MIAMI, Okla. — Dale Patterson sat in his office overlooking Boone Pickens Stadium, certain of the unprecedented success that was mere months away.
Oklahoma State's assistant director of football operations had been in Stillwater for seven years, helping Mike Gundy steadily construct a program finally ready to take the Big 12 by storm.
What could possibly make someone jump such a ship just before finally tasting the fruits of their labor?
For Patterson, it was another college. One less than 200 miles northeast of Stillwater that stole his heart over four decades ago.
Patterson was in his office in mid-May 2011 when Northeastern Oklahoma A&M President Jeff Hale called and asked the only head football coach and former player in the proud program's history to return and turn things around.
“I felt a desire to do what I could to help,” Patterson said.
So Patterson quickly made the choice to sacrifice being a part of the success he knew OSU was going to have.
A Fiesta Bowl trophy and a 12-1 record? Patterson chose 3-6 at a junior college.
Boone Pickens Stadium, and its crowds of nearly 60,000? Patterson chose Red Robertson Field and its average home crowd of around 2,000.
Brandon Weeden to Justin Blackmon? Patterson chose Clayton Mitchem to Tre Stearns.
Hale admits he didn't know what kind of answer he'd get when he made that call.
“Flip of the coin to be honest with you,” Hale said.
But he had to try. Patterson was the last NEO coach to lead the traditional junior-college power to sustained success when he went 60-26 and won three conference titles between 1996 and 2003.
“I knew he had some long and strong ties to the college and the Miami area,” Hale said. “I knew he loved the college, so I took a flyer. There wasn't anybody in the country who would have been better for us at that time.”
Since Patterson left, three coaches had come and gone and combined to go 27-39.
Fundraising once essential to Patterson's recipe for success was minimal under his successors. Recruiting in Oklahoma took a major downturn; the state's top junior-college prospects were choosing schools in Kansas and Texas.
Patterson had planned to retire in Miami anyway, so this move gave the then 64-year-old a chance to get settled.
But his motivation to return was also fueled by a sense of duty to preserve the NEO tradition.
He played there in 1965 and 1966, making him part of the last team coached by the legendary Red Robertson, who led NEO from 1945 to 1966.
“I always felt like Coach Robertson was looking over my shoulder,” Patterson said. “My responsibility is to uphold the NEO tradition. I felt it all along, and I still feel it now.”
Northeastern Oklahoma A&M is the only junior-college football program in the state and is known for its traditional excellence — it has won eight national titles — and history of its players going on to big-time college programs and, many times, the NFL.
After graduating from NEO, Patterson played at Drake University in Iowa, then coached high school ball at Cushing and in his hometown of Okmulgee over the next decade.
In 1980, he'd become head football coach in Okmulgee and expected to settle there.
But the defensive coordinator position opened at NEO and he took it, leaving Okmulgee after just one season.
He was an assistant coach, then dean of admissions at NEO over the next 14 years before accepting the head coaching position in 1996, another time when a strong cynicism surrounded the football program.
Throughout its previous gridiron history, NEO was independent and free to recruit the entire nation. But that changed in the mid-1990s, when it joined the elite Southwest Junior College Football Conference.
The league's rules grant teams just five out-of-state players and no transfers on its active roster each year.