- Jake Trotter, ESPN Staff Writer
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Brick by brick, Gary Patterson knows how to build a football program.
Not just figuratively, either.
Long before taking TCU to the cusp of the inaugural College Football Playoff this season, Patterson forged a coaching career working his way up through a series of small schools.
That included a lot of coaching. And a little construction work.
At Tennessee Tech, it was painting the walls of the football offices. At Sonoma State, it was hammering nails into the stadium's renovated press box. And at Utah State -- Patterson's first Division I job that came a full decade after he began coaching -- it was laying carpet for a new locker room.
Patterson put the tools down once he arrived at TCU 16 years ago. But every remote stop along the way equipped him with what he needed to raise TCU into a national power.
"It's one of those things -- not everybody has to pay his dues or work from the ground up," said Minnesota coach Jerry Kill, Patterson's closest friend in the profession. "But Gary had to work for everything he got, and his players reflect that. That's why his teams are so tough."
On New Year's Eve, TCU will meet Ole Miss in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, a consolation prize for an 11-1 season that came oh-so close to a playoff berth. The Horned Frogs couldn't hold on to a 21-point lead in the fourth quarter at Baylor, which ultimately proved to be the difference in missing the playoff.
Still, the season was one more brick in the building of a program whose next rung could be a national championship.
"We're not there yet," said Patterson, who this week was voted The Associated Press' college football coach of the year, joining Alabama's Nick Saban as the only two-time winner.
"But we're closer than we were."
In many ways, the Horned Frogs' gradual ascension since the turn of the millennium has emulated the path of their coach.
Patterson grew up in Rozel, Kansas, which claimed a population of 156 in the latest census. Patterson learned the value of hard work in Rozel, spending long days helping his father level lands for the local farmers.
"Back there, everyone knows how to work hard," Patterson said. "You work Sundays in coaching, and you worked Sundays there."
That value would serve Patterson -- and ultimately TCU -- well later in life.
After high school and junior college, Patterson walked on at Kansas State. But his calling would be coaching, not playing. He got his first gig at Tennessee Tech making just a few hundred dollars a month. Then he went to UC Davis, which couldn't afford to send him a paycheck until after the season. Patterson also grinded out a living coaching at Cal Lutheran, Pittsburgh State and Sonoma State.
But he wasn't just a defensive assistant at those stops. He was a strength coach. An academic adviser. A financial aid consultant. And when the time called for it, he picked up a hammer or a saw and helped build whatever those programs needed.
"You have to wear a lot of hats at those places," Patterson said. "You always were learning something different."
That paid off when TCU looked to replace Dennis Franchione, who bolted for Alabama after the 2000 season. As Franchione's defensive coordinator, Patterson had whipped the Horned Frogs into the nation's top defense. But that alone wasn't what landed Patterson the head-coaching job.
William Koehler, the school's provost, had begun working out in the football weight room. There, he noticed how Patterson took charge of football academics. He saw Patterson head the strength and conditioning program. He witnessed Patterson be the disciplinarian. As other power brokers sought a splashy hire, Koehler and prominent booster Dick Lowe pushed for Patterson.
"Gary did everything except call the offense and talk to the media," Lowe said. "And he had this work ethic that was off the scale."
As head coach, Patterson's work ethic has remained firm, from the big items to the small.
He tirelessly spearheaded the fundraising effort that led to a series of state-of-the-art facility upgrades, including a $164 million renovation of Amon G. Carter Stadium in 2012. From 2008-11, TCU also won 47 games, which prompted the Big 12 to invite the Horned Frogs after a second round of realignment struck the conference.
"Gary has meant everything to TCU," said Victor J. Boschini Jr., the school's chancellor. "He is the school, and the school is him."
The tiny details, however, have stuck with Memphis head coach Justin Fuente, previously the Horned Frogs' offensive coordinator. That includes watching Patterson pick up trash anytime he spotted it in the halls.
"I watched Gary do that 400 times when I was there," said Fuente, who this season led the Tigers to their first conference title in more than 40 years. "I find myself now doing the same thing. But a lot of what we're trying to do [at Memphis] is modeled after him."
That includes finding recruits who might not have five recruiting stars but who share Patterson's inherent work ethic. In 2007, Jerry Hughes arrived at TCU with little fanfare as a running back. Patterson immediately turned Hughes into a defensive end. And before he left, Hughes worked his way into a unanimous All-American and first-round draft pick.
"Coach P has this keen eye for finding certain players that might be under the radar and getting the most out of them," said Hughes, now with the Buffalo Bills.
This TCU team is stocked with similar players.
And Trevone Boykin, a two-star recruit who finished last season at receiver, turned himself into one of the top quarterbacks in the country.
"The whole football program embodies Gary," Fuente said. "He surrounds himself with those type of kids, who aren't afraid to roll up their sleeves and go to work."
While his work ethic has stayed as strong as ever, Patterson has found balance. Thanks to a similar affection for animals, he met his wife, Kelsey, who worked at the Fort Worth Zoo, in 2002. More than once, the Patterson family has gone scuba diving and taken African safaris. "Places where the phones don't work," Kelsey said, laughing.
Patterson also plays guitar and is a regular performer at local charity events. "He's the only guy I ever saw sing at his own wedding," said Kill, Patterson's best man.
Patterson has found satisfaction in the ride. But that doesn't mean he's finished building.
At just 54, relatively young in coaching years, Patterson is now the fourth-longest tenured head coach in the FBS. Other schools have knocked on his door. But Patterson has stuck with TCU.
"I've never found a place that was better," said Patterson, who follows almost 11,000 TCU fans and students on Twitter so he can interact with them through direct message. "I haven't found somewhere fit me better than TCU."
Together, over the years, TCU and Patterson have worked their way up. With the very top now in sight.