Sports

A Legendary Coach’s Ouster Shows Just Where College Football Is Heading

Canning someone so revered for so long shows how drastically the sport has changed.

Patterson on the sideline with a headset, speaking/yelling with his arms out to the side
Then–head coach Gary Patterson of TCU in the first half against Texas on Oct. 3, in Austin. Tim Warner/Getty Images

Gary Patterson is a college football institution. He took over the TCU’s program at the end of 2000 and was, until Sunday, the second-longest tenured head coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision, only behind Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz. He made TCU something pretty close to a national power for several years, threw in an undefeated season and once-unthinkable Rose Bowl victory in 2010, coached 18 first-team All-Americans and 55 NFL draft picks, and made the Horned Frogs a regular presence in the top 10 of national rankings for a while. With 181 wins in part of 22 seasons, he’s had a greater impact than all but a few coaches in modern history.

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Patterson symbolizes a lot about college football not only because he’s been around for a while, but because he is the pinnacle of what an effective football coach can mean for a university. There’s a statue of him outside Amon G. Carter Stadium in Fort Worth, the sort of immortalization of a living coach that everyone should’ve realized by now is not a good idea, but it almost makes sense when you sort through everything his tenure meant to TCU. And yet, Patterson is out of a job now anyway, and not really by choice. His boss told him this weekend that he wanted to make a coaching change after the season, and Patterson decided not to stick around.

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The sidelining of this living legend represents something else about college football: how the sport is changing slowly but steadily, in ways that have taken bits of power away from coaches who used to wield it unchecked. TCU will not land another Gary Patterson, in part because no one could do it like he did and in part because emulating his style in 2021 is a bad idea.

Patterson utterly transformed the school’s fortunes; the TCU program he took over as interim coach in late 2000 is unrecognizable in the one he leaves behind. In 1994, half of the eight-team Southwest Conference merged with the members of the Big 8 to form a new league called the Big 12. TCU was in the left-out half of the SWC and found itself in the college sports wilderness, on the wrong side of the fence that separates haves and have-nots. TCU landed in the Western Athletic Conference, a league that would years later drop football altogether and later reconstitute at a lower level. When Patterson took the top job, TCU was about to move to Conference USA, a better but still weak football league that has often served as an island of misfit toys that can’t find better homes. Success in that league helped TCU move to the superior Mountain West in 2005, and a dominant run in that conference made the Frogs an ideal candidate to join the Big 12—the league that left them out in the mid-’90s—which it did when Texas A&M left and opened up a spot in 2012.

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If the Big 12 had wanted to add another school from Texas at that time, it wasn’t evident on paper that that school had to be TCU. The school’s football success under Patterson was the catalyst that kept the school moving it up the ladder. By enrollment, TCU has just over half as many students as the next smallest school in the Big 12. It does not have a huge alumni base, and though it has a proud football history, so does its local rival, SMU, and the Mustangs didn’t get invited up. TCU is optimally located in the Dallas–Fort Worth Metroplex, but so are SMU and  the University of North Texas—a school whose student body is four times the size of TCU’s—and it didn’t get the call-up either. The reason the Big 12 invited TCU was that the Frogs played great football. That was thanks to Patterson, who’d made the Frogs good enough to be a credible replacement for A&M.

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On the field, Patterson was an innovator. His 4-2-5 defense, with two linebackers and five defensive backs, was on the cutting edge when he brought it to big-time college football. Now every team uses something like it, in part because Patterson showed it was a critical tool to stop the spread passing games that proliferated in the Big 12 and beyond. TCU was a bulwark against those offenses and had three seasons of 11-plus wins in its first six Big 12 campaigns.

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The program’s steady ascendance has paid big dividends for TCU. The difference between Conference USA and the Big 12 is tens of millions of dollars per year in television money, and even that doesn’t come close to capturing the difference between those two stations in the sport. In addition to whatever branding benefits come from the national exposure of a bigger league, TCU wasn’t going to raise nine figures for a stadium expansion in a mid-major conference like Conference USA. Patterson was the indispensable man in making TCU a big-time player.

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Patterson is what every aspiring program in major college football wants: a coach who can elevate their fortunes not just on the field, but on the balance sheet and in their status in the sport. This summer and fall of conference realignment have shown how furiously schools will jockey to increase their positions by relatively small margins, whether it’s already-rich schools going to the SEC to get a little bit richer or Marshall hopping from Conference USA to the Sun Belt. Schools want to be realignment winners, and nobody won bigger than TCU.

