TCU looking to make history in BCS
Inspired by a Tom Petty song, the motto for Texas Christian last season was “Don’t back down.”
And the Horned Frogs didn’t during an undefeated regular season that allowed them to crash the Bowl Championship Series for the first time in team history, but it ended with a disappointing, 17-10 loss to Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl.
Yet even in defeat, TCU coach Gary Patterson wasn’t devastated. Despite losing All-American defensive end Jerry Hughes, he knows this season’s team that returns 16 starters, including heady redshirt senior quarterback Andy Dalton, could be even better.
After all, Patterson never anticipated that TCU would make the BCS last season after losing seven starters on defense from the previous year. With a senior-laden team now, he always thought this season would be his best shot.
“That we would have done what we were able to do, you could have never predicted,” Patterson said of last season.
This season, there are predictions as bold as TCU being in the national championship chase. It’s conceivable considering the team’s No. 7 ranking in the USA Today Coaches’ Poll, its marquee non-conference game against No. 22 Oregon State at Cowboys Stadium and the benefit of playing in a Mountain West Conference that is the most accomplished of the non-BCS leagues.
While a non-BCS conference team has never made the BCS national championship game, Patterson isn’t backing down again this season in trying to add to TCU’s 1935 and 1938 titles.
In fact, he’s raising the ante with this season’s team motto of “Make it happen,” a phrase his players and coaches are wearing on purple and black plastic bracelets. So it’s not surprising that in a recent text message to country singer and friend LeeAnn Rimes, he wrote, “Trying to win a natl championship or die trying. Hey if it was easy anyone could do it. Remember ‘Make it happen!’”
“We’ll have a chance,” Patterson said.
And opposing coaches agree.
With Boise State's and Utah’s recent undefeated seasons capped by wins in BCS bowls and a gaggle of talented, but not super teams atop the preseason polls this season, a perfect storm just might be brewing.
Utah Coach Kyle Whittingham, whose team hosts Texas Christian in November, expects the Horned Frogs to be in the thick of the national title race this season.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that if they run the table, it’s more than likely that they’ll get a shot at the national championship,” Whittingham said. “Now, they’re still going to have to get some help if there’s three or four undefeated teams along with them. That could change the complexion of things. But if they’re one of only a couple of teams left that are undefeated, I would say without a doubt that they will get that chance.”
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney is also a believer that TCU could play for the national championship. He still talks about his team’s loss at home to the Horned Frogs last season.
“If they’ve got that many guys coming back on both sides of the ball, I’d say that they’ll have as a good a chance as anybody,” Swinney said.
Coming off its Fiesta Bowl appearance, Patterson, who is in his 10th season as TCU's coach, knows his team will be the hunted this year. Not that he needed a reminder, but a safari trip to Africa this past spring reinforced the theme.
“We have to be hungry,” Patterson said.
That explains why on a sweltering afternoon of triple-digit heat in late July, when many coaches are wrapping up summer vacations, Patterson is alone at TCU’s football complex in his office. Since March, he’s been recording his favorite television shows, “Cold Case” and “CSI: Miami,” so he can instead watch video cut-ups of Oregon State.
On this day, he’s writing up practice scripts while Three Dog Night songs that he downloaded on his iPod play in the background. He briefly stops working to show a visitor a photo book of his trip this past spring break to a resort on the edge of Kruger National Park in South Africa.
During the trip with his wife, Kelsey, Patterson went on daily morning and evening safaris in a topless Land Rover. There were two rules: Don’t stand up and don’t try to get out of the vehicle.
“Otherwise, the animals will charge you,” Patterson said.
On the safaris, Patterson saw prides of lions, stalking leopards and a herd of almost 600 water buffaloes. He said the only time he felt uncomfortable was when his group suddenly found itself in the middle of a herd of 80 elephants.
In one of the photographs he and his wife took on the trip, Patterson said a giraffe, wildebeest, bush duck, water duck, impala, warthog and baboon can all be seen. On his desk is a framed photo from the trip of a lion with blood on its chin surrounded by three cubs.
They were part of a group that ate a wildebeest and then laid down near his group’s Land Rover, Patterson said. At the resort, a pride of lions killed a water buffalo near the swimming pool and were later seen drinking out of it.
“That’s how close we were,” Patterson said.
This past summer, Patterson didn’t have time to take a vacation. He was too busy helping raise money for a planned $105 million renovation of Amon G. Carter Stadium.
As he describes how playing Oregon State could benefit his team in the BCS standings, his cell phone rings and it’s TCU athletic director Chris Del Conte, who informs him that a donor has pledged $3 million to the project.
“Great,” Patterson said with a bursting smile.
In December, Patterson signed a contract extension to remain at TCU through 2016 after being considered for the Notre Dame job. He marvels at how far football has progressed at the private university since he first arrived in 1998 as a defensive coordinator under Dennis Franchione. He’s downright giddy when he talks about Purple Fridays, when fans are encouraged to wear purple and can receive perks like $1 shakes and $1 shrimp cocktails at restaurants for doing so.
“Thirteen years ago, you didn’t even see a flag,” Patterson said. “You didn’t see a hat.”
It’s the sometimes unconventional that’s made the defensive-minded Patterson successful. He employs a 4-2-5 defense, is reputed for discovering overlooked recruits in Texas and infamous for moving offensive players like Hughes, who played tailback in high school, to defense.
He also still remembers those who have said TCU could never make a BCS bowl or play for a national championship.
“You hear it from everybody,” Patterson said.
The consummate TCU salesman, Patterson has a box containing rings from each of the 11 bowls that the Horned Frogs have been to in the last 12 years that he proudly shows off to recruits and fans alike. On this day, it’s in the back seat floorboard of his white Suburban.
“You know,” Patterson said as he opens the box, “we’ve actually been doing this for a while.”
Of course, Patterson’s goals for every season never change. He’s still using the same pyramid illustration of goals for his team. On the top of the pyramid is always the same objective: Finishing the season No. 1.
And with this year’s BCS national championship game to be held at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., the site of his team’s Fiesta Bowl loss, he wouldn’t mind a rematch with Boise State.
“That’d be fun,” Patterson said. “I’d like another shot at it. That’d be just fine.”
As Patterson starts to leave his office and head home to watch more Oregon State video, the chorus of “One is the loneliest number” from Three Dog Night’s song “One” is playing. It certainly is on this day for Patterson, and he’s intent on it being that way for his team at the end of this season.
“Hopefully,” said Patterson with a pause, “we’ll make it happen.”