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It wasn't always all roses for TCU

LOS ANGELES -- Before Gary Patterson could become the unsuspecting, raspy-voiced leader of one of the most improbable success stories in college football history, two men and a piece of paper had to set the wheels in motion.

Operation LeapFrog was the name given to a 1997 confidential internal analysis spearheaded by then-provost William Koehler with strong support from Malcolm Louden, the chair of the athletics committee. The study sought the answer to one critical question: Should TCU ramp up spending for athletics?

"What they said to me is the reason why they justified putting the money into athletics is because they wanted to create brand identity in the marketplace for students," said former TCU athletics director Eric Hyman, who has held the same position at South Carolina since 2005. "They had a good message institutionally, and they wanted to get that message out. If you look at things in the context of what it was like 12 years ago, TCU wasn't even a household name in Fort Worth.

"And now it's a household name around the country."

The locals who suddenly parade around town in purple garb, along with the rest of the country, will get a long look at TCU's third-ranked football team on New Year's Day when the Horned Frogs make the program's first appearance in the Rose Bowl, taking on Big Ten co-champion and fifth-ranked Wisconsin.

It is light years from 1997 when, as Hyman noted, times were tough. Outside of entertaining basketball coach Billy Tubbs, TCU athletics had little going for it. The Big 12 had turned up its nose at the Frogs, and almost to justify that decision, TCU finished the 1997 football campaign with one lonely win over hapless cross-town rival SMU.

What's happened over the past decade is the makings of a Hollywood script: The underdog football coach -- born in rural Kansas, grew up working the land and bounced from one low-paying assistant job to the next -- lifts the underdog football program that many figured would forever suffer in the shadows of the power programs in its own state.

Of course, it didn't start out all roses.

"We were playing Northwestern State [in 2001, Patterson's first year as head coach] and I'll never forget I went down at halftime and I walked through the crowd," Hyman said. "I'd never been so raked over the coals because we were losing to Northwestern State and because Gary was a controversial hire. Obviously, it's all worked out. It's worked out phenomenally."

Ten years after taking over from foundation-starter Dennis Franchione, Patterson oversees a team that has not lost a regular-season game since 2008 and is making its second consecutive foray into a BCS game, something no other team from a non-automatic qualifying conference has accomplished. And In 2012, TCU will end a journey through three mid-major conferences and join the Big East Conference, complete with the spoil of automatic entry to the BCS.

"One thing that obviously people see is the wins every Saturday," senior Andy Dalton, the winningest quarterback in school history, said of Patterson. "But people don't realize how hard he works. He is probably the hardest working coach in the nation."

While TCU is a private institution and therefore is not legally obliged to make salaries public, it is believed Patterson could make upward of $2 million annually, on par with many coaches in the Big 12 and other major conferences.

On Thursday, the Equity in Athletics Data Analysis Cutting Tool released its list of the top 10 highest spending bowl-bound football programs. TCU ranked 10th and is the only program from a non-automatic qualifying conference to make the list. According to the analysis, TCU spent $20.6 million to run its football program in 2010, just $1.4 million less than their Rose Bowl counterpart Wisconsin, which ranked eighth on the list.

Since 1997, when Operation LeapFrog convinced the decision-makers at TCU to go all in, financially, the commitment has paid off handsomely. Not a day goes by that Patterson, when asked how he's pulled off this football uprising, doesn't acknowledge the top-down support.

"One way or the other, the thing that you needed from TCU is we needed commitment," Patterson said earlier this season. "And we've gotten that."

Following a practice prior to leaving for the Rose Bowl on Christmas Eve, Patterson would say: "What they pay me and what we do here, I may have the best job in college football."

Financial commitment is half the battle. The right people in place is the other half. Imagine if Patterson had never gotten the chance.

Hyman is responsible for promoting Patterson from defensive coordinator to head coach after Franchione, the meticulous head coach with the slick and engaging public persona, got TCU off the mat in 1998 and left for Alabama after three turnaround seasons.

Patterson was only a name then to Frogs fans that had started to return to the program. Franchione didn't permit assistants to speak to the media, so there was little publicly to judge Patterson's personality or likeability. He was viewed as a strong defensive coordinator with a fiery approach.

Franchione hurt Frogs fans with his poorly handled exit to Alabama, but the long-suffering fans recognized the foundation he had established. As Patterson emerged as a leading candidate, fears grew that he was too rough around the edges, not slick enough to win over fans and boosters and, having never been a head coach, too inexperienced to pounce on the fledgling success.

"They saw something they really hadn't had before with Fran, and Gary wasn't cut out from that piece of cloth," Hyman said. "So that caused the angst that people had. But in time they just had to give Gary a chance. When you hire an assistant coach, you have to understand that it's not the finished product. Where Fran was a well-oiled machine, Gary wasn't."

Hyman trusted his instincts. He knew Patterson was in charge of academics and ran the offseason conditioning program under Franchione, so he was thoroughly involved in Franchione's detail-oriented system. Hyman also recognized what outsiders at the time couldn't.

"Gary is a genius defensively," Hyman said. "Another reason, and it really wasn't that well-known back then, but a lot of people on the outside didn't grasp that he has an uncanny knack for evaluating high school talent; as good as I've ever been around."

Both points have proven out. This TCU team enters the Rose Bowl ranked No. 1 in the nation in total defense, the spot the Frogs have occupied at the end of the past two seasons. Patterson's recruiting hauls have become legendary, not so much for nabbing five-star recruits, which he hasn't, but for evaluating on-the-rise athletes that thrived as offensive players in high school and then developing them to become all-conference and, in some cases, All-American defensive players.

Still, Hyman put Patterson to the test, interviewing up to 11 candidates and investigating every whiff of interest. One candidate was former TCU defensive back Dave McGinnis, a longtime NFL coach in his seventh season serving as assistant head coach under Jeff Fisher with the Tennessee Titans.

Depending on the viewpoint, McGinnis was either highly interested in the position or had interest out of loyalty, but chose to see through his quest for an NFL head coaching job. Soon after Patterson was promoted at TCU in December 2000, McGinnis got his shot in the NFL with the Arizona Cardinals.

Gil Brandt, the former Dallas Cowboys director of player personnel who remains heavily involved with the NFL and particularly the draft, helped in the TCU search and made the initial contact, McGinnis said.

"He called with that group and presented it to me," McGinnis said. "There was a pretty good groundswell, but at the time I knew I was on a fast track to being a head coach in this league. I had been in this league for a long time. If there was any college job in the country that would have interested me it was TCU. But at the time my career was going another direction."

Hyman stuck with his gut, believing Patterson possessed all the skills to make a successful head coach on the field and that he would grow into the role of salesman and public speaker off it. The consistent evolution of TCU's sparkling on-campus facilities and the recent demolition of Amon G. Carter Stadium to make way for a donor-funded, $105-million renovation speak to the latter.

Through two-way commitment that has kept Patterson in place for a decade, and likely could for another one, the raspy-voiced football coach is a quiet star in Fort Worth. It is a city that has slowly and finally embraced TCU as its own, and the proof is in the season's most popular apparel: anything purple.

"The one thing about it, TCU people have always loved their football, and Gary Patterson loves football. He's a football guy, first and foremost," McGinnis said. "That was a perfect fit at the perfect time, and again, it just makes all Frogs extremely proud of it because of the way he's done it. He's done it the right way, he's done it with a plan for longevity and he's been loyal to TCU.

"They've been very good to him, but he's also been very good to them."

Jeff Caplan covers colleges for ESPNDallas.com. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his mailbag.