So it may look bizarre that Patterson is leaving in Week 10. The most obvious reason is also the simplest: TCU is bad now. The Frogs are 21–22 over the past four seasons and 3–5 in 2021. The defense that used to be Patterson’s calling card has become one of the worst in the country, letting up 31.5 points per game. Patterson has lost two in a row to rival SMU and was likely to lose to rival Baylor later this season for just the second time in seven years. As the Athletic’s Sam Khan Jr. detailed, there was plenty going on between the coach and the school.

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Maybe Patterson could’ve turned it around eventually, but I wouldn’t have bet on that. It wasn’t because Patterson doesn’t know football (he knows it better than almost anyone), but because he’d left enough public hints in recent years that his management style and view of the sport were at odds with where college football has been heading. Patterson was an obsessively well-prepared authoritarian, and while the first part of that descriptor works in any era, the second is not a good fit for a time in which player-coach relationships are changing. It’s not to say Patterson was a demon—a lot of people close to TCU’s program speak admiringly of him even while acknowledging his flaws—but it didn’t point to a bright future.

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There were signs here and there. In 2018, a player sued him, alleging Patterson threatened him into playing through an injury. Patterson said he was “a little bit hurt” by the suggestion and that he wouldn’t put winning ahead of player health. The suit later settled. In 2020, several players boycotted a practice after Patterson said the N-word, apparently in the context of telling Black players they weren’t allowed to say it in his program. Patterson apologized. Plenty of coaches have garnered attention for racism or player-safety issues, but the publicity around these stories raised a point about Patterson: that his players (including several who were still on his team) felt comfortable airing grievances over how he had spoken to them.

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Patterson seemed to want a player base that was beholden to him and had to listen to him, even as the sport was going the other way. In 2018, the NCAA rolled back a rule that required players who wished to transfer to get permission from their previous schools, a change that advocates for greater player agency had long sought. Patterson was one of the move’s loudest critics and said, “What we’re teaching our kids to do is quit.” (Feel free to ignore that Patterson publicly flirted with other jobs during his TCU reign, and that he quit with four games left in this season.) Panning the new transfer rule, Patterson talked about his players like children who might jeopardize his job: “As I tell people all the time, at your house, you’re going to allow your 17-year-old, 18-year-old to run your household? Let them pay your bills, that’s what you do? No. You don’t do that. So why are we putting our jobs in jeopardy because of an 18-year-old? That’s stupid.”

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Earlier this year, Patterson urged TCU boosters to use the NCAA’s new allowance of name, image, and likeness payments to get money to TCU’s players. On the one hand, that was good. Everyone should support players having more money. On the other hand, Patterson framed it in ways that suggested he didn’t think much of his players or his own ability to make them want to stay at TCU. He claimed (probably dramatically) that he’d lose 25 or 30 players to transfers if they didn’t start getting paid, putting the burden of player retention on people other than himself. “Five-thousand dollars to someone who has dirt on their floors is a lot of money,” Patterson said, sounding like a man trying to capitalize on a big assumption about his players’ backgrounds. The head coach also didn’t do a lot to help those players market themselves.

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As TCU reporter Melissa B. Triebwasser explained, Patterson rigidly limited media access to his best players, denying them an easy chance to raise their own profiles and marketability. He’d had some weird media interactions himself lately, like when he went on an unprompted mini-tirade about a Medium blog post that had called for his ouster and when he got caught making a verifiably false claim about an SMU player injuring one of his assistants during a postgame scuffle. I strongly doubt Patterson is out of a job because of his run-ins with reporters, but it probably did not help him that the SMU episode roped in his athletic director, too.

Much of Patterson’s past few years point to a coach who expects or even demands control, first of his players and even, to some extent, of the media covering his team. That playbook worked for a long time in college football—Bear Bryant, an autocrat who built a dynasty at Alabama, may be the best example—but I don’t think it works for most coaches in the 2020s. The sport is changing rapidly, in ways that will keep shifting power away from coaches and toward players. Players can now transfer not just without their schools’ permission, but without sitting out a season, as used to be a customary deterrent. They might soon have employee status and even form unions. Coaches continually have to re-recruit players who are already on their teams, giving them reasons not just to go to a school but to stay there. Patterson never talked like someone who was all that interested in meeting players where they were.

Attributing all of Patterson’s exit to those traits would be wrong, given the more acute problem of the team just not being good anymore. But doubting his ability to mount a turnaround on those grounds was more than fair. From the perspective of any college administrator, Patterson was an ideal coach for his time. That time is fading quickly.

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