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Big 12 Media Days: Gary Patterson’s unconventional and successful approach to recruiting

Many college football programs are quick to judge recruits by star-ratings. That’s hardly the case at TCU, and it’s paying dividends on the field.

NCAA Football: Big 12 Media Day
TCU Horned Frogs head coach Gary Patterson speaks to the media during Big 12 football media days at the Ford Center at the Star.
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

FRISCO, Texas — In a world where star-ratings often dictate college football recruiting, Gary Patterson isn’t falling for the trap.

Two-star or five-star, it doesn’t matter to Patterson where a player may stand in the eyes of recruiting experts. For him, the question isn’t about how much praise a player has received. Rather, it’s about how well he can fit into the Horned Frogs’ system

That was the theme that echoed throughout the day by the TCU coach as counterparts from across the league descended up on the Ford Center for the 2018 edition of Big 12 Media Days.

“That [player] rating is your rating, not my rating,” Patterson said. If I’m bringing them in I think they’re a pretty good player so they may be a four star or five star, obviously we’re getting more of those guys. I have always believed that it’s not where you start, but where you finish. So you recruit whoever you want to recruit, you recruit who fits your program.”

While Big 12 counterparts — namely Oklahoma and Texas — consistently finish near the top of the recruiting rankings on a national level, things are a bit more modest in Fort Worth. While the Horned Frogs have been recruiting like never before, punctuated by 4-star quarterbacks Shawn Robinson and Justin Rogers each of the last two years, TCU isn’t known for finishing neck-and-neck with blue-chip programs in the quest for the best class in the nation.

And yet that hasn’t stopped Patterson and the Horned Frogs from being one of the most consistent programs in all of college football, and at a high level of play. 10-win seasons are nothing out of the norm for TCU, and while there have been some hiccups since joining the Big 12, the Horned Frogs have reached double-digit victories in three of their six campaigns since joining the ranks of Power 5 schools.

“I think that’s one of the things we’ve always done: we know what we’re looking for,” Patterson said. “We trust the high school coaches in the state of Texas and Louisiana and surrounding states to tell us about the young man. Does he fit what we do and how we do it? There is no science.”

That’s not to say that 4-star and 5-star prospects never work out as planned. Running back Sewo Olonilua, who was among the group brought to Frisco, was also recruited by the Horned Frogs as a 4-star prospect and enjoyed a successful campaign as a sophomore in 2017.

But transition to linebacker Ty Summers and defensive end Ben Banogu, and you have a pair of former two-star prospects who set to be among the elite defenders in the entire Big 12 this fall. Banogu was named the preseason Big Defensive Player of the Year last week. And success stories like those are exactly what Patterson is talking about when it comes to picking up players who are “under the radar.”

“Hats off to Coach P — he definitely has the eye,” said wide receiver Jaelan Austin, a three-star recruit in the Class of 2015. “He doesn’t look for stars. A lot of us weren’t highly recruited in my class, but it says that if you’re truly a good player and a good person, he’ll find you and build you up to what you need to be. He’s got to be No. 1 in my books at doing that.”

Among that same class — senior wide receiver KaVontae Turpin, who made a remarkable impact as a freshman in 2015 with 850 all-purpose yards and 9 touchdowns after being recruited as a 3-star prospect.

With so many case examples on hand, Patterson’s ability to find a hidden gold-mine when it comes to recruiting has become a staple of the program. And many folks are left scratching their heads on how the 19-year TCU coach has always seemingly come through when recruiting experts may predict other results.

“It’s not that I don’t pay attention to [stars],” Patterson said. “I just don’t offer players because of what their stars say. I watch their film, I watch them at camps and I decide. I never offered Shawn Robinson or Justin Rogers because they were All-Americans. I offered them because they are good quarterbacks.

And it also makes one wonder just how accurate recruiting rankings truly can be. Patterson hinted during his afternoon media session that star-ratings could fluctuate depending on which schools show interest.

“Andy Dalton was a 2-star to a 1-star. If we were playing in the Big 12 back then, he and Jerry Hughes probably would have been 4 stars,” Patterson said. “Guys get stars because a whole bunch of people offer them.”

From a player-standpoint, success at TCU is all about having the right approach — one centered around giving nothing less than 100 percent right out of the gate.

“You can go down the list — some people overrate and some underrate,” Olonilua said. “You’ve just go to come in and have the right mindset and be ready to work.”

Undoubtedly, Patterson’s approach isn’t one that is often found among teams that are regularly in the discussion for the Big 12 title and national championship. Whether or not college football will ever shift away from the star-ratings system to a more system-based approach is a unknown. Until that day happens, don’t expect Patterson to be falling for the status-quo.

“We all try to make [recruiting] scientific,” Patterson said. “It’s still a crap-shoot.”

Crap-shoot or not, Patterson has established a knack for hitting the jackpot. And with recent trends, that doesn’t appear to be stopping anytime soon.