FORT WORTH, Texas -- Gary Patterson strides into his office and immediately grabs his guitar. Strumming is something he has done since the fifth grade and he's good at it. But without any further commentary on his voice, let's just say TCU's coach can also, um, sing.
|Gary Patterson's team came close to playing for the national title last season. (US Presswire)|
Pat Summerall, Dirk Nowitzki, Roger Staubach and Gary Patterson. Which of those don't belong? Well, all of them when it comes to Faith Hill karaoke, but only one of them is the 2009 Coach of the Year with a song in his heart.
"People want to meet sports figures," Patterson said. "I want to meet country stars. She's my favorite female singer."
Have Faith or faith, there is something else about Patterson that doesn't belong. He and his Horned Frogs have climbed a Mountain (West) and reached a BCS summit (Fiesta Bowl). Now comes the hard part. Being the first men of their kind to set foot on another world.
Throwing the non-BCS label into the conversation at this point is demeaning, wordy and complicated. The Horned Frogs are coming off a season in which they won 12 games and played in their first major bowl in 50 years. Patterson has either been interested in or had his name attached to different jobs, but right here, right now he is closer to a national championship than had he taken jobs at the likes of Minnesota or Kansas State.
That's the next goal as spring practice begins on Tuesday. Much like Utah and Boise State before it, TCU is a player, a national championship player. At least that's what Patterson and the program are thinking this offseason. When the 2010 polls debut five months from now, expect to see the Frogs in a place they haven't started since 1958: the top 10, where they have finished in three of the past five seasons.
"My talk five years ago was getting to a BCS game," Patterson said. "Now my whole talk is getting a chance to play for the national championship."
It is a formula that has been tested, but not proven. Boise has finished undefeated twice in the past four years -- including 2009 after beating TCU in January -- but never finished higher than fourth in the AP poll. Utah came closest, finishing No. 2 in 2009 after beating Alabama. But second might as well have been 40th. The voters weren't going to reward the Utes when the alternative was Florida.
TCU came close, damn close, to playing for it all last season. Had Nebraska hung on to beat Texas in the Big 12 Championship Game, either Cincinnati or the Frogs would have played Alabama for the national championship. The breakthrough starts with a non-BCS team playing for a title. To do that, it must get ranked in that preseason top 10 to have a chance. Or at least a better chance.
As a sign of acceptance into the big boys club, Patterson was invited this year on Nike's postseason coach junket. He was one of only three non-BCS coaches enjoying a resort in Kona, Hawaii (Boise's Chris Petersen and BYU's Bronco Mendenhall were the others).
"Joe, the girls are going to be chasing you," Patterson chided Penn State's Paterno during the trip after seeing the results of the coach's Lasik eye surgery.
"They're always chasing me," Paterno said.
Hawaii was a mix of a lot of guys who got the job. But there are a handful of guys who made the job. Paterno, 83, is the oldest active example. Patterson might be the latest. He is beginning his 13th season at TCU, 10th as head coach, having coached in three conferences and nine bowls in the school's sometimes vagabond journey for football relevance.
The next step is big, bad, purple and wrapped in millions of dollars of steel and salaries. TCU will be loaded when spring practice begins Monday. It's not just the 16 of 22 starters returning. It's a defense that has finished No. 1 in the country in consecutive years. It's a budding Heisman Trophy candidate in quarterback Andy Dalton. It's the next great defensive end, Wayne Daniels. It's all-purpose guy Jeremy Kerley.
It's the center, Jake Kirkpatrick, who can dunk. It's linebacker Tank Carder, who plays the position like he used to ride in BMX bike world competition -- hard and fast.
It's next season. Now.
"Your goal is to win 12 games," Patterson said. "It's harder to handle success than it is failure. Will this football team come out with the same hunger? Will it win ballgames? Will it play well on the road?"
It's spring and the 50-year-old coach at the peak of his career can allow himself some small slice of pride. In the corner of his office are plaques and trophies signifying his winning what he calls nine of the 11 major coach of the year awards.
"If they don't like you," Patterson said, "I don't care what you do."
