DALLAS – By every measure, TCU has become a winner in the college athletics scene. Gary Patterson’s football team has been the dynamo at the center of the Horned Frogs’ rapid ascension to the top of the rankings, of course. It wasn’t very long ago – about seven years ago, in fact – that the school just south of downtown Fort Worth was relatively quiet and unassuming. A circle drive and parking lots dominated the center of campus. Few dorms existed; even fewer were co-ed. And football games were merely an excuse to tailgate for hours on end every Saturday.
Little looks familiar about TCU’s campus nowadays except for the traditional yellow brick that has become a staple of the university. There are new dorms, new academic buildings, a sparkling student union and new athletic facilities, thanks in no small part to the football team’s ability to win consistently. The Frogs climbed to the top of the Mountain West conference, saw the national landscape changing and raised their profile to a level befitting that of a BCS league. It sounds like an easy formula, but it took some tough lessons to learn that winning every day means grinding and staying grounded.
Perhaps no week illustrates the difficulty of learning to win like the one in early September of 2005. On Saturday, Sept. 3, the Frogs sent tremors through the surface of college football by upsetting nationally-ranked Oklahoma as a three touchdown underdog. Seeing as how the the Sooners were fresh off an undefeated regular season and an appearance in the BCS Championship Game – while TCU sat at home during the 2004 bowl season – few expected the contest to be competitive. Nobody expected a victory. The Frogs themselves even seemed to be surprised by the 17-10 victory.
“In the spring it was, ‘I don’t care, I’m going to find out who really wants to play.’ So coming into the Oklahoma game…just what was TCU going to be like? How are we going to answer the call, and what kind of program are we going to be moving forward?” Patterson said.
“And so that was only going to be my fourth year as a head football coach. What was going to be my trademark [is] how you’re going to handle adversity. We did it. But we didn’t learn how to be a winner.”
The Frogs also seemed to be enraptured by the attention their victory garnered. Local media flocked to the team’s practice on the Sunday following the Frogs’ massive upset win. Gary Patterson took notice. He saw his players lose some of the focus that drove them when they were viewed as underdogs. TCU’s next opponent: lowly SMU, a team that hadn’t earned a bowl berth in over 20 years.
By now, Frog fans know the story. That lack of focus came into clear view in Dallas, as SMU returned the favor of a shocking scoreline to TCU by winning 21-10 in Dallas. That loss did irreparable damage to the Frogs’ 2005 campaign. They went on to win out and go undefeated through their first season in the Mountain West. Perfection earned them a hollow reward: a trip to the Houston Bowl, where TCU hung on to beat middle-of-the-pack Big 12 foe Iowa State 27-24.
Yes, the loss to the Mustangs was embarrassing, even though nobody could’ve seen the Frogs winning 11 games before the start of the 2005 season. But the lessons learned from the week leading up to the SMU upset propelled TCU football to unimagined heights. The main takeaway was simple: just like anything else, winning is a process that needs to be learned.
“I think it was a starting point. I think it turned some people’s heads, but then we had not learned about being a winning program because we got beat,” Patterson said.
“I think that was probably the turning point. Really, we kind of changed our philosophy on how we were going to look at things. We quit comparing ourselves to 60,000-student universities like Texas and [Texas A&M]. We started looking at our positives.”
The parallels are pretty clear between the coach’s team of six-plus seasons ago and the one he led onto the field in 2011. Both teams initially faced diminished expectations. After all, the Frogs were one of the two or three youngest teams in the nation last season and were fresh off an undefeated year and an historic Rose Bowl victory. The only place to really go was down. Last year’s squad also opened the season on the road against a Big 12 opponent, and although they didn’t win, the Frogs certainly had their chances and made an astonishing 25-point fourth quarter comeback before falling.
The most painful parallel: both teams dropped a game to their fiercest – and closest – rival. The 2011 squad – hindered by questionable officiating that steamed Patterson so bad, he promised the referees would not work another game in his stadium – fell to SMU in overtime, 40-33. It was TCU’s first home loss to SMU in 18 years. It ended the Frogs’ 22-game home winning streak and their 25-game regular season winning streak. And, just like in 2005, it spurred the team to an undefeated finish. However, the Frogs’ finish to 2011 was even more impressive, considering it included a 36-35 win over then-undefeated Boise State on the famed blue turf.
Heading into their first season of Big 12 play, the lesson is the same for the Frogs as it was during their debut in the Mountain West. However, with constant roster turnover and eligibility limits, lessons need to be relearned time and again in college football. The Frogs still remember the embarrassment of the loss to SMU, how their furious fourth-quarter rally fell short and the way the Mustangs danced on their home field.
TCU is seemingly on to bigger and better things. The campus is transformed, student and fan interest is at an all-time high, and the Frogs will open a completely renovated Amon Carter Stadium this September. But amidst all the hype and hoopla, the lesson is the same: every opponent deserves the same focus. Never too high. Never too low.
“Everything we’ve done to this point is great. Now the real work starts,” Patterson said about his team’s foray into the Big 12. “The higher you get on the mountain, the thinner the air.”
And there’s no doubt it will be harder to breathe for TCU now that the level of competition has been ratcheted up significantly.
“They’re fast,” Patterson said when asked to give an evaluation of his new conference mates. “Most of those teams we’re talking about have Texas players. We recruited them. We had them in camp. We understand the kind of players they have. It’s no different.”
Although the ranges of the Mountain West may not have been the Everest of college football, Patterson said he still wants his players’ previous accomplishments to be remembered.
“If I said, well, now we’re in the big time, then what I’m saying is the Rose Bowl game didn’t count, that playing in the Fiesta Bowl didn’t count, winning all the ball games — I mean, this senior class is 36-3,” Patterson said. “So they understand how to win.” And that’s what the ultimate goal is: understanding how to win, what it takes to run through a schedule without any hiccups. In most years, up to 120 teams have to learn that same lesson. It’s not easy.
“You look back; you have to learn from history. But the bottom line to it is you can’t look back too long,” Patterson said. “And so for me, how [do] we move forward, what’s it going to be like and what’s this team going to be like, how are we going to handle ourselves doing it?”
The question is a valid one. The answer, as of yet, is unknown. The evidence points strongly to a program that is still learning lessons, but a coach who is keeping history in mind but moving forward to build a winner. Patterson said that, for the second straight year, he never really left Fort Worth during the offseason. Between the construction at the stadium, the building of his new home and the preparation to join the Big 12, “I would’ve been more miserable being somewhere else than staying right at home and doing the things I was doing,” Patterson said.
Even in the offseason, the coach continues to live his message of working to win every day.