How TCU's football program came full circle

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Back when TCU had only one athletic weight room on campus, the school’s then-provost would work out with the football players.

That’s where William Koehler, who had climbed his way up from chemistry professor to chief academic officer, began to notice Gary Patterson.

It was also, in many ways, the setting for the rebirth of TCU football.

Head coach Dennis Franchione had brought Patterson with him to coordinate the Horned Frogs’ defense in 1998. And coordinate he did. In only three years, Patterson had whipped the Frogs into the top defense in college football. That alone wasn’t what caught Koehler’s eye.

Patterson was in charge of football academics, and he blew Koehler away with how much care he put into it. Patterson also headed TCU’s strength and conditioning program, and Koehler watched, literally, as the players grew faster and stronger.

To validate what he was observing, Koehler asked the players between their sets what they thought of Patterson. The players confirmed what he’d been seeing, and more.

“The weight room was an informal setting where I got to know many of the players,” said Koehler, who through that experience had begun to take an interest in football. “I learned a lot about Gary and what he did and what the kids thought about him.

“And I came to think Gary had a lot of the qualities that were important to being a head coach.”

Before Franchione and Patterson arrived in Fort Worth, TCU football had hit rock bottom. The same program that won national championships in 1935 and 1938 and produced iconic quarterbacks Sammy Baugh and Davey O’Brien had made only two bowl appearances between 1965 and when Franchione was hired.

When the Southwest Conference started to crumble and rumors of a new Big 12 Conference began to swirl in the early 1990s, TCU was an afterthought for inclusion. The Horned Frogs were averaging less than 30,000 fans at home games, and the facilities were among the worst in the region. Ultimately, Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor left the Horned Frogs behind and joined the Big Eight to form the Big 12.

Koehler said TCU’s committed alums fumed at being passed over for Baylor, which had help from prominent state politicians Bob Bullock and Ann Richards, who graduated from Baylor and reportedly lobbied to get the Bears in the Big 12.

“There was a lot of anger,” Koehler said.

But prominent TCU booster Dick Lowe said the Horned Frogs had it coming.

“We deserved to have our ass kicked out,” said Lowe, who was a guard for the Frogs in the 1940s. “We hadn’t been carrying our weight.

“We were a dead horse.”

The Frogs never looked more dead than in 1997, when they went 1-10 in Pat Sullivan’s final year as coach -- their only win coming over SMU, which was still recovering from the NCAA’s “death penalty.” Hope was so scarce, Koehler confessed that when TCU missed out on the Big 12, school officials had serious discussions about dropping football altogether.

“But we couldn’t do that in Texas and remain a viable university,” he said.

Yet in the softer Western Athletic Conference, TCU began to win games again, with lightly recruited running back LaDainian Tomlinson and Patterson’s defenses leading the effort. In 2000, the Frogs reached 10 wins for the first time since the 1938 national title team, and claimed a share of the WAC championship for the second consecutive season. Even though Franchione bolted for Alabama, the momentum of the previous three seasons spurred a hiring committee comprised of faculty reps, trustees and athletic director Eric Hyman to search for a splashy replacement.

They came up with two names: UAB coach Watson Brown and Kansas State defensive coordinator Phil Bennett. But when the committee asked Koehler to sign off, he had another idea, fostered from all those weight-room sessions.

“Gary just seemed like a no-brainer,” Koehler said.

According to Lowe, Patterson didn’t interview as well as Brown or Bennett did for the job. But Koehler wasn’t interested in that.

“Bill told them, ‘We’re hiring a coach, not an interviewer,’” Lowe said. “We came within a hair of not getting him.”

But thanks in large part to Koehler, TCU did. And nothing has been the same since.

Since taking over, Patterson has averaged almost 10 wins a season. He has also spearheaded fundraising for facility upgrades the school would have never dreamed possible a decade before.

The Frogs have a state-of-the-art weight room now, just for football. In its sports medicine center, the school has college football’s only cryosaunas. The NBA’s Kobe Bryant swears by the liquid-nitrogen therapy device so much he used TCU’s while in town for a game with the Dallas Mavericks in February.

Six years ago, TCU erected an indoor practice facility, and before this preseason installed air conditioning, which has helped the Frogs stay fresh while preparing for their opener Saturday night against LSU inside AT&T Stadium.

But the culmination has been the $164 million Amon G. Carter Stadium renovation, which included six “Founders” suites that went for $15 million a pop and helped pay for the upgrade. Lowe and his oil-business partner, Hunter Enis, were among those who forked over cash for the suites, which Lowe says are swankier than any Texas country club.

“Everything about this deal was built backwards,” Lowe said. “Usually the movers and shakers come up with a plan. We lucked into a great coach. And he got the movers and shakers to come up with a plan.

“This has really been his plan.”

Outside of subpar facilities, the other major obstacle that had handcuffed Patterson in recruiting before is also no longer an issue, either. After years of maneuvering in and out of two-bit conferences, TCU’s past came full circle when it joined the Big 12 last year -- almost 20 years after the conference first passed on the Frogs.

“We’ve always recruited the best,” Patterson said “But those guys would come in our doors and they’d say, ‘Coach, I want to come to TCU, but I always wanted to play in the Big 12.’

“The difference now is we’re getting some of those guys.”

In its 2014 recruiting class, TCU has already landed blue-chip quarterback Foster Sawyer and offensive tackle Ty Barrett from the Metroplex. Sawyer had offers from Alabama and Oklahoma State. TCU swayed Barrett away from Oklahoma.

“We’re sitting in the middle of a mecca of college recruiting here in the Metroplex,” Patterson said. “Everyone in the country comes here to recruit.

“The sky’s the limit.”

Others are beginning to take notice, too.

Even though the Frogs have only been in the Big 12 a year, they dominated ESPN.com’s player poll at media days last month. Not only did the league’s players tab TCU as the team to beat in the Big 12 this season, they said TCU was the place they’d most like to play, and Patterson the coach they’d most like to play for.

“I took my visit when they blew up the stadium,” said TCU’s All-American cornerback candidate, Jason Verrett, referring to the demolition of the old stadium that cleared the spot for the new. “It’s exciting around here right now.”

The excitement continues, as the Frogs will play in one of the biggest openers in the history of the school Saturday night.

“I think we were both very lucky and fortunate,” said Koehler, who retired as provost in 2004. “The university gave Gary a chance, and as it turned out, Gary gave the university a chance.

“A perfect match at a perfect time.”