MANHATTAN — Before he discusses his alma mater and his home state, Gary Patterson wants to make one thing clear: When he returns to Kansas State, the place where his college football career began as an unheralded linebacker, his primary objective is to help TCU inch one victory closer to bowl eligibility.
But once the Horned Frogs’ coach gets that out of the way, his feelings shine through. He will experience conflicting emotions when he steps on the field on Saturday at Snyder Family Stadium.
“It’s my first time being back there in 30 years, so it will be an interesting feeling,” Patterson said. “I have a lot of family and friends there. Obviously, last year was interesting playing down here. Now going back there for the first time back in Coach Snyder Family Stadium, to be a part of it, is pretty neat for me.”
K-State has alumni in prominent athletic positions all across the country, but few who have left share Patterson’s affection for the Sunflower State. He was born in Larned, raised in Rozel, played football and served as a graduate assistant at K-State and coached at Pittsburg State. In some ways, it feels like part of him never left.
His life is in Fort Worth. His roots are in Kansas.
“I have always felt like when I cross the Kansas line, I am at home,” Patterson said, “and if anything happens to me I would have somebody I could call. I have always felt that way, whether I was going back to recruit or to visit my family. I have a lot of good friends.”
This won’t be his first return trip to his home state with TCU. A year ago, he guided the Horned Frogs to a victory at Kansas. That trip was special for him, but it didn’t bring up the same kind of memories this one will.
When he arrives in Manhattan, he will be back where he used to attend classes and where he got his feet wet as a college coach. What an experience that was.
Ask for his favorite K-State memory, and he quickly mentions the 1982 Independence Bowl.
“I was part of the first team to ever go to a bowl in Kansas State history,” Patterson said.
It was a breakthrough achievement. Before Bill Snyder took over as coach in 1989, the Wildcats rarely experienced anything other than misery on the football field. They were a downtrodden program with few winning seasons.
Patterson was on the roster in 1980 when they went 4-7 and 1981 when they went 2-9. But then-K-State coach Jim Dickey had a plan: ask the majority of K-State’s senior class to redshirt and then go all-in for the 1982 season. Patterson was a part of it as a student coach.
“He took quite a chance,” Patterson said of Dickey.
It paid off. K-State beat Kentucky, South Dakota, Wichita State, Kansas, Iowa State and Colorado and tied Missouri on its way to a 6-5-1 record. It went on to play Wisconsin in the Independence Bowl.
The Wildcats wouldn’t advance to another bowl game until Snyder guided them to the Copper Bowl in 1993. They have since played in 14 more, but that team set the tone.
“It showed that Kansas State had the potential to be able to do that,” Patterson said. “Obviously, everything that Coach Snyder has done, you can’t really touch what he has done since then. But we showed there was a way for us to climb the mountain there in Manhattan and do the things we needed to do.”
From there, Patterson went on a coaching journey. He started coaching linebackers at Tennessee Tech in 1983 and worked his way up to defensive coordinator under Dennis Franchione at New Mexico in 1996. He followed him to TCU two years later, and ultimately became the Horned Frogs’ head coach when Franchione left for Alabama in 2000.
It turned out to be a perfect fit. He has taken TCU to 12 bowl games, including a Rose Bowl victory in 2011. He has helped TCU climb up the conference ranks and become a member of the Big 12. And he has stayed at TCU despite his name being mentioned for seemingly every opening at a bigger school.
Snyder has a great deal of respect for him.
“I have seen Gary and his wife on some football-related events and we have dialogue,” Snyder said. “When we see each other, we engage in what I believe to be some very meaningful dialogue.”
That mutual admiration, much like some of Patterson’s emotions, will have to be pushed to the side on Saturday.
TCU needs to win its final two games to reach bowl eligibility. K-State needs one more win to qualify for the postseason, and a few more to improve its bowl stock.
K-State won a physical game against TCU last year. If there’s one thing Patterson wants to make sure his team knows about his alma mater, it’s to understand the challenge that awaits.
“Coach Snyder’s teams have really grown in confidence compared to last year,” Patterson said. “About the time we played them, I thought they were getting a little bit beat up with the march that they were going through. I really felt like this year they have that confidence level, they are staying healthy. You can see them getting a lot stronger.
“We understand we probably have to play our best game of the season going in there. They always play well there.”