SAN DIEGO -- The Blackberry keeps chirping. Gary Patterson keeps ignoring it. The message about TCU football is on his tongue, not on his PDA.
|Gary Patterson has often been one win away from the big time at TCU. (Getty Images)|
"It's one of those guys who plays one position, who will grow into another position type of thing," he says.
That's TCU. That's the Mountain West. That's the way it goes.
The Great BCS Chase is off and texting. There wasn't much celebrating here at the conference's media days this week because of the increased access to BCS bowls. It's like the proverbial elephant in the room. Everyone knows it's there but doesn't want to acknowledge it.
Besides, Dumbo still stinks.
College football still has six weeks to go until kickoff. What you don't know (but will soon find out) is that TCU is the only program outside the six power conferences that has a chance of breaking into the old boys club this year. That's with the new, relaxed standards (top 12 BCS finish instead of top six unless, like last year, a power conference champion like Florida State finishes 8-5).
Contrary to first impressions, it's not a case where only Paris Hilton will have an easier time getting inside the velvet rope. Only six teams in the history of the BCS (1998-current) have finished in the top 12. Only one, Utah in '04, cashed a BCS ticket.
This year, it's a one-team race to play in what most likely will be the Fiesta Bowl.
It's just not a good time for all this to be happening for the unwashed masses. They have complained long and loud about a better shot at BCS riches. Welcome to the club: It isn't that easy getting in. Even with better access, the Sun Belt, Conference USA and MAC don't have any contenders this -- or most any other -- year. Fresno State might emerge out of the WAC, but first it has to beat Boise, which is breaking in a new coach.
The only league armed with enough credibility, money, coaches, programs -- and its own network -- to break through is the Mountain West. Call it the Sandwich League stuck right in the middle between the Big Ten, Big East, Big 12, SEC and Pac-10 on top and the aforementioned Little Four down below.
TCU, sporting the nation's second-longest winning streak (10), will be the only team ranked in the preseason among BCS outsiders. You'll soon find that out, too. Trust us.
And being ranked is pretty much the jumping off point if you're going to make a run, which sadly looks near impossible for the lovable Froggies this year. By the first week of October they will have played Baylor (don't laugh), Cal-Davis (OK, laugh), Texas Tech, BYU and Utah.
"If you can get through that mess and ... be undefeated or 4-1, you have a chance," Patterson said.
Not much of one. For all the feel-goods that have been written about the small, private school that Dennis Franchione used as a steppingstone to -- where was it again? -- TCU hasn't sealed the deal.
That's not so much an indictment of the school but of the process. It's still damn hard to break through.
In 2000, Franchione started out 7-0 then lost to San Jose State. Patterson went 10-2 in his second season in '02. Hopes crashed after a Nov. 23 loss to East Carolina.
Fans practically carried Patterson off the field in 2003 after a victory over Cincinnati marking a 10-0 start. Then his team lost the next week at Southern Miss. Last year, TCU followed a breakthrough victory at Oklahoma with an ignominious 11-point loss at SMU.
That's death by Spartans, Pirates, Eagles and Mustangs. Sounds like a turf war over letter jackets. What, no Jets and Sharks?
And not inspiring when you're handicapping the next Utah, circa 2004.
If this year's standards had been in place last year, TCU would have been BCS bowling. That means a whole lot of nothing. The Wayback Machine is broken, so forget '05.
And get ready for your daily dose of Lone Star similes.
"It's like the prettiest girl in school," said Patterson, the league's highest-paid coach at a paltry $1.1 million. "You can talk about her all you want, but if you want to ask her to go out, it doesn't make any difference. You gotta shine up your car, go get a job and get some money in your pocket so you can take her to the movies. Right now we're shining the car and trying to get a job."
TCU can't get an inflated sense of self because that self hadn't won an outright conference title since 1958 until last year. So little was thought of the school that it was left out of Big 12 expansion 10 years ago essentially in favor of ... Baylor.
"We're always underdogs, know what I mean?" said defensive end Tommy Blake. "A lot of people look down on us."
Which brings us back to Patterson's texted commitment. TCU is seemingly always going to have to win with players who don't exactly come shrink wrapped. Patterson's Horned Frogs have to be developed, molded.
The coach has recruited his butt off, but he also had to get lucky. This year's class was ranked 61st (below Vanderbilt) by rivals.com.
Blake was a high school tailback converted into a 250-pound speed rushing defensive end who became all-MWC after getting seven sacks last year. Patterson can't really recall who he beat out to get quarterback Jeff Ballard. It certainly wasn't Texas, which went only as far as inviting the Friendswood, Texas, product for a high school junior orientation day.
Last year against BYU, starter Tye Gunn went out with an injury. TCU trailed by 18 points in the second quarter. In came the under-recruited, unknown Ballard, who led the team to a 51-50 overtime victory.
"I didn't think I'd go in for the rest of the season," said Ballard.
He didn't lose again, going 8-0 as a starter.
The Legend of J.B. was born. The reality of playing quarterback at TCU lingered. Playing a QB-centric option, the signal caller gets the snot knocked out of him frequently in Fort Worth. In the past two seasons, four quarterbacks have started games for Patterson. Ballard thrived last year. This year, he'd better. There is no one beyond him who has taken a snap.
Snot Watch '06 is on.
Patterson goes by a 70-30 rule. Seventy percent of his recruiting class has to, in some way, develop into players. The other 30 percent are definite players but might be an academic or off-field risk. There's little mention in there of five-star guys, so it's an annual crapshoot
"Our total goal is to get like Duke basketball, a private school that keeps improving," Patterson said. "They recruit not only the best player but the best student, which I think is what Coach K is able to do."
Patterson's other dream date would be with Mark Cuban. For all its success, TCU doesn't sell out (it averaged only 31,254 last year). Part of that annual problem is being overshadowed in the Metroplex. The program competes for column inches with the Cowboys, Stars, Mavericks, Rangers, SMU, Texas, Texas Tech and ... have we left anyone out?
The other part is built-in apathy. Let's face it. Until TCU does break through, it's not going jump into the DFW conversation. "I'd be fired up to talk to Mark Cuban," Patterson said. "Look at what he's done in marketing and look at what Coach K has done at a private institution. Those are two places you can learn ideas."
The best thing that has happened? Maybe that TCU didn't get into the Big 12. It was won conference titles in four different leagues in the past 14 years. That's a good thing.
It confirms that TCU would be banging its horned head on a glass ceiling if it gone to the Large Dozen.
"It's given us time to build and catch up," Patterson said.
The bad? TCU largely misses out on players that Texas, Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Texas A&M -- again, have we left anyone out? -- can recruit.
So you wonder how long Patterson, 46, will stick around. His wife, Kelsey, is a Fort Worth girl, a Texas grad. But Patterson has been there nine years (five as head coach). An opening at his alma mater, Kansas State, in the offseason got him the raise that bumped him over a mil. Given his achievements, his next job should be at a BCS school where he will easily double his salary.
We've already told you to forget the BCS this year. For some reason, Texas -- the school with the longest current winning streak (20) -- has agreed to play TCU next year. There is absolutely no upside in that for the Longhorns. They're supposed to win.
But does Mack Brown know that Patterson is 5-2 against BCS schools, having won his last five in a row? Or that he is 12-5 in games decided by four points or fewer, suggesting a huge clutch ability.
No matter what, the biggest winner that day wouldn't be TCU.
"If you have resources and a recruiting base you can do a lot of things," he said the coach who could use more of both.
Yeah, but first don't you have to beat East Carolina?