FORT WORTH, Texas -- Toward the tail end of discussing what can only be described as his program's "Rose Bowl Bounce" in the past month, TCU coach Gary Patterson has an interesting story.
But first he has to speak louder than the construction machinery pounding rock outside his office. His program's stadium -- historic Amon G. Carter -- is in shambles. A large portion of it was demolished after the regular season to begin a massive facilities upgrades, part of a program-wide rocket ride that won't end soon.
How many other programs could show recruits a pile of rubble and end up with the best recruiting class in the school's history?
"The sounds," Patterson says wistfully of the din outside, "of progress."
|In 10 seasons at TCU, Gary Patterson is the only coach in school history to notch six 10-win seasons. (Getty Images)|
When the construction noise dies down, the weight room will have expanded from 8,000 square feet to 20,000, on two levels. It will welcome a recruiting class that was rated in the top 25 by some services. The Pittsburgh Steelers seem to have confirmed the Decker-ness of TCU by making it their training headquarters this week for the Super Bowl.
The NFL has come in and locked the place down. Everyone got a background check. You need an ID badge to move around the ever-growing complex.
"We don't even have a place to locker right now," Patterson says, almost proudly.
If the program that made history in Pasadena wasn't so down-home in other respects, you would think it was big-time. That's where Patterson's story comes in, because no matter how high TCU flies there's always something like this to remind you of its roots:
Gail Patterson is in her late 70s, having beaten cancer for the second time. The coach's mom, though, decided she wanted to see her son in the Rose Bowl. Her doctor, knowing her fragile state, wasn't exactly thrilled at the idea. The coach was a doting son, having sent his mother loving trinkets during her struggle, TCU hats and do rags to hide her hair loss.
"I called her my 'motorcycle mama,'" Patterson said.
Once Gail had her mind made up, though, it was a done deal. Not only that, they decided to drive to California -- from the Pattersons' native Kansas. Gail, husband Keith and the coach's sister and brother-in-law traveled the 2,000 miles, getting to Southern California two days before the game.
"But by then we're playing on Saturday," the coach said, "and I'm locked in."
That's right. The man who built the modern Horned Frogs from the scales up never saw his mother before or after the biggest game of his career.
"We can try to win the Rose Bowl, if she can come out and fight through everything," Patterson said. "She could [also] risk maybe dying because it was going to be a tiring trip."
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That's the moment where you dig down and find his isn't the darkest of souls. It's just that Patterson finds motivation in everything. If Mom can come, we can win the Rose Bowl. If we can't win with frontline players, we'll just coach 'em up. If we can't get that automatic BCS berth, we'll shock the nation and move to a conference where we can.
The latest bit of actionable motivational intel springs from next season's Boise State game. The Mountain West athletic directors recently voted to move the game from Fort Worth to Boise in 2011, basically to punish TCU for moving to the Big East. Why, they reasoned, should lame-duck TCU have a home-field advantage when the Mountain West is still scratching and clawing for that automatic BCS berth? Boise State joins the Mountain West this year.
"Would I say the [venue switch] seems punitive?" TCU athletic director Chris Del Conte asked. "I think we're bigger than that. [But] at the end of the day, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck ..."
"You know me," said Patterson, practically shrugging his shoulders. "What I'm going to turn it into is: We've got a younger football team that is going to have to learn how to win on the road, to win in the Big East."
The coach is a big slogan guy. Two years ago, it was "Don't Back Down." That 2009 season ended with a 17-10 loss to Boise in the Fiesta Bowl, TCU's first in 15 games. In 2010, it was "Make It Happen." Patterson already has been thinking about 2011 and has the working title, "Life Sucks But You Have To Get Up Anyway."
"Can you imagine," said the coach, already looking ahead to the first week of December, "what regard we'll be held in if we can go beat Boise in Boise?"
That seminal move to the Big East will follow in 2012. The effects already are being felt. It has put each of the Big East schools on notice that an 8-4 record might not be good enough in the future to snag a BCS berth. That's all it took for UConn in 2010 to get to the Fiesta Bowl.
Desperation does strange things to people in college athletics. The Big East needed a larger profile with TV negotiations coming up and TCU needed a league with an automatic BCS berth. Patterson may not have an undefeated team each year in the Big East, but UConn circa 2010 and the Big East's spot at the BCS table tells him he won't have to.
No one can blame the school for trying. This is TCU's fifth conference since 1995. It was left out of the Big 12 formation 16 years ago when the Southwest Conference dissolved. The Big 12 was not and would never be interested because it already has penetration in Dallas-Fort Worth and Texas as a whole.
"They're taking us because they're wanting to improve their league," Patterson said of the Big East. "To me, that's where the Big 12 missed out, because they talked about revenue and all the money. I'm talking about TCU making the league better."
To the Big East, TCU is an emerging market, even if it is quite a haul from DFW to New York. The Big East will be adding the fifth-largest media market. Nationally known basketball programs will be playing in the Metroplex even though, at the moment, TCU basketball is dreadful. Just as Big East football will have to rise to meet TCU, the Frogs' basketball program will have to meet the challenge.
