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Cheez-It Bowl: “We not I” changed the Horned Frogs’ fortunes

TCU got better when its players changed their focus.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Texas Christian Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Gary Patterson spoke honestly after TCU’s victory over Baylor, a win that kept the dreams of ending the season in a bowl game alive. The subject was Jalen Reagor, and the message was the difference it makes for a program when their brightest star decides winning trumps any person goals. Patterson spoke on how Jalen Reagor had grown up over the course of the season, transitioning his mindset from being a star to making sure he started for a winner. Reagor put his words to work by offering to run the ball and play on special teams in addition to being the number one receiver for the Horned Frogs.

That slight shift was emblematic of the entire TCU Football program down the stretch - players put aside their personal goals in the interest of collecting Ws over individual stats, and that paid off down the stretch as the Frogs won three of their final four games to get bowl eligible. It seems that the Baylor game was the turning point for TCU - a game in which Grayson Muehlstein player the first significant snaps of his five year career - remarking after “people around here don’t like losing to Baylor.” On Saturday, in his first remarks upon landing in Phoenix for the Cheez-It Bowl, Patterson echoed that sentiment. “One of my best practices was the Sunday night -- I’ve said this before -- was the Sunday before the Baylor game where the guys on Sunday that were out there, redshirt freshmen, sophomores, they were all young but they were all -- they were having a great time and there was no -- they were just -- they wanted to win a ball game, period.”

After getting waxed in Morgantown, a game, the Frogs got back to the business of trying to win ball games - something that can be hard for a young team in an era that treats players like gods from the time they enter high school. “Number one, I think we kind of got down to a football team that’s growing up -- they had no agendas at the end of the year. One thing that happens to young teams is they have these visions of always making great plays and doing this and doing that. I think what happened to us in the last part of the season, except for the West Virginia game, which is a really good football team, is we started playing for the right reasons, which is what our history’s been.”

The key sentence in that quote, in my opinion, is “what our history’s been”. I have been of the belief that part of what led to TCU’s 2018 struggles was Patterson struggling to adjust to coaching higher-level talent and kids that believe their own hype. There’s a big difference in coaching a guy like Ty Summers - a two star quarterback recruit who was willing to switch to defense just to get a sniff at the FBS level - and a four star prospect with 30 offers who thinks he earned something simply by stepping foot on a football field. The prima donna player doesn’t always vibe with Patterson’s style - and while young, energetic, cool guys like Sonny Cumbie, Zarnell Fitch, and Paul Gonzales have been able to bring them to Fort Worth, it hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing once they arrived (see Snell, Kenedy and Robinson, Shawn as examples). Patterson coaches his players hard, and he always will. He’s won a lot of ball games by turning unheralded prospects into NFL stars. And he isn’t one to change quickly. That is no different as he prepares his team for the 19th bowl in his 21 years at TCU. “I think, is they’re springboards of what your team is, how you’re going to move forward going into spring ball. In fact, I usually use, especially with young teams -- and that’s the way I do it this year. These were not bowl practices. These were extreme ball practices.

With our young players, that meant -- that meant they were harder.”

But it seems that this mix of young, talented, precocious players has finally figured it out, realizing that team success would bequeath that of the individual variety as well. And, to Patterson, it made all the difference. “It has always been about “we,” not “I.” I think when we figured that out, that we just played for “we,” not for “I,” then good things happen to you. And to be honest with you, it did.”

Patterson spoke at length from spring ball on about “growing his team up”. The experienced ball coach knew that it was going to be a battle to get his team to buy in - but to his credit and theirs - they did just that. And their reward is the opportunity to practice three more weeks, play one more game, and finish with a winning record. “You just want a team that just wants to step on the field, do the best they can. And TCU has always played hard. And that’s one of the things people said, you come and play hard because we practice hard. We do off-season hard, everything.”

Before closing his press conference, Patterson made one final plea - asking of the football gods to not let this third bowl game in the last four years against a Pac-12 opponent go the same way. His heart, and his wardrobe, can’t take it. “Hopefully, we won’t fall that far behind because I have to take extra baby aspirins before the game when you do those kinds of things. I would rather stay away from the baby aspirins or changing shirts or whatever else we have to do to try to win.”