|In 2010, Gary Patterson led the only Top 25 program free from players with criminal records. (Getty Images)|
FORT WORTH, Texas -- Shortly after winning the 2011 Rose Bowl, Gary Patterson had a vision of his program's future. It wasn't one he particularly liked. What is it they say about payback being a witch?
"In Kansas, if you get an 80-degree day during the winter, what do you know is coming?" said TCU's coach, a Rozel, Kan. native.
"Snow," Patterson said, answering himself, "bad snow, blizzard."
A blizzard of bad news hit on Feb. 15 when the Camelot that was TCU football looked it like had been razed. A six-month investigation revealed that four of Patterson's players were among 15 TCU students arrested for selling a wide variety of illegal drugs to undercover cops. Marijuana -- the only substance tied to the players -- is one thing. Allegedly dealing it is another.
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"That's what I told my staff when we got done with the Rose Bowl," Patterson told CBSSports.com. "When you climb to this high level, we've got to get ready because kids think they become invisible."
Wait, invisible? Didn't you mean invincible?
"I call it invisible," the coach said. "They think if they do it, nobody is going to touch them. We work so hard here not allowing kids to have entitlement."
Ah yes, the "E" word. It stretches from Coral Cables to the University of Hawaii in college athletics. Urban Meyer has a word for the process after he lands a blue-chip prospect. Once the kid gets on campus, Meyer has to "de-recruit" him.
Forget invisible and invincible. Sometimes, these kids must feel like they're protected by titanium. That's the way they're spinning it here less than a week after small, humble TCU couldn't escape the specter of scandal.
Good kids do dumb things.
"In society, people make mistakes," said Chris Del Conte, the school's charismatic, hipster AD. "You just sit there and go, 'OK, this is it. We're not going to sweep anything under the rug.' As far as I'm concerned it's over and done with."
But is it? Given the scope of the investigation, and the number of players involved, it's sensible to ask whether TCU football has a drug problem.
"No," Patterson said.
Same answer from the charismatic, hipster AD.
"Intercollegiate athletics," Del Conte said, "is a microcosm of society."
A quaint private institution in Fort Worth that has achieved beyond its athletic dreams lately, then, is not immune. This school exists on a different level, though -- one infused with religion, conservatism, academic achievement and wealth. One student suspected of dealing drove a luxury Lexus SUV, a police report said.
Patterson has said all the right things in expressing outrage, hurt and shock. His was the only top 25 program in 2010 devoid of any players with criminal records, according to Sports Illustrated.
"Then you go back to being hurt again because you feel like you put everything into your program," he said.
Patterson explained why he called for a team-wide drug test on Feb. 1 after a recruit had told him he had reservations about coming to TCU because of drug use.
"He didn't say my kids were doing it wrong," Patterson said of the recruit. "He went to a party where kids were doing it wrong ... He didn't say it was one of mine. If we're not smart enough to take them to the right parties, we're going to find out how all the rest of my kids act."
That surprise drug test initially revealed 82 positives according to a player speaking to police in an affidavit. The entire story has been, if nothing else, a lesson in media restraint. A Fort Worth Star-Telegram source later said the number was five. If true, that would still be 3 ½ times the rate for positive drug tests nationally in the NCAA.
Patterson would not confirm that number but told CBSSports.com he did test the team similarly in 2004 -- the only season TCU hasn't gone to bowl since he has been head coach.
"I thought there was something going on, so I went down through a checklist," he said. "I didn't have a problem then either."
TCU then started 2005 by winning at No. 7 Oklahoma.
Horned Frogs football went on to reach modern heights. That Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin was less than 14 months ago. As TCU approached the brink of becoming a national power, last year's 11-2 record could have been considered an "off" year.
A remodeled football stadium is rising up just in time for the school's ascension into the Big 12. Because of the recent momentum, TCU is recruiting with the big boys. When the arrests hit, Patterson grumbled about reports making his players look like "hardened criminal(s)."
The coach, though, gets the big picture. He understands why TCU players might be on the front page, while the student arrests are inside. His players are the news.
"When you decided to be a Division I athlete," Patterson told them, "you decided to be different."
Maybe this is karma's way of welcoming TCU to the big time. Things had been going so well for so long that karma is becoming that witch. TCU wants to be like Ohio State when the ball is snapped, not when the NCAA comes calling. The four current players named have been "separated" from the school while the legal process plays out. If they are convicted, they could face expulsion.
"I take it like seniors graduating," said Patterson, not sounding like they would be welcomed back.
Scanning the TCU student handbook, it seems the school's approach to on-campus drug use is fairly common -- counseling for first-time offenders, possibly disciplinary action. A second drug screen violation could result in a one-year suspension.
The handbook says the penalty for any sale or distribution of unlawful substances "will be permanent expulsion." Remember, those rules are for the general student population. TCU does randomly drug test athletes once a month according to a spokesman. The Mountain West does not drug test. The NCAA tests year-round randomly, unannounced.
"The use of marijuana at the college-age population is not a new story," reminded Andrea Wickerham.
She is a vice president for the National Center for Drug-Free Sport in Kansas City, Mo., which contracts with the NCAA to do its drug testing. It has 300 individual school clients, mostly at the NCAA level. TCU is not one of those, although the school could be hit by NCAA random testing.
There has been a "slight uptick" nationally in marijuana positives among athletes, Wickerham said. The NCAA doesn't test for it until championships, preferring to concentrate on performance enhancers. According to the latest numbers from 2010, only 1.7 percent of the 13,000 NCAA athletes tested positive for any banned substances. Annually, the numbers range between 1.5 and 2 percent.
"What's the impact of use on their grades?," Wickerham said. "What's the impact of use on performance? Hopefully all those things combined [are a deterrent]."
From 2008-2010 there were only three arrests on TCU's campus for what were termed "drug law violations." However, "disciplinary actions" regarding drug incidents campus-wide increased from 35 in 2008 to 67 in 2010. A TCU spokesman said that generally refers to violations that don't rise to the level of an arrest.
"We tend to try to take the educational approach," said Lisa Albert.
Meanwhile, Del Conte and Patterson hope they never have another day like Feb. 15. They were summoned to their offices at 4:30 a.m. to be notified of the arrests going on that morning. For those six months they had no knowledge of the investigation on their campus. Why would they? Police were operating in secret, trying to bust students who were allegedly dealing in secret.
"I wish I could have done more," Patterson said. "I wish would have known more. I wish I could have stopped it. I'm a parent. I care about their families. I care about these kids. We didn't want this to happen."