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.
“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?”