FORT WORTH, Texas — In Gary Patterson’s 21 years as head coach of TCU, his job has taken him to the biggest of stages, such as his 2011 Rose Bowl victory, when his little Mountain West-era Horned Frogs beat an undefeated Wisconsin team to make college football history.
Patterson is a Hall of Fame coach who leaves a lasting impression. He gesticulates wildly, sweats through his shirt and screams until he loses his voice. That guy, he says, is Coach P.
“Nobody wants to be Coach P,” Patterson joked last week from his office overlooking the football field at Amon G. Carter Stadium.
“My whole life, everybody’s seen me for three hours on game day and I’m way intense. My [players], they’ll stick their head in here and go, ‘Who’s in today? Coach P or Gary?'”
The answer, he says, depends on their question.
Most of us don’t get to see Gary. He’s the one who grew up in Rozel, Kansas (population 150), and was notable enough in high school plays that he was offered a theater scholarship to Wichita State. He also sang and played guitar for about 10 years in a band called Walk on Easy that played parties and assorted garages around the greater Rozel area.
All these years later, Gary showed up on stage at Billy Bob’s in Fort Worth, Texas, of all places. While it’s just nine miles from Patterson’s day job to the icon famously known as “The World’s Biggest Honky Tonk,” it’s not where you might expect to see one of the most accomplished football coaches in the modern era with an acoustic guitar in tow on a Wednesday night in June.
But this isn’t exactly a lark for Patterson, who has written songs for much of his life, and released two tracks, “Game On” and “Take A Step Back,” on streaming services last year while football was on hold during the pandemic.
Those netted the coach a solid 74,000 or so streams on Spotify, earning him a sweet royalty check for $9.08 — along with validating his life choices on how to earn a living.
But for Patterson, this was an opportunity to show a more easygoing side to the public. While both of those songs were geared more toward his state of mind during a tumultuous 2020, Patterson also has his share of acoustic ballads.
“I think that’s one of the things about these songs, that you want people to understand your story. I just wanted to tell mine,” he said. “They’re shocked. How does a 61-year-old guy that acts like that out there stand up there singing a song called ‘Lonely Blue Eyes,’ about somebody he knew when he was 27 years old? I mean, there’s no possible way that can be that same person.”
But Skip Rice, who attended the show, was a believer.
“A coach’s voice is different than any other voice. It penetrates,” Rice , who noted he was willing to register his compliment even as a Texas A&M grad, said. “He’s got a coach’s voice. When he sings, you hear his message.”
Ultimately, the show was a benefit for Patterson’s foundation, a partnership with Grammy-nominated singer and Fort Worth native Leon Bridges, called The Big Good. It was a chance for him to team up with a longtime friend, Fin Ewing III, a Dallas-area car dealer and philanthropist who is a TCU grad, longtime member of the Cotton Bowl committee, and another man who’s living out alter-ego dreams of his own.
A few years ago, Ewing read that anyone could be a singer. At 58, with no musical background, he decided he wanted to play a concert. He took voice lessons, put together an airtight 13-piece band with some of the most accomplished studio musicians in the area — Milo Deering, his fiddle player, has recording credits with Madonna, Garth Brooks and the Eagles, just for example — and set out to put on a show. He had always wanted the final product, Fin Ewing & the Wrong Direction, to play Billy Bob’s, and together with Patterson, they made it happen.
“I told Fin, you and I will always have that bond,” Patterson said, noting that accomplishing other goals helps him recharge for his regular gig.
“We stood on that stage. That’s our story.”
The partnership was the ideal setting for a football coach stepping out for a night as a musician. Having an all-pro band is like having an all-star secondary. You don’t have to worry about making many mistakes, because they’ll always make you look good. And it was especially comforting coming off the busiest June of Patterson’s long career, when the mad dash of in-person recruiting began again after COVID-19 restrictions were eased.
“It was seven days a week for us,” Patterson said. “Monday through Wednesdays, there were unofficial workouts this year. Thursdays and Sundays were 400-kid camps that started at 1 o’clock and we’d go till 8, 9, 10, 11 o’clock at night. Friday and Saturday were official visits. So I mean, it was seven days a week. Since June 1, we’ve been rolling.”
The show went off without a hitch despite little to no rehearsals because of Patterson’s busy schedule. It was Ewing’s show, and for about three hours, he played lead singer, host and emcee. The show also included TCU grads J.T. Hodges, a singer who is Patterson’s collaborator and writing partner, and Heather Morgan, another singer who has written songs recorded by Keith Urban, Brett Eldredge, Kenny Chesney and others. Singing Frogs were everywhere.
Ewing’s band is built for occasions like this — they played a wedding on Saturday, Billy Bob’s on Wednesday, and a show in Whitefish, Montana, on Friday — doing a variety of crowd-pleasing covers and party songs. Ewing spreads it around band members and backup singers taking turns at the mic for whatever fits their niche.
“I know why y’all are here,” Ewing told the crowd early on. “So let’s get Coach Patterson up here,” where the coach performed a cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising.”
First time and song back on stage in awhile! Thank you to the great crowd that joined us! Fantastic night! pic.twitter.com/ayCtCeHY90
— Gary Patterson (@TCUCoachP) July 1, 2021
Patterson appeared at ease playing songs he had barely rehearsed. When you’re used to doing your normal job in front of 100,000 people, he said singing in front of 800 gets put in perspective quickly.
“The hardest thing I do with memorization is, when people go fast on offense, every eight to 10 seconds they’re gonna snap the ball,” Patterson said. “So you have to see a formation and personnel group and call the right play about 60 to 70 times and hopefully, you do a better job than they do. That’s a lot harder than memorizing all that [music].”
A table full of TCU assistant coaches spent a night of their vacation supporting their coach, singing along and cheering him on. Patterson’s former drummer from his grade-school band flew down from Kansas to watch. Elsewhere, college students and older fans in cowboy hats mixed on a surreal Wednesday night watching a college football coach and a well-known car dealer trade stories and songs in a decidedly Texas scene.
“I think it takes a city that’s willing to let him do both,” said Brian Dove, one of the fans in attendance. “I think it’s cool that Fort Worth wants to let Gary be Gary.”
Patterson called playing the legendary stage at Billy Bob’s “checking the box,” an opportunity to prove that he could do something, while also hoping to expand his charity efforts. Last year, Patterson’s foundation provided more than 19,000 turkeys to Dallas-Fort Worth families at the holidays, with a line of cars three miles long waiting to pick one up. This year, with Bridges joining forces, Patterson hopes to get up to 25,000 with turkeys big enough to feed four or five people.
So he raised a little money, raised a little hell and helped Ewing check off his own bucket-list item. But now, what Patterson called his one-night vacation is done.
Singing season is over, and talking season starts again with Big 12 Media Days kicking off on July 14. Patterson is eagerly looking forward to a season when he thinks the Frogs have a chance to be really good, saying this team has some of the best chemistry he’s had in years.
“I love playing music, but not as much as I like doing this,” Patterson said in front of a glass table filled with watches and rings accumulated from bowl games or conference titles during a remarkable career at TCU. “I’ve restarted on Cal-Berkeley [the Frogs’ opener on Sept. 11] for the third time. Now I’m going to start scripting for two-a-days and doing all of it.”
The guitar is back in the corner in a room at his house. Soon, Coach P will lose Gary’s singing voice again.
“I think everybody would like to be Garth Brooks, you know?” he said. “But that creativity went into defense. You can’t do both.”