Heading into his 16th season as TCU’s head football coach, Gary Patterson has established plenty of program legacies in Fort Worth.
In the banner years, Patterson’s defenses have stood their ground as rigidly as the coach’s bronze statue outside Amon G. Carter Stadium. Double-digit win totals have been posted on 10 occasions, with a Rose Bowl trophy (2010 season) and a Big 12 championship (2014) among the shiniest souvenirs.
But the most eye-opening legacy of the Patterson era may be the Horned Frogs’ success in bounce back seasons. TCU teams have failed to top the .500 mark on just four occasions in his tenure, including last year’s 6-7 mark.
In each of the first three, TCU responded with a conference championship the next year. The Frogs’ combined record in those rebound seasons is 33-4, with the high-water mark coming in the Big 12 era: a 12-1 finish in 2014 following a 4-8 mark the previous year.
Patterson reflected Wednesday on why those teams flourished in the face of adversity the previous fall.
“I’ve heard people talk about we’ve always had great years after we’ve had a losing season,” Patterson said following a luncheon hosted by the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce. “Obviously, we get tougher. Like any business, you reconstruct what you’ve got to do. But to me, it’s happened … because we’ve grown up. People handle failure better than they handle success.”
How well equipped is this team to handle that challenge?
“I don’t know,” said Patterson, who will begin finding answers when players report July 29 for the start of fall drills, with the initial workout scheduled the next day. His hunch, at this point, leans toward the positive although he understands the skepticism of outsiders.
TCU returns 16 starters from last season, as many as any Big 12 team. Four of those players earned spots on the 2017 Preseason All-Big 12 football team, released Wednesday: center Austin Schlottmann, kick returner KaVontae Turpin, linebacker Travin Howard and safety Nick Orr.
But these digits also return: quarterback Kenny Hill, last year’s starter, offset 17 touchdown passes with 13 interceptions. The Frogs struggled to make field goals and lost two games in overtime. Receivers dropped 38 passes thrown by Hill, per Pro Football Focus, the most drops to impact the stats of any FBS starting quarterback last season.
“We’ve got to play better at quarterback,” Patterson said. “So for us, Kenny’s got to understand he’s got to grow up. Or whoever is at quarterback has to grow up to be that guy. ... Kenny gets a lot of the blame but we’ve got to catch the ball better. That comes with confidence, maturity and want-to.”
This season, it also comes with an influx of heralded freshmen receivers, topped by four-star signees Jalen Reagor and Omar Manning. It includes Turpin and Shaun Nixon, two players Patterson envisioned as “big impact” guys a year ago before significant injuries surfaced. Patterson also is counting on a few surprises from emerging talents as he braces for a down-the-line projection in Thursday’s Big 12 media poll.
“In 2014, when we tied for the conference title, we were picked sixth. They didn’t know anything about [receiver] Josh Doctson,” Patterson said. Outside of the TCU locker room, Patterson recalled a prevailing sentiment that Trevone Boykin could never be an effective college quarterback. By December, he was the Big 12 offensive player of the year.
On multiple occasions, Patterson has drawn parallels to the questions surrounding this year’s team and the doubts that dogged the 2014 squad heading into its turnaround season. He’s not promising the same result. But similar issues remain unsettled this July, just like in July 2014.
Those concerns include a defense that allowed 30 or more points on six occasions last season, a substandard kicking game and some strategic moves that still haunt the head coach.
“There’s usually five to seven decisions we make in a season that are big ones,” Patterson said. “And if they turn out right, you end up having a better season. We have to do a better job of that than what we did a season ago.”
Patterson makes no promises. But he thinks he sees a hungry group of returnees on the cusp of a heightened sense of maturity. Just like in 2014.
“Football teams, if you do it right, go in five-year cycles,” Patterson said. “We went through the last couple of years young, so we’re getting to the place we really should be an older team again.”
It will require a better team, not just an older team, to add another turnaround season to the Patterson legacy. It may not happen. But the history, at this point, is impossible to overlook.