Faith Hill's biggest fan grew up playing in a band in west central Kansas. Wedding receptions. Polkas to hard rock. The group was called, "Walk On Easy", named after a horse. From equines to amphibians, Patterson is still an oldies guy. The Frogs will hit you. They will come at you with multiple looks. They will beat you with special teams. For a fleeting moment last season, some were even asking if Texas was the best team in Texas.
Those comparisons make Patterson squirm because he is good friends with Mack Brown. To portray what he has done and what his team is chasing in 2010, Patterson falls back into his comfort zone. A guitar and a song. In addition to Faith Hill, he digs Tom Petty and has used the title of one of his songs, Don't Back Down, to inspire his team.
"Hey, baby," Patterson warbles off key, "there ain't no easy way out."
Chris Del Conte is all energy, big picture. A suit barely contains him. If his vision of TCU were a yoga class, tendons would be ripped.
TCU's 41-year-old AD fondly recalls his days as a student at Cal-Santa Barbara, where coeds were "Bettys." His speech is sprinkled with liberal doses of "dude" and "my man." Not what you would expect from the hallowed halls of a private Episcopalian university with an undergrad enrollment of just 7,200.
|TCU's attendance for home games has climbed dramatically over the years. (Getty Images)|
"No matter what you do in the Big 12, there's teams that will never win a national championship," Del Conte said. "There's teams in the Pac-10 that will never see a national championship ... We actually have a better shot at playing for a national championship than those teams that are in a lot of BCS conferences."
A lot of us have started realizing that fact. TCU and Del Conte are way ahead of the rest of you. The man was hired from Rice in October because he is a fundraiser, a guy who can press the flesh and open wallets. So far, TCU is halfway to a $100 million stadium campaign. It hopes to reach that number by July 1.
That's about the time we find out if, and how much, the Big Ten will expand. That would mean a new set of conference dominoes would fall.
"We just want a seat at the table," Del Conte said from his office that overlooks Amon G. Carter Stadium. "Right now we're on the menu."
At this point the menu includes an undefeated regular season and that groundbreaking berth in the Fiesta Bowl. Along with Utah and Boise State, TCU is the most accomplished non-BCS school in the country.
"There are teams in the Big 12 that are nowhere near where we are athletically," Del Conte said, just getting started. "We could have been Baylor."
That TCU isn't, is why they matter going into the 2010 season. There is no whining anymore. The school didn't deserve to be in the Big 12. Back in the mid-1990s it relied on the likes of Texas or Texas A&M fans coming to town to sell out home games. Now when critics point out they can't even sell out their own 44,000-seat stadium, Frogs everywhere point out it used to be a lot worse.
Do you want 17,000 folks watching a horrible team or 38,000 watching a conference champion?
"Missing out on the Big 12 gave us an opportunity," Del Conte said. "That's the best thing that happened to us. Now we can regroup. Back then if our program was where it is today, we would have been in [the Big 12]."
It's all about getting in again: Getting into the BCS. If the Mountain West keeps performing at current levels, its champion will be guaranteed a BCS bowl in 2012 and 2013. At least.
It's also about getting into a new conference, if it comes to that. As conference realignment looms, TCU has positioned itself nicely. It has been mentioned prominently as a candidate to join the league that once spurned it, the Big 12. If the Big 12 lost Missouri and/or Colorado, TCU would have to be at the top of the list. There aren't many other viable candidates.
"Everyone is vulnerable because of the landscape," Del Conte said. "There are tectonic plates around the world. You don't know when an earthquake is going to happen. That's what happened with college football. You're always going to have shift."
This time TCU isn't hoping, it is positioning.
"We're vying," Del Conte reminded, "for a national championship."
The Dog Story has been repeated so many times that it has become like a game of telephone. Retell it enough and Andy Dalton becomes a cross between Iron Man and Roger Staubach. Superhero.
"I'm driving home from a summer workout," TCU's quarterback began, "I pulled down one of the streets that leads to my house. There's a lady on the side of the road waving her arms. She said, 'My dog has passed out, he's not moving. Can you take me to my car?'"
|Heisman candidate Andy Dalton and his red hair are easily recognizable on campus. (US Presswire)|
Lesson learned: Andy Dalton was famous before he saved the dog. When the woman got home, she told her husband the name of the red-headed stranger she had encountered. Never mind Rover, the husband, said ... you met Andy Dalton?
