Gary Patterson always has a skeptical eye toward the future.
He has been slow to adapt in some ways and ahead of the curve in others; willing to maximize the advances in and around college football for his program’s benefit but not entirely sure he supports them.
One such element is the transfer portal, an still not fully known entity that has both decimated the Horned Frogs and made them better. In fact, amongst all of the schools in Texas, TCU Football leads in transfers, having seen 18 players that started the 2020 season in purple leave town — with mixed results.
But Patterson and co have also found players, often more likely to contribute than those that replaced. TJ Storment became Obinna Eze, Tony James was replaced by T.J. Carter, Eli Williams and Stephon Brown were supplanted by Chandler Morris. For every Dylan Thomas and Kellton Hollins — beloved guys who left for better opportunities elsewhere — there are players sliding into those roster spots to make their own hay in Fort Worth. It’s not always an equitable system, but it’s hard to argue that the Horned Frogs haven’t made it work for them more often than not.
That doesn’t mean that Patterson likes it.
“Kids want to play,” he said on Signing Day earlier this month. He went on to explain that TCU keeps its freshmen away from its Varsity players until July, allowing for time to “get frustration level out of them.” As has been well documented, it’s difficult for true freshmen to arrive on campus fresh off of being superstars at the high school level and sit, relegated to redshirt rules or stuck buried on the depth chart. That strategy has paid off for the Frogs, as only two players left during their freshman year, QB Eli Williams and PWO DB Chandler Fincher. That’s easier said than done, GP believes. “Every freshman I’ve ever known, their freshman year, they thought about transferring. Because college is a whole lot harder than high school.” Others were players that hadn’t managed to crack the two deep and knew the odds of doing so in the near future weren’t very high, or players that wanted to utilize the “free” year of eligibility and were likely encouraged to do so elsewhere.
It’s a mixed bag for programs — especially in a year of extra eligibility where roster sizes are becoming problematic. “The negative is that we’re already taking scholarships away from a senior in high school because of grad transfers and everything,” Patterson explained. “You’re seeing a lot more preferred walk-ons; it’s going to cause a problem.” The point GP makes is a good one: every graduate transfer that a program signs is one less spot for a freshman, and one less scholarship available for a high school player. That came into play at an especially high level in 2020, as recruiting dead periods were extended and on-campus visits curtailed both directions due to the pandemic. At the root of the problem is its very purpose, the coach argued. “This whole thing, all of that comes down to a kid getting his education paid for.”
He’s not wrong, but there are other factors that come into play as well — like power, agency, and choice for the athlete. Coaches, notorious control freaks that they are (and have to be), are unsure of what that will mean for their sports long-term. “It’s going to get worse when we check a box and you can get one-time transfers — that’s going to be a big problem. Everyone’s got to have their rights, but you don’t raise your family like that. There are certain things you do, that you have to go through, the process of it. You’re going to see lower graduation rates.”
Patterson has often spoken of athletes that enter the portal without having a landing spot, and find that there aren’t as many options available that they had hoped — and often the ones that are aren’t as attractive. “Guys that went into the portal,” Patterson said, “[I saw something that said] 60% of them didn’t end up with as good as a scholarship as what they had before.”
His point there is good as well, just look at TCU.
Of the 18 transfers, only three landed with Power Five programs (TJ Storment at Texas Tech, Ben Wilson at Washington State, and Fincher, who accepted a PWO offer from Arizona State, where he was previously committed prior to switching to TCU). Eight of the players have yet to sign with another program at all, led by two senior linemen, Hollins and Myers, and former four star safety Atanza Vongor. Each would have likely had a role in Fort Worth, though not the significant one they were probably hoping for.
Though Patterson does support player agency to a degree, he makes it clear: once you say you’re leaving, the door closes and it won’t be open for you again. “Once you decide you want to go, you need to go,” Patterson says. “You haven’t seen any of our guys come back — that’s not being mean, there are conversations that are happening before you decide you want to do that. We have to teach kids life lessons, too. None of them were told they have to leave, but there are consequences.”
I think, when it comes down to it, it’s not so much that Patterson doesn’t want student-athletes to have options, it’s that he doesn’t want to see them leave before they have truly given TCU Football a chance to develop them. GP has long been about “growing guys up”, and TCU is about 40 not 4 and building a familial atmosphere in the program long after the players move on. “There are situations when kids transfer, it’s a good thing. [But more often than not], they’re leaving probably because they got beat out.” But for the ones that aren’t leaving for competition purposes, but for greener pastures, there is another way. “There’s the portal, then there’s the dark portal. The good ones, they probably already know where they’re going before they go in there.”
I do believe that Patterson’s motive is in the right place, and that he ultimately has the athletes’ best interest at heart. But this is the new reality, and whether he likes it or not, he has certainly learned to make it work in his favor. And as long as he can keep doing that, I have a feeling he will learn to live with this new reality of college athletics.