After 20 years as the head football coach at TCU, Gary Patterson stepped down from the role on Oct. 31.
When Patterson parted ways, the Horned Frogs were coming off of a 31-12 loss at Kansas State, dropping their record to 3-5 (1-4 in the Big 12) after their third-straight defeat. A losing record in the Big 12 for the fourth time in six years looked more and more probable by the week.
TCU isn’t what it was for much of Patterson’s tenure, and the divorce makes some sense. But it’s important to not allow how it ended to cloud the incredible impact that Gary Patterson has had on TCU and all of college sports in the process.
The Impact of Gary Patterson
From 1960 through 1999, TCU did finish a season ranked in a final AP or Coaches Poll. The program did not win a bowl game from 1957 through 1997. The Horned Frogs were in dire straits for decades as a SWC afterthought.
Gary Patterson came to TCU in 1998 to serve as defensive coordinator for head coach Dennis Franchione. At the time, the Horned Frogs were in the WAC, their new home in 1996 after the SWC imploded the year before. Other schools from the state – Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, and Baylor – joined up with the Big 8 to formed the Big 12, and the leftovers of TCU, SMU, Houston, and Rice were dismissed to find their own life rafts.
Fast forward a few years to 2000. The Horned Frogs are 10-1, making their first 10-win season since 1938, and experiencing one of the highest points they’ve ever seen. And then more uncertainty hits: ahead of the Mobile Alabama Bowl, Franchione accepts the head coaching job at Alabama. Patterson, a finalist for that season’s Broyles Award, given to the best assistant in the country, was elevated to head coach.
Patterson oversaw the program’s transition into C-USA immediately in 2001, the first of several conference changes he would experience. In 2002, just his second full season as head coach, his Horned Frogs won the C-USA title in just their second campaign in the league, adding a cherry on top with a 17-3 victory over Colorado State in the Liberty Bowl.
Another conference title didn’t come in 2003, but an 11-2 overall record and 7-1 mark in C-USA play did. In 2002 and 2003 combined, Patterson was 21-4 (13-3) with a conference championship and bowl win, all in a relatively-new league.
Patterson guided TCU through another conference change a couple years later as the school moved to the Mountain West in 2005. The Horned Frogs immediately hit the ground running. It put up an 11-1 (8-0) mark in 2005 with a Mountain West crown and win in the Houston Bowl over Iowa State, 27-24, and were ranked No. 9 in the final AP Poll, then went 11-2 (6-2) with a Poinsettia Bowl triumph, 17-16, against Boise State, concluding the campaign at No. 21 in the nation.
It only got better from there. From 2008 through 2011, Patterson’s Horned Frogs went 47-4 (30-1) with three Mountain West championships, three AP Poll top-10 finishes, two appearances in BCS bowls, and a victory in the Granddaddy of Them All, proving his teams could tackle more than just the Little Sisters of the Poor.
Those seasons altered the course of TCU football, the entire university, and college athletics as a whole.
Patterson’s peak of success in Fort Worth coincidentally coincided with a massively volatile time in the conference landscape. June 2010 nearly spelled the end of the Big 12, with Texas, Texas Tech, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State nearly leaving with Colorado for the Pac-12. Ultimately, the Big 12 did bleed members, with the Buffaloes, Nebraska, Missouri, and Texas A&M landing in new leagues over the next few years. TCU was in the perfect position to be snapped up as a like-for-like Texas school replacement of A&M, largely because of Patterson’s work over the years.
Originally, TCU was headed to the Big East in 2010, outgrowing the Mountain West under Patterson’s guise and ready for the AQ leap. It reneged on that decision in 2011 when the Big 12 came knocking, and the Horned Frogs and West Virginia became enough to provide the league with enough stability to last about a decade untouched.
Detractors said TCU wouldn’t be the same in the Big 12 as it was in the Mountain West – sure, the Horned Frogs beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl, but that was one game, surely they’ll couldn’t do it over the course of seasons.
The team’s first two seasons in the Big 12 were unremarkable, but by the third year, Patterson had his team among the league’s elite. In 2014, TCU narrowly missed the College Football Player after tying for first in the Big 12 with Baylor, and the CFP committee opted to put Ohio State in the field rather than choose between the Horned Frogs and Bears. In consolation, TCU went to the Peach Bowl and took everything out on Ole Miss, 42-3, to cap off a 12-1 campaign and No. 3 ranking in the final AP Poll.
TCU’s role in the 2014 season has had a lasting impact in the sport. It pushed the Big 12 to add a conference championship, which required the NCAA to change its rule on the amount of teams required for a league to hold one. That opened the door for other conferences to follow suit, and the modern Sun Belt and AAC have TCU, in part, to thank for that.
Patterson’s TCU won 11 games in 2015 and 2017, finishing second in the Big 12 both times. But the magic that previously surrounded the program seems to have dissipated since. From 2018 until Patterson stepped down last month, the Horned Frogs were 21-22 (13-19), by far the worst period from his tenure.
So, now the Patterson era is over, and TCU is on the search for his replacement.
Patterson will remain a titan figure in TCU lore, and his position in college football is secured forever. He’s the reason the Horned Frogs went from rejected by the Big 12 to invited into the league 15 years later. He guided the program to its golden age, and TCU fans have power-conference status in 2021 because of his work.
Gary Patterson is unquestionably one of the best coaches of the last 20 years, and he’s one of the defining figures of the BCS era in college football. It remains to be seen if the 61-year-old will reenter coaching or consider this his goodbye, but it won’t matter for his legacy – that will be evident every time TCU plays a Big 12 game.