This isn't your typical Heisman candidate. He is honored more than anything else to have tied Sammy Baugh's school record for victories (29) by a quarterback.
There will be honor in a TCU degree too. Dalton, a rising fifth-year senior, could have graduated in December but he's in no hurry. He'll get his degree in marketing (with a minor in communications) in May. Going into his last semester, this should be party time but Dalton is taking a hefty 14 hours, including a night class each Wednesday on professional sports careers. Pro baseball, tennis and golf athletes come in as guest lecturers.
He's taking three marketing classes and a science class this semester called "Disasters and Failures." TCU football is not in the text. In three seasons Dalton has accounted for 60 touchdowns, thrown for 7,457 yards and run for almost 1,200. Playing for his second offensive coordinator and his third quarterback coach, Dalton quietly finished fourth in pass efficiency.
Until recently, quarterback wasn't a featured position at TCU. The program is known first for its defense, but it has been surprisingly productive offensively as it has climbed up the BCS ladder. Last season's team averaged 38.3 points per game, fifth nationally. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound Dalton made himself more dangerous while running for a career-high 512 yards. The lasting image, though, is of TCU managing a season-low 10 points in the Fiesta Bowl. Dalton's three interceptions had a lot to do with it.
"In the big games you have to play big, which we did ...," Patterson said. "The biggest thing is to not worry about playing great."
It's clear, though, that Dalton wants this season to be his best. From humble beginning has sprung a man who is one of the better dual-threat quarterbacks in the country. His red hair announces him as he walks across campus. His leadership guides his team. Dalton has made it onto YouTube with an impression of Patterson at a women's football clinic. In the video, the quarterback habitually hitches up his pants every few seconds while shifting his weight from foot to foot while scolding a teammate.
"I got forced into that one," he said. "The girl who was kind of running it said, 'Who can do a Coach Patterson impression?'"
It's Patterson all right, and it's OK. Dalton still has his job. His game is waiting to be announced to the nation on a championship level.
For Patterson, it is offense by committee. Dalton is in the mix among the multiple tailbacks. Eleven players had at least 10 carries for the Horned Frogs in 2009.
"We do everything," Dalton said. "We definitely have spread concepts. We'll have five wide, two backs, two tight ends. I'm sure some guys want the ball [more] but they understand winning is more important. The moment you focus on one person, somebody else makes a play."
During his junior year at Katy (Texas) High School, Dalton split time with a senior. That was crucial for recruiting because most programs these days identify their quarterback targets during their junior year. He went to approximately 10 camps before his senior year. But even after leading Katy to the state championship game, the only major offers came from Memphis and Texas El-Paso.
The winning quarterback in that state championship, Greg McElroy of Southlake Carroll, won his national championship last season with Alabama. Is it Dalton's turn? He redshirted as a freshman in 2006. His rise has not been sudden. In his second game against Texas, TCU led 10-0 at halftime then realized who it was playing. Four second-half turnovers, including a Dalton interception, led to a 34-13 loss.
His passing yards actually went down as a sophomore as Patterson went with more zone-read option. In the same month that Baugh passed away, December 2008, Dalton led a 17-16 victory over Boise State in the Poinsettia Bowl. Last season in wet conditions, Dalton threw the game-winning touchdown late at Clemson. In that Boise rematch, he tossed those three interceptions that kept the Horned Frogs from being undefeated.
It's clear that Dalton is tired of talking about it. His mind is clear. His game is improving. The fall could really be a real academic blow off for him if, as Matt Leinart did, he fills his class schedule with the likes of ballroom dancing. That won't happen at TCU, of course. While he will take approximately three hours in the fall, Dalton has thought about grad school and will be taking the LSAT, "if football doesn't work out."
No one said he was going to be a pro. We just know he is a pet lover, a marketing major and has one more chance.
"Last year set us up to have that possibility," Dalton said. "It kind of gave us some national attention. If we come back and have an undefeated season, hopefully people will vote us [No. 1]."