It’s out there, amid the grain elevators and waving Kansas prairie, sitting just off Highway 156, barely a pit stop on your way to Dodge City or Liberal.
Rozel. Population: 156.
To find Rozel, most people need a map and a magnifying glass. Or perhaps, if you’re lucky, you can ask TCU football coach Gary Patterson.
“I have a lot of history going back that direction,” says Patterson, perhaps Rozel’s most famous son.
On Saturday morning, Patterson will lead the Horned Frogs into their Big 12 debut against Kansas. It will mark the beginning of a new era. For Patterson, TCU and the Big 12.
Patterson, a small-town Kansas kid, is bringing his nouveau riche, party-crashing program into the old-money world of the Big 12. The experiment will start in Lawrence, a 4 ½-hour drive from his roots in Rozel, just down the road from his alma mater at Kansas State. For a day, Patterson will be back among friends and relatives who shared in his journey from lowly assistant to Rose Bowl champion to Big 12 coach.
Earlier this week, Patterson told reporters back in Fort Worth about his past. He had an uncle, Harold Patterson, who played end at KU in the early 1950s for coach J.V. Sikes. Another uncle, Ray Patterson, played for Bill Parcells at Wichita State. These days, most of the Patterson clan is still anchored on the central Kansas plains. Younger brother Greg still runs a restaurant, Greg’s Sports Pub & Grub, in Rush Center.
“I was probably more of a Kansas fan growing up,” Patterson says.
But the roots of his career began in Rozel, a speck in an ocean of farmland, the kind of place that makes nearby Larned feel like a booming metropolis.
There’s a grain elevator, the letters “ROZEL” painted across the face of the white towers. And there’s Main Street, a small thoroughfare that cuts across town before leading the way to Pawnee Heights High on the north side of town.
Patterson played football here. Linebacker. Fullback. Good enough to go on and play at Dodge City Community College. Tough enough to draw the attention of a young assistant coach at Kansas State — Dennis Franchione.
“I kind of recruited Gary to K-State,” says Franchione, now 61 and the coach at Texas State. “He wasn’t the most talented guy, but he was a really hard worker. Hard nosed and competitive.”
A few years later, Patterson would serve as a grad assistant at Tennessee Tech while Franchione was the school’s offensive coordinator. And later — after pit stops at UC Davis and Cal Lutheran — Patterson would latch on to a job coaching linebackers at Pittsburg State, where Franchione had taken over.
In those days, Franchione was running through defensive coordinators. But he always had one stipulation: The Gorillas would run the 4-2-5 defense, subtracting a linebacker for a defensive back and providing more flexibility. Patterson was still in his formative years, soaking in knowledge, formulating his own football philosophies. But parts of Pitt State, such as the 4-2-5, would stick with him.
“Gary got an indoctrination into it there,” Franchione says.
A year later, Patterson would move on again. A stint at Sonoma State. Utah State. Navy. By 1996, Patterson had spent years mastering the 4-2-5, a little tweak here or there, another layer to the system.
When Franchione, then at New Mexico, went looking for a defensive coordinator in 1996, he knew he needed someone capable of diffusing all the high-powered offenses in the Western Athletic Conference. He called Patterson.
Two years later, Patterson was moving with Franchione to TCU. In late 2000, when Franchione left for Alabama, Patterson was promoted to head coach. The years would pass, and the victories would pile up. Bowl victories. 10-win seasons. And two new leagues — first Conference USA in 2001 and the Mountain West in 2005. Since Patterson arrived, the Horned Frogs have led the nation in total defense five times. In the last 70 years, no other program has managed to do it more than four.
“It was apparent that he was gonna be a good defensive football coach,” Franchione says.
In Patterson’s first years at TCU, the Dallas Cowboys would sometimes use the Horned Frogs’ facilities for practice. Sometimes, Patterson would run into Dave Campo, the longtime Cowboys assistant who served as coach from 2000-02. The conversations never went too deep into football, but Campo saw and heard the stories of Patterson’s intense energy at practice.
“It always impressed me with the way he works, and the way his team works,” says Campo, now the offensive coordinator at KU. “And I think they have a chip on their shoulder.”
By now, the “chip” has become synonymous with TCU. Locked out of the Big 12 after the Southwest Conference dissolved in the mid-1990s, TCU was left to be a conference-jumping vagabond. The private school with just more than 8,000 undergraduates had an identity problem. But football could help change that.
Patterson brought his small-town Kansas work ethic, that feeling inside your gut that says you have to prove yourself, lest anyone think you’re in over your head.
The players, often the recruiting scraps left over from Texas and Texas A&M, adopted the mentality. And the program took off, culminating in a perfect season and Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin in 2010.
Now part of that chip is gone. The Horned Frogs have arrived in the Big 12. But part of it remains. The program must prove itself again.
“We don’t want to have this mentality that everything we accomplished in the past now means nothing,” Patterson said of the school’s Big 12 debut. “For us, it is our next opponent and that is the way we have approached it with our kids. You have to get ready to play. We have played Big 12 opponents in the past and understand it’s a higher level of play.”
The first test comes Saturday in Lawrence. Last week, TCU opened its season with a 56-0 victory over Grambling State. It was Patterson’s 110th victory at TCU, breaking Dutch Meyer’s record for the most in school history.
Patterson has mostly downplayed the move to the Big 12. Still, it’s no secret that this seasons means a little more. Back in late July, at Big 12 media days in Dallas, Patterson sat in front of a clump of reporters and talked TCU football for more than an hour — nearly 40 minutes longer than the allotted time. The rest of the room had emptied, the other coaches leaving, but Patterson kept talking, selling the tenets of his program.
“We better play with a chip on our shoulder,” Patterson would say.
The coach from Rozel knows no other way.