TCU head coach Gary Patterson still wears his Rose Bowl championship ring.
It’s a tradition for him to wear the bowl ring from the previous season. Once the season ends, it goes into his box of bowl rings.
He’s done it 12 times over the last 13 years—a testament to the hard work of rebuilding the program in Fort Worth.
The 2011 Poinsettia Bowl against Louisiana Tech will be the 13th bowl game for the Horned Frogs in the 14 year Patterson had been coaching at TCU (first as the defensive coordinator, then as the team’s head coach).
That Rose Bowl ring can also serve as a reminder of where TCU would like to go, how it would like to be perceived and what it is leaving behind.
The Horned Frogs’ game Wednesday night at Snapdragon/Qualcomm Stadium will be their last carrying the banner for non-AQ conferences. Starting next fall, TCU will be where it has always wanted to be—in a BCS conference as a member of the Big 12.
But that’s an institutional goal, and Patterson is quick to point out the difference between what happens on the field and what happens in the politics known as major college football.
“In our goal board, on our pyramid in our team room, we don’t have anything about the Big 12,” Patterson told the media Tuesday. “We color in what we do and we go all the way to the top and the only two spaces left on the goal board this year are “go to BCS game” and “win a national championship,” which we did last year. There is a white space for “win your bowl game,” because you can’t take it for granted.”
There was a bit of disappointment when the bowls were announced the first weekend of December.
When TCU was not in the top 16 of the BCS rankings this year, the team—who had been to two BCS bowls the previous two seasons—had to settle for a return trip to a game that’s featured on the first week of the bowl season.
Patterson, however, has said all along that it was the Horned Frogs’ fault for not finishing in the top 16, by letting two games slip past them, even though both human polls ranked them at 15 and the computers had them at 17.
With a move to the Big 12, polls may not matter as much and computer algorithms an afterthought as a conference championship leads directly to the BCS.
Still, Patterson has reminded his players that there is still a lot to play for when they take the field Wednesday evening.
“This is one of those games that’s important to us just for the simple reason that our seniors can win 47 ball games,” Patterson said. “We have a chance to go into—just like (Louisiana Tech)—a chance to go into next season with an eight-game winning streak going into the Big 12. There’s a lot of positives for us in this ball game. I don’t think you ever go into a bowl game—some people say that it’s just a positive to the end of a season. I believe there’s no such thing as positive unless you win.”
A BCS bowl is probably where TCU belongs.
That’s at least the sentiment that Louisiana Tech head coach Sonny Dykes seemed to offer in Tuesday’s press conference.
“To go 10-2 and be a little disappointed shows you where they are,” Dykes said. “They’re one of the best football programs in college football.”
Even with that perception, Patterson isn’t entering the Big 12 resting on his laurels, and won’t let the rest of his team do the same.
He knows that when his program transitions to the Big 12, it won’t be easy.
“We’re not going in on our white horse, with our swords out saying that we’re going to take this place by storm,” Patterson said of the program’s imminent transition to the Big 12. “We’re going to do the same thing we did going into the Mountain West. We know they have very good teams in the Big 12. We’ve watched them play. We’ve played against them in the nonconference schedule…We have to come with a plan.”
That plan includes recruiting. Last February, Patterson signed his first class that was ranked in the top 30 by Rivals.com. His 2009 recruiting class was the first one he signed that was ranked in the top 50 by that same website.
He knows that if he wants to win the Big 12, Patterson is going to need to sign more high-quality recruits in addition to the players he usually finds.
And that is why the move to the Big 12 was so crucial for TCU. Sure, the Big East was a BCS conference, but the players that TCU wanted—those recruits in the football-mad state of Texas—all wanted to play for and against teams in the Big 12.
For those high school athletes, it’s all about the Big 12.
“It’s not that we’re going to have to recruit better players, we’re going to have to recruit more of them,” Patterson said. “Our goal is not to go into the Big 12 and be competitive. Our goal is to win a championship…You have to have depth in order to do that.”
Patterson doesn’t forget the hard work that he, his staff and his players have put in to be in the position they find themselves now.
And he said he won’t forget about the interests of the little guy once TCU is in the Big 12.
Patterson on Tuesday talked about possibly reforming the voting system in the Coaches and Harris Poll—two of the three different factors in the BCS formula. He suggested that voters who are not able to explain their ballots not be invited back to participate in either poll.
Of course, he has his team’s interest in mind, but he also has college football’s best interest in his thoughts also.
If he is going to push for a change, it will be what is best for all 120 Division IA football programs, not just a select few.
“I’m always going to be an advocate for college football,” Patterson said. “I’ve never been an advocate of the league that I’ve been a part of. I’ve tried to represent the league well, but I’ve been an advocate for college football—what’s the best thing for college football. It’s kind of like the way the money is divided and everything else, you’ve got to be careful. Everyone has to be able to pay their bills. If we’re not careful, someday there’s going to be 50 teams Division I football instead of 120.”
In the last decade, Patterson has built his program at TCU to be one of those 50 teams, if Division I football ever gets to that points.
And as his team transitions to the greener pastures of a BCS conference, Patterson will not let the spotlight get in the way of what he’s built in Fort Worth.
“People don’t understand where TCU came from and what we had to do in the last 14 years to get where we are right now,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll never lose that edge of putting our back against the wall and being who we are supposed to be. It’s been an interesting ride.”
Poinsettia Bowl, Dec. 21 on ESPN—WAC No. 1 versus Mountain West No. 2
Louisiana Tech Bulldogs versus TCU Horned Frogs
Kickoff: 5 p.m. Pacific Time
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