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How TCU built its breakthrough in 9 months

12/29/2014

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Gary Patterson got grief for it from coaching buddies all season long. They are glad that, after 31 years in the business, the guy finally wanted to have a little fun on offense.

"People are shocked Gary Patterson can have an offensive team," he joked. "'Have you lost your mind? What are you doing?' I like to win. It’s a very simple situation."

His not-so-simple New Year’s resolution to develop a thrilling spread offense set TCU on course for a transformative journey that will end with a New Year’s Eve bowl.

Mapping the path to a Big 12 championship trophy, a No. 6 ranking and spot in the Chik-fil-A Peach Bowl against Ole Miss required foresight and fortune. The process began on Dec. 1, 2013, the first day of the offseason for a 4-8 team.

Patterson had exactly nine months to rethink what winning the Big 12 required. After 15 years in Fort Worth -- and two tough ones in the Big 12 -- he had to reimagine TCU football.

He had realized this in November. After a last-second loss to Kansas State guaranteed TCU would not go bowling, Patterson warned his staff that change was imminent.

"But it wasn’t just 'let’s go get an offense,'" Patterson said. "I’m big on chemistry. It was about guys that would fit the staff, guys that could recruit the Metroplex and the state of Texas and were respected."

His search ended up being easy. By Dec. 3, word of Doug Meacham leaving Houston for TCU had already leaked. Before that addition became official on Dec. 12, Patterson met with AD Chris Del Conte and laid out his plan.

"I was probably the most proud of that, because football coaches are creatures of habit," Del Conte said. "He said he had to evolve and change how we go about it. I was like, 'Wow. OK.'"

Meacham told Patterson the man he trusted most to coach quarterbacks was Sonny Cumbie. Until this season their paths had crossed only on the recruiting trail. West Virginia’s Dana Holgorsen deserves some credit for the pairing -- he’s the one who first introduced Meacham to Cumbie.

By Dec. 18, Patterson had both on board. By April 5, he was nervous. The Air Raid, while incredibly simple in terms of its playbook, isn’t easily taught in less than a hundred days. TCU’s vanilla spring game hinted at the difficulty.

"We weren’t very good on offense at the end of spring," Patterson says bluntly.

Too many balls on the turf, too many interceptions, too many incorrect routes. Teaching the system is largely a mental challenge that requires constant repetition. Meacham and Cumbie could only teach Trevone Boykin so much in 15 practices. Plus, it didn’t help that TCU's scholarship backs were all banged up.

"Some days, you’d just say, "We’re bad,'" Patterson recalled. "Oh yeah, there was a lot of concern. But you went down a path. This is the path."

Quarterback Matt Joeckel understood the path. Two weeks after TCU’s spring game, the Texas A&M transfer picked the Horned Frogs. His arrival was supposed to spell trouble for Boykin, maybe even prompt a move to receiver. Instead, the two bonded and competed.

Linebacker Marcus Mallet says he saw this team’s rebound coming by June. The buy-in was intense and pervasive. Joeckel was an unsung hero, teaching his new teammates the offensive system in workouts and 7-on-7 at a time when coaches were required to be hands-off.

By August, not even the departure of Devonte Fields could shake TCU players’ faith. Three of their most talented and troubled peers -- Fields, Brandon Carter and LaDarius Brown -- were dismissed during the offseason. Their absence never proved to be an issue.

But the quarterback conundrum remained. TCU’s eventual Heisman Trophy candidate separated himself in scrimmages with his accuracy. Boykin had been a headache to defend in practices for years. He had yet to prove enough on Saturdays. Battling with Joeckel upped his game to another level.

"That’s one of the reasons why Boykin is where he is now," receiver David Porter said. "He had pressure on him, and he had to be on his p's and q's."

By the second scrimmage, Patterson knew. TCU’s offense started shredding his defense in the red zone. The sloppy project was turning into a slick, speedy operation just in time.

"Two weeks into fall camp, oh my god, they got it," Del Conte said. "They looked really good."

How good? Just ask Jason Verrett. TCU’s Big 12 co-Defensive Player of the Year and first-round pick a year ago watched this season’s Kansas State game in awe from the sideline. He didn’t expect this.

"If we had this offense last year, I don’t think a team would’ve beaten us," Verrett said. "That’s just the truth."

Chucky Hunter warned him, though. Verrett didn’t believe the Frogs' defensive tackle when he called during two-a-days in August.

"All he kept saying was, 'Bro, our offense is real as s---.'"

Hunter called Verrett again the week of the Oklahoma game and predicted a Big 12 title. Patterson wasn’t thinking nearly that big. Heck, he just wanted to win six. An eight- or nine-win season to set up a 2015 breakthrough? Even better.

On Wednesday in Atlanta, TCU plays for its 12th win. On Jan. 1, another offseason begins in Fort Worth. This one should be a bit easier.

"We’re built for success now," Del Conte said. "It’s fantastic. It’s no flash in the pan. We’re in this for the long haul."