As TCU enters new league, foundation stays same for Horned Frogs football

From his office window, coach Gary Patterson has a panoramic view of the magical transformation of Amon G. Carter Stadium.

A few blocks away, high on a hill, he and Mrs. Patterson are building a new house.

And on his desk, next to his spring practice schedule, there are notes and tapes -- visual reminders of TCU's impending major move to the Big 12.

Patterson, who normally moves at a hoarse and breathless pace, is talking about the challenges facing his 2012 football team.

"You know," he reflects, somewhere between rhapsodizing about the Horned Frogs' new 8,000-square-foot locker room and the fact that guard Blaize Foltz can bench-press 580 pounds, "of the five things that they say will give you a heart attack, I think I can check off four of them."

Yes, the Frogs are changing conferences. But who has changed leagues more times ( five) than Patterson has in his 15 seasons at TCU?

Yes, he's lost school-record-setting senior classes before, as he did when Andy Dalton left in 2011. The 19 seniors that Patterson said goodbye to at Saturday's football banquet eclipsed that class' record by winning 47 games in its four seasons.

And he has dealt with off-field troubles and dismissals before, just as he has had to do in the wake of the February drug bust that made national headlines. Four TCU players involved in the raid were immediately dismissed from the team. Patterson acknowledged that "four or five" players were let go for disciplinary reasons after the 2004 season.

Players change. Conferences change. Even, it seems, after 82 seasons, football stadiums can change.

But while Patterson says his teams' personalities have changed over his 15 seasons at TCU, the philosophy behind them hasn't.

"The thing I really like about this current group is that it seems like they have a lot of fun playing," he said. "It's interesting because we were so young and a lot of kids grew up.

"But we'll have to be better than we were a year ago to become 11-2 again. We have an opportunity to do that, to be better. Now, can we live up to that? I don't know.

"Can we gain enough depth? Can we stay healthy enough? Those are questions that we go through every year. That's one of the reasons why we don't change what we do or how we do it. We only tweak it, because if you change too many things, you forget why you are what you are."

Under Patterson, that usually means trying to play dominant defense.

"Oklahoma State won the Big 12 with takeaways and by scoring a lot of points. You can do it like that," he said. "I've always said that you win games running the football, and you score points by throwing it.

"But you've also got to play great defense. And when I say great, going into the Big 12, I mean what you've got to learn to do first is make people kick field goals."

TCU lost six starters from its 2011 defense.

"But I believe we're going to have a chance to be better than we were a year ago -- substantially -- if we can stay healthy," he said.

Patterson theorizes that it will take two full football seasons before he and his staff have a true feel for the new league.

"When you go into a new conference -- and obviously I'm a veteran on changing conferences -- I think you've got to go play everybody there once and come here," he said. "It takes two years before you can lay out a plan of how it really has to work for you. What are their nuances, what makes their place hard to play at, how they play when come to your place, all those things.

"You've got to have a good plan before you have a future."

That doesn't mean Patterson isn't expecting to win right away in the Big 12.

"We have high expectations," he said, "but we're very realistic, which is what we've always done."

One thing that is still on Patterson's mind, he admitted, is the players who were dismissed from the team in February.

"I feel bad because they're still my kids," he said. "That doesn't change. You don't just shut the door and it goes away. I still wonder how they're doing, what's going on with them.

"It hurts, though, because you work so hard to do the right things, grow them up the right way. We pride ourselves here that when they leave here, they've learned the values of a good, hard work ethic and accountability. But these kids, they went down the wrong street."

His new home on the hill, Patterson said, remains a work in progress. As does the stadium. As does his football team.

"Going into the new conference, we're not going to try to be arrogant or have entitlement," he said. "We're going to be a hard-nosed football team that wins ballgames and a university that represents the right thing.

"The biggest mistake we could make is to think we're different now that we're in the Big 12.

"I don't care what our fans think, but it's got to be about the same thing that you've always seen at the bottom of our pyramid -- attitude, chemistry, family and accountability. None of that changes.

"We need to be what we are. As long as won't forget that, we'll always be a competitive program, and the Big 12 is going to be like every other league we've gone into."

Gil LeBreton, 817-390-7697

Twitter: @gilebreton

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