Forty-four years later, Don Patterson still remembers the conversation as if it were held yesterday. He was lying in bed with lights out at West Point and talking with two fellow plebes about where life would take them, assuming they survived the rigorous Beast Barracks training for first-year cadets.
He was 18 years old, fresh out of high school and some 1,500 miles from his home in Blooming Grove, Texas (pop. 875), an hour south of Dallas. The Vietnam War raged on amid protests back home. President Nixon was in his first eight months of office. Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon.
It was the summer of 1969.
Ted Kennedy had been convicted of leaving the scene of a fatal accident in Chappaquiddick, Mass. Muhammad Ali refused to serve in the Army and was stripped of his heavyweight title. Charles Manson’s followers had carried out a string of gruesome murders in California that rocked the nation.
And young Don Patterson was mapping out his career path.
“If you’re a plebe, your lights go off at 11,” he said. “At 10:59, you’re spit-shining your shoes and you’re in bed. The lights were off, and one night we were talking. I said, at the age of 18, I would like to be coaching college football. Twenty years later, I was doing it. Nearly 45 years later, I’m still doing it.”
Patterson is the quarterbacks coach at the University at Buffalo, but to gloss over a life that led him from West Point to UB Stadium would be grossly irresponsible. He was a top assistant coach at Iowa under legend Hayden Fry. He was a head coach for 10 seasons at Western Illinois before throat cancer ended his tenure there.
Now, at age 62, a cancer survivor with three of four items checked off a bucket list he made while undergoing treatment, Patterson is coaching for all the right reasons. UB coach Jeff Quinn three years ago gave him another opportunity to coach and, in many ways, another chance to appreciate life.
Spend a little time with Patterson and you quickly realize that UB is getting the better of the deal. Football doesn’t simply need more coaches like him. The world needs more people like him. He’s entering his 35th football season after quitting a good job in the real world for a low-paying gig coaching defensive backs at North Texas State.
“I’m not coaching because I have to earn a paycheck,” Patterson said. “I’m coaching because I love the game, and I don’t want to give it up. I didn’t know if I was going to live or die. I’m so grateful to Jeff for giving me this opportunity.”
It’s a win for all sides. UB gets an experienced coach who has been to 14 bowl games, including three Rose Bowl appearances. Quinn gets an assistant who understands the pressure that comes with being a head coach. Sophomore quarterback Joe Licata gets a mentor who is eager to share everything he has learned over 35 years.
Patterson gets to do what he enjoys most, which is sharing his knowledge with younger players and shaping their lives.
He didn’t find coaching so much as coaching found him. He traced it back to his early days at the U.S. Military Academy, where he rode the bench as a strong safety. He didn’t merely survive the tough early training period that’s designed to separate the best from everybody else. He didn’t merely squeak through West Point and ride his degree into high-paying jobs, either.
He was voted fifth in his graduating class of 949 for leadership in a poll taken among his peers. When he emerged from his five-year, post-graduation service commitment, he could have excelled in any field. The world was wide open and waiting for a candidate with his unblemished record and leadership ability.
It just took him a few years to rediscover football.
Patterson made a good buck while working in public relations for American Express, but the job was unfulfilling. He was desperate for work that he enjoyed. He needed to compete and use his brain. A year later, he reversed his field, followed his heart and became a coach.
“Exactly,” he said. “I always loved the game and the strategy of the game. It’s one reason I so much enjoy coaching quarterbacks. It’s the most cerebral position on the field. You have to be thinking every second of the game. You can never relax. At the end of the game, you probably have a headache.”
Patterson’s soft, warm voice complements his mild southern drawl and Texas charm. His father, C.W. Patterson, was a military man who earned an honest living as a milkman and raised his children on one income. His mother, named Earljean because his grandfather hoped for a son, stayed home with four children.
His brother, Dan, two years older and another leader, also attended West Point. His youngest sibling, Jan, attended Baylor University. Earljean made the daily hour-long commute with her and, in her mid-40s, earned a degree in education and became a high school teacher.
You hear that, and it’s easy to understand Don Patterson’s appreciation for discipline and passion for teaching. His sharp mind, attention to detail and quick wit make him a natural storyteller and communicator. He also has an uncanny memory. Dates and statistics rolled off his tongue last week as if they were pulled from a filing cabinet in his brain.
For example, he talked in great detail about the final two minutes of a 1990 game between Iowa and Michigan in which Matt Rodgers led Iowa to a victory with a drive late in the fourth quarter. Elvis Grbac threw an interception in Michigan’s final possession, which secured the win for the Hawkeyes.
“Look it up,” he said. “Nine plays, 85 yards, and we only used first and second down. He was five for six passing to five different receivers. Our quarterback was smart in the two-minute offense, and Elvis Grbac was not.”
Cut-and-paste from Rodgers’ bio, 23 years after the fact: “threw for 276 yards (27-37) and a touchdown in win over Michigan. … Completed 5-6 passes for 67 yards in game-winning drive vs. the Wolverines.”
In 2008, after Patterson spent 10 years building a strong program at Western Illinois, he was diagnosed with Stage IV throat cancer. He was forced to step away from coaching, which was bad enough. Chemotherapy and radiation, which threatened to kill him if cancer didn’t first, was worse.
For three months, he examined his life while awaiting results that would show he was in remission. He drew up a bucket list that included four items.
One was visiting West Point, which he did with his wife. Another was visiting “The Late Show with David Letterman,” which he also checked off. The third was seeing Neil Diamond in concert after listening to his music while he was in the hospital. He met Diamond before a concert in Las Vegas. Diamond introduced his mother, a throat-cancer survivor herself.
Patterson, with no signs of cancer returning, can sleep peacefully knowing he lived on his own terms. He still hasn’t checked off the final item. It calls for him playing a round of golf at Pebble Beach, some 40 years after playing his first round while serving in the military. He plans to return someday, perhaps when his coaching career is over.
Heaven can wait.
“If I get bad news, I’m OK with that,” he said. “I don’t like it. I don’t want to die. But I’ve no regrets with how I’ve lived my life. I have no regrets.”