kid's eternal fear that everything—career, home, health—could be gone tomorrow. It doesn't shock me, a few weeks later, when he tells a roomful of people, "I've always been scared to death." That's the downside of by-the-bootstraps success. You never quite shed the idea that, by God, if you can just maintain the same grinding formula that got you here, keep your eye on everything—from the new pocket schedules to the trash left behind in the players lounge—you might survive.
At the same time Patterson is known for his solicitude for hometown folk and people who knew him when; forgetting where he came from is the sin he can't commit. So he's given me time and inside dope, allowed me to talk to his sons and wife, thrown open his calendar. But he can't decide whether I come as an old housemate or a journalist, and the uncertainty makes him uneasy.
"It's like Mr. Del Conte here," he says, slapping the article in his hand. Kelsey and I stop talking. Gary's got that shark's grin going again. He's referring to TCU's flamboyant athletic director, Chris Del Conte, who arrived in Fort Worth in 2009 well-coiffed, ever quotable and determined to raise the program's profile. This morning ESPN.com has published a piece on TCU containing a dig at Dallas by Del Conte—never mind that Patterson has long crisscrossed Big D, hitting up millionaires for contributions and building grassroots support. "I've spent 14 years trying to take all of the Metroplex in," Patterson says, "and he says, 'If you want to go to Dallas, go to Atlanta. If you want to go to Texas, come to Fort Worth.'"
"I know," Kelsey says.
"Wait till I talk to him tomorrow."
Patterson hands me the article, the offending quote marked in neon green. "I mean, damn!" he says. "Guy comes in and in two years, I mean. ..." Two days later I mention this to Del Conte. Dressed in seersucker, he grins and confirms that, yes, Gary did come banging on his door. Then he repeats the Dallas rip word for word and tells how he explained to his angry coach that the quote was but one of a series extolling TCU's virtues. "But that's what Gary does: He grows weeds to pull 'em," Del Conte says. "He'll come down and walk out 10 minutes later saying, 'I got it. That's us protecting the enterprise.' I just take it a bit out there. We do the things we have to do to sell a ticket."
Before Patterson arrived at TCU in 1998 as defensive coordinator under Franchione, nobody was talking about Horned Frogs football as an enterprise—or selling many tickets. Dutch Meyer's two Depression-era national titles had long been overshadowed by a mid-1980s recruiting scandal and a losing culture that spawned cheers like, Two-four-six-eight! Score before we graduate! Even after Franchione took over a 1--10 team, won six games and earned a trip to the Sun Bowl, the shame lingered: The chair of TCU's board of trustees attended the bowl win over Southern Cal but chose not to wear the school's purple and white.
Franchione wasn't worried. The school had committed at long last to upgrade the program, and its region was awash in football talent. Besides, he had a secret weapon: Patterson.
Franchione had been the wide receivers coach when Patterson played linebacker at Kansas State and had worked with Patterson at Tennessee Tech, but he really took note of Patterson's fire when he hired Patterson in 1988 to coach linebackers at Division II Pittsburg (Kans.) State. Franchione ran a rudimentary 4-2-5 defense there, and in 1996, midway through his stint at New Mexico, he knew he'd need it again to survive in the pass-happy Western Athletic Conference. Patterson pressed his old boss for an interview. He'd been tinkering with the 4-2-5 ever since Pittsburg State, and a three-year stint under defensive coordinator Dick Bumpas at Utah State had convinced him he could go further, using the speed of three safeties to cut down space and funnel ballcarriers into traffic; combining ever-shifting coverages (zone on one side of the field and man-on-man on the other); and boiling what appeared to be a highly complex scheme into bite-sized assignments. "Multiplicity," he called it, "but simplicity."
Patterson "is as fine a defensive coach as I have been around in my 40 years of coaching," Franchione says. "He knows [the 4-2-5] inside and out, and every year he's tweaked it, done things to stay ahead of the curve."
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.
"Goddammit!" Patterson screamed at his laid-out donor. "I told you to stay behind the f------ line of scrimmage!"
Lowe took his chewing-out like a man, even apologized for disrupting practice. "I treat everybody the same," Patterson says. "But the cost is that you don't really get to hang with anybody."
Late one night in Fort Worth the phone rings. "What're you doin'?" Patterson says.
He picks me up in his silver GMC Yukon, the stereo set to Sirius's '70s on 7. We hit three bars, a beer in each: Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse, with the DO RIGHT AND FEAR NO MAN sign above the bottles; then Grace, where the waitress gives Patterson a hug and he admits, "I've always been a flirt"; then Michael's, empty at midnight, where we sit a few minutes before he gets restless and decides to show me his new house.
Between all that, in the aimless drive down to the stockyards and through the quiet streets, it feels like it did in the days before wives and children. We're singing along to one old dopey hit after another—Eddie Money, Steve Miller—and then it happens, a convergence that only two guys who once listened to way too much Lynyrd Skynyrd, circling 50 now, can pull off: Both of us growl, "Turn it up," in perfect time with lead singer Ronnie Van Zant and then laugh together. "This is the most fun I've had in a while," Patterson says.
Now we're out in his new backyard overlooking the city lights, Kelsey and a friend holding wineglasses and cooling their toes in the pool; now he's leading me through the empty rooms of this just-purchased split-level mansion, soon to be "scraped," as Texans say, with a brand-new one to be built in its place. He spreads out the plans on the kitchen island: His-and-hers walk-in closets, catering room, recruiting room, even a porte cochere, which I look up later because I've never heard carport in French, much less with a Kansas twang. "Porte cochere?" he says. "I just laugh. Win a Rose Bowl, and now...."