There is enough opportunity for everyone. TCU basketball will have access to the East Coast talent. Big East football coaches are looking forward to slipping into Texas, where more than 350 Division I prospects lived this recruiting season.
West Virginia AD Oliver Luck caused a stir late last year when he summed up the TCU addition: "Eventually, the road to the Big East championship will go through Fort Worth."
"It has forced every program in the Big East to look at itself," Luck told CBSSports.com this week. "Can we compete with TCU and, if not, how do we get to that point?"
As for what seems like an outlandish geographic match, the numbers have been crunched. TCU will actually be saving gas. Its average road trip in the Mountain West was 1,000 miles. The average roadie in the Big East is going to be 1,200. Consider that the MWC is adding Nevada, Fresno and Hawaii, and by moving TCU has improved the bottom line too.
While his facilities are razed and rebuilt, Patterson no longer has to answer questions from recruits about why TCU isn't on ESPN or why it can't get that automatic BCS berth. Part of that Rose Bowl Bounce is a recruiting class landed Wednesday that should sustain the Frogs in the future. Fifteen starters are leaving, but Patterson typically tries to redshirt most of his recruiting class. Only three true freshmen played last season.
Recruiting analysts were impressed that Patterson was able to flip Euless Trinity "athlete" Brandon Carter from Oklahoma. Both Carter and Waxahachie's LaDarius Brown will probably play receiver, a thin position with the loss of NFL prospect Jeremy Kerley.
Patterson is realistic enough to call all recruits "paper tigers" who have to prove themselves all over again in college. It still hurt to lose on two big-time Texas high schoolers who played in the BCS title game last month. Receiver Josh Huff and tailback LaMichael James, the nation's leading rusher, were key contributors last season for Oregon.
TCU used to be a program that recruited what Texas and Texas A&M didn't. That has changed. Perhaps that has been the biggest accomplishment in going 36-3 the past three years. At this moment, TCU is the best program in arguably the best football state.
"We're still going to be judged in the state of Texas against schools in the state of Texas," Patterson said.
On its way to the Big East, TCU became the first program from a non-automatic qualifying conference to go to back-to-back BCS bowls. It also was the first such school to win in the hallowed Rose Bowl. On that magic Jan. 1, a school with an enrollment of 7,400 and living alumni of 55,000 traveled 30,000 fans to Pasadena.
"Without the BCS we would have never had that opportunity," Del Conte said. "I tell everyone, I'm a fan of the BCS in its current structure because it gave us the opportunity to play in the Rose Bowl."
Patterson agrees. The Rose Bowl is enough for now, even though it wasn't enough for BCS critics who thought TCU at least deserved a title shot. Patterson is one of those who grew up longingly watching the San Gabriel Mountains frame the historic stadium each New Year's Day. That's why a point was made by the school to create a logo that featured the Horned Frog on the helmet holding a rose in its mouth.
That's also why the Rose Bowl was only a step. The trophy that hundreds of coaches would kill to win, stands unassumingly on a coffee table in Patterson's office.
"I'll keep it in here until I can secure it," he said nonchalantly, "It's a pretty expensive trophy."
Thank goodness for the NFL lockdown.
Directing this off-Broadway production has been Del Conte, an energetic rock 'n roll AD if there ever was one. He was hired basically to raise that $130 million, and delivered. It was his September discussion with Pittsburgh basketball coach and friend Jamie Dixon that got the Big East talk started. On his watch, TCU stepped up in December, making Patterson one of the top 10 highest-paid coaches in the country. Because it is a private school, TCU doesn't have to disclose figures, but one report said Patterson now makes $3 million per year.
"If you have a good season, that's not a good program," Del Conte said. "What Gary has done in his 10 years is build a program. He has become our iconic figure. He can go somewhere and always chase someone's shadow. He is creating the shadow."
Patterson's 98 victories are 12 away from surpassing Dutch Meyer (109 from 1934-52) for the school record. That is a significant milestone for a guy whose humble beginnings included coaching Brian Urlacher as defensive coordinator at New Mexico. That's why Patterson wouldn't have minded had the Bears gotten to Dallas.
Even with the Steelers on campus, TCU has pulled in the attention rather than attention coming to it. It has become one of Nike's "elite" programs. Del Conte recently made a trip to China and Vietnam seeing 25,000 workers in one factory. "Three to four hundred" of those workers attended to one shoe as it moved down the line.
He appreciates the attention to detail in mass production. At this point a year ago, Del Conte was hoping to raise those millions. Seven months later the deal was sealed. Del Conte reminds that Amon G. Carter was completed in 1930, in the middle of the Great Depression. The Horned Frogs then won national championships in 1935 (mythical, before the wire service era) and 1938 (Associated Press).
The new Carter Stadium will be completed next year amid the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
"I'm not saying it's [national championship] going to happen now," Del Conte said. "But it's the jumping-off point for what this program can be."