“There was a pretty good discussion in the community: Could we win in Texas with those rules?” Patterson remembered. “I felt like we could win with Oklahoma players.”
Patterson was right; in 1998, NEO's third season in the league, it won the SWJCFC and went on to win two more league titles during the first Patterson era.
The key was working to never lose an in-state player to an out-of-state junior college.
“When I left in 2003, we were sending guys to Division I right and left,” Patterson said. “But what had happened here over the last several years was kids in Oklahoma who were non-qualifiers or bubble kids went to Butler (Kan.), Coffeyville (Kan.) or Navarro (Texas).
“When we got into this conference, we knew that we could not lose an Oklahoma kid to another junior college.”
Patterson arrived back in Miami too late to recruit for 2011, but he immediately made recruiting his staff's top priority.
“I learned a long time ago that I'm a much better coach when they can run a 4.5 (40-yard dash) than a 5-flat,” Patterson said with a chuckle.
Recruiting is easier when there's extra money for coaches to travel, and Patterson has worked to raise it. He's put together several fundraising events, including a golf scramble this month that raised over $10,000.
NEO's campus renovation and expansion over the last several years has also made the school more appealing; Hale said the college has invested around $40 million in new facilities over the last five years.
The football team is entering its third season in a new locker room and weight room, and there are plans to renovate the stadium, which hasn't had a face-lift since the 1960s.
But Patterson has also made sure he and his staff are traveling around the state selling the program to its prospects.
“Dale's about as respected a football man as there is in Oklahoma,” Hale said. “He's got tons of high school coaches around the state that respect him a great deal.”
The results so far have spoken for themselves. His first recruiting class since returning was full of top talent, including potential Division I talent like Owasso quarterback Kason Key, Anadarko running back Sheldon Wilson and Putnam City running back Casey Curtis.
“That's what we have to sell, the fact that if you come here, NEO will give you a second opportunity to get to Division I,” Patterson said. “Some guys don't go Division I because of grades, so we help get them graduated and meet the NCAA qualifications. Or some guys come to NEO because someone said they weren't quite fast enough or weren't quite big enough.”
Sophomore linebacker DeAngelo Jennings, from Bixby, said he immediately felt a difference when Patterson took over last summer.
“He came in and took charge,” Jennings said. “We're all looking to get to that higher level, and Coach Patterson couldn't have come at a better time. He knows what it takes to get us to the next level.”
In December, Patterson turns 66. He isn't sure how long he'll stay on this time; he's also the school's athletic director now, and he thinks he'll stay in that position even after he's done coaching.
But the coaching job is one he isn't eager to give up. He'd missed the on-the-field side of the game during those seven years at OSU, and he wants to establish some sort of stability for a program on its fourth head coach in nine years.
“When I feel like I've done all I can do with the program, then it will be time,” he said. “But I'm not about to just back away very quickly.”
One thing he'll never back away from is his love for the college.
Patterson met his wife there. His kids both went to school there.
“I really wanted to stay one more year (at OSU) because I knew we were going to be really good,” Patterson said.
“But (NEO is) a lifeblood. We've got to maintain this great tradition. If we don't, what's going to happen to NEO football?”