Opinion: Gary Patterson's sudden departure is sad ending for the man who transformed TCU football

Dan Wolken

There was a period of time not long ago that Gary Patterson would have been a popular choice among his peers, the media and college football fans generally as the best coach in the country relative to the program he led. 

Lots of coaches could win national championships at places like Alabama, LSU and Ohio State. But only Patterson could take TCU from Southwest Conference cast-off to seven top-10 finishes, to the Rose Bowl, to membership in the Big 12 and to the brink of the College Football Playoff. 

The length and the significance of Patterson’s tenure was so profound, TCU gave him a statue years before he even considered retirement — and it wasn’t the least bit premature. For a solid decade, a football program that had been on the brink of becoming SMU was right there with the bluebloods, winning big games and pumping players into the NFL. 

And then, on Sunday night, it ended for Patterson with a few games left in his 21st season. The school called it a mutual parting of ways and sent a statement offering praise and gratitude. But the underlying implication was that the greatest coach in the history of the school had essentially been fired. 

TCU announced its split with Gary Patterson on Sunday night.

“(We) agreed that the time has come for a new voice and leadership in our football program,” athletics director Jeremiah Donati said in a statement. “We asked him to continue on as our head coach for the remainder of the season, and take on a different role in 2022, but he believed it was in the team’s and TCU’s best interests to begin the transition immediately.” 

No formal retirement tour. No ceremonial goodbye in a stadium that was rebuilt into a palace because wealthy alums and oilmen were willing to pay top dollar to see his team. No ceremony honoring a legacy that changed the complexion of the university. No opportunity for the fans of TCU, who grew by tens of thousands during the Patterson era, to thank him for everything he accomplished. 

That’s how rugged and unforgiving college football can be. Nothing in this business lasts forever, even Gary Patterson. What a shame that it ends this way.

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Though the decision to make a change now seems abrupt, it’s not exactly a huge surprise. Football is a game of evolution, and it had become clear in the last few years that it was evolving beyond Patterson in too many ways. 

Patterson’s defense, which was once the gold standard for every program besides Alabama, was no longer effective against modern offenses. The way he communicated with players had come under scrutiny, including an incident last year when he had to apologize for using the N-word in an attempt to get a player to stop saying it in the locker room. He looked out of touch when talking about players profiting off their name, image and likeness. When he spent nearly a week this season publicly fuming about the way SMU celebrated its win at TCU’s stadium, he came off like an old crank.

But even after so many years and so much success, Patterson was like any other coach who needed to keep winning to keep his job. Outside of his year-over-year dominance against Texas, Patterson simply didn’t do it enough. 

From 2002 to 2017, Patterson went 154-50, winning championships in Conference USA, the Mountain West and the Big 12. With each rung up the ladder, TCU only got better and earned more respect. Eventually, though, it got stale. From the start of 2018 to now, TCU is just 21-22.

Little by little, and then quite obviously this season as TCU lost five of its last six, it was time for a change. The only question was whether Patterson would recognize it himself or need a nudge to know it was over. 

We don’t know yet whether Patterson, at age 61, is done with coaching or will try to make one more run.

As sweaty and maniacal as he could seem on the sideline, Patterson was one of the more intellectually curious and interesting personalities when you got him off the field. Whether it was writing country songs or taking photo safari trips to Africa, there was much more to Patterson than what fans saw on Saturday afternoons. If he wanted to, he could find plenty to occupy his time in retirement. 

But the way it ended at TCU will undoubtedly eat at him, because Patterson legitimately saw himself leading that program to a national championship once it established its footing in the Big 12.

He might have already done it in 2010 had the College Football Playoff been in place with a team that was loaded with NFL players, including quarterback Andy Dalton. Instead, TCU had to settle for 13-0 and a Rose Bowl title without getting a shot at national champion Auburn under the old BCS system. 

In 2014, TCU’s third year in the Big 12, Patterson overhauled the offense and went to an up-tempo spread that became instantly devastating with quarterback Trevone Boykin. Only a three-point loss at Baylor — and a hard-to-explain drop from No. 3 to No. 6 in the final week of the CFP rankings — kept TCU out of the initial four-team playoff. 

Though TCU had two more top-10 finishes in the next three years, Patterson never reached those heights again or got the program back on the path to conference title contention. For whatever reason, a coach who made winning look routine for so many years simply ran out of ideas. 

Because of the equity and the brand Patterson built, the next TCU coach will have a chance to succeed. Given its facilities and location in booming Fort Worth, it might even be the best job in the reconfigured Big 12 without Texas and Oklahoma. 

Hopefully one day, Patterson will participate in celebrating that transformation and everything it took to get there. But for now, it’s just a sad ending to one of college football’s most remarkable stories.