The next morning I stop at his office. The door opens, and a couple of assistants stalk out grim-faced: A good half-dozen key players have been flaking off, acting so unlike last season's players—a group so motivated that Patterson sometimes felt as if they were coaching him—that the coach can't help but fume. "Looks like it's going to be one of those years," he says.
He comes out of the bathroom in purple shorts and a black sweatshirt, and we head down toward the field again, this time through the weight room. A player nods; Patterson stops to ask why he's missed the last two days of class. Then Patterson heads outside, to the foot of the stadium steps. Five construction cranes rotate; the sounds of grinding and hammering fill the air.
He takes a breath, and suddenly he's gone in the noontime 96¬∫ blaze, sprinting up the steps. He turns at the top and jogs back down, heaving.
"It's about like everything else I do in my life," he says when he reaches bottom. He turns, and his legs churn up a second flight. The workers splayed atop the scoreboard are watching. "Get acclimated," he says at the bottom, a sweat V on his chest. "Get ready, so I can do 18-hour days again. You got to train for it just like the kids do."
Then a third flight. Then a fourth. Thirteen minutes have passed. On the way back to his office he passes one of the six players who've been giving everyone so much trouble. "Hey, Sneaky," Patterson says and keeps going, but the hook has been set. The player turns, mouth agape, staring at Patterson's back with an expression that can be summed up as a little bit of What does that mean? and a whole lot of How the hell did he know?
Near the end of his run at Davis, Patterson hit a bleak patch. The '86 season was over; the students and coaches had scattered home for Christmas break. Deke was gone, I was covering Kings games, Jim was off with his fiancée. Gary didn't have the money to get back to Kansas, so he grabbed every available bar shift and holed up in the Eighth Street house. Then he got sick.
He huddled under blankets, cranking the space heater and worrying that he'd burn the house down. He couldn't shake the fever and couldn't afford a doctor. "One of the lowest points of my life," Patterson says. Then a surprise box arrived from Rozel. His mom, Gail, was a nurse, and she had sent—along with a year's supply of medicine—shirts, pants, sneakers and penny loafers, all spanking new. The box might as well have been filled with diamonds. It saved him.
I know about that when, in July, Gail tells me that Gary might be coming home to Kansas soon. I know, too, that even as his career soared, Gary kept seeing the man's face telling him to quit chasin'. "Going back to Rozel for good meant I failed," Patterson had just told me. "And still that sticks with me. Still, that's my driving point."
Yet Rozel, population 156, is also where Gary's oldest friends are. Rozel is the place to which he entrusted his son Josh when the boy began courting trouble in California in the fifth grade, the place where his mom and his dad, Keith, live in the house where he grew up. Rozel is the backbone of the guy I lived with once, the grit you hear in his voice.
I arrive the day Rozel celebrates its 125th anniversary. When I pull up to the one building open on Main Street, beneath a 114¬∫ sun and rainless clouds, volunteer firemen are slicing up bull testicles for the next day's traditional "nutfeed." Patterson, I'm told, spent many a morning when young breading up "mountain oysters" for his dad's special batch. I'm sent 300 yards down to Gary's alma mater, Pawnee Heights, which educates students from kindergarten on up. The bank, the bar, the grocery store and the tractor dealer that Patterson recalls are long gone, the old buildings shuttered.
The gym is filling with alumni for tonight's potluck banquet. Gail hurries over to say hello; for someone trying to recover from a second assault by cancer, she looks remarkable. When TCU got the invite to Pasadena, the doctors warned Gail not to travel. Gary tried to persuade her to stay home. "Can you promise me you'll be in the Rose Bowl next year?" she asked.
With Keith, their daughter Amy and son-in-law Harlan, Gail made the 1,300-mile drive. "We could all yell together and give high fives: It was fun, you know?" she says. "Nothing could've made me well faster than going to that game."
Gary arrives just before 7. It was touch-and-go whether he'd make it—he's got a Nike event in Fort Worth the next day—but at the last minute Lowe lent him the Four Sevens jet. It's been a good week: Gary's foundation dinner raised $128,000 for at-risk kids, and Josh came along on the trip.
Patterson gives a fine speech. "If it wasn't for Rozel and the people of this town, I wouldn't be where I'm at," he says. "The work ethic, giving back to those who need it. I learned how to treat people, how to shake somebody's hand and live up to your promise."
Afterward he gives me a tour: Blattner Manufacturing, where he worked summers; his grandmother's home; the grain elevators, where he'd hit rocks with a Wiffle bat. He speaks of his dad and uncles, how strong they were: His dad once rolled under a falling engine head to catch it, bound his broken ribs and didn't miss an hour of work.
With sundown tinting the silver water tower and lights ablaze on the football field, the town looks close to lovely. The five grain elevators stand ramrod straight, like men with their chests out, announcing R-O-Z-E-L. "Oh, I love coming home," Patterson says, his voice growing thick. "I just don't get a chance to do it anymore. Then someday I'll wish I did, because they'll all be gone."
We head over to his folks' house on Tuttle. There's a little party: Gary's parents; his brother, Greg; nieces, boyfriends, kids. There's about an hour of stories, sitting at the dining table and soaking in the old rhythms, everything the same and nothing, too.
Gary stands at last to go; the jet is waiting. Everyone follows him out to the driveway. "I didn't get my hug," his mom calls, and he comes back one last time. His dad yells, "Don't let the headlines get you down!" and everyone else is saying, "Bye! Bye!" Gary's head drops as he steps out of the light. His voice goes soft. "I'm sorry I couldn't stay," he says.
Strange, what time does. Patterson texts me after we part: Great seeing you again. Haven't changed a bit!—and I almost believe him. He's still the same, after all, still the guy I once called a friend. It's the world around that seems different now, aging, ever-shifting, spinning so fast. For a moment, here and there, we actually made it stop.