FOX Sports College Football Analyst
When TCU coach Sonny Dykes called Joe Gillespie and offered him his first chance to coordinate a defense at the Power 5 level, you’d think Gillespie felt he’d been given a gift.
After all, it would be an hour’s drive from his hometown of Stephenville, Texas, giving him the coach’s dream of having family nearby in a place he knows like the back of his hand.
But there was another side.
“Of all the jobs, why should I go on that boy?” Gillespie told FOX Sports.
“That guy” would be Gary Patterson, now an assistant at Texas, who is so monumental to TCU that built he a monumenta life-size statue that can be found on campus.
Patterson had built TCU’s identity around playing stifling defense, and while he and TCU were making Rose Bowl appearances in 2010 and the Peach Bowl in 2014, Gillespie was coaching for high school state championships at Stephenville High School.
Now Gillespie, who had coached with Texas High School Coaches Association Hall of Famer Art Briles, Mike Copeland, Bill Young and Philip Montgomery at Tulsa, all coaches he worked with and for in Stephenville, he would have the unenviable task of carrying on Patterson’s legacy as a defensive player at TCU.
Gillespie and the other members of the TCU staff understand the legend they chose to follow. Dykes, offensive coordinator Garrett Riley, the younger brother of USC coach Lincoln Riley, and Gillespie are all native Texans and have the utmost respect for what Patterson accomplished at TCU.
They also wanted to continue building on the foundation Patterson laid. As defensive coordinator, that meant Gillespie was in the spotlight, and through 15 days of spring practice, he saw what his defense could do.
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“You came back last spring,” Gillespie told me, “and it’s just pure setup. Half the time, my players were looking at me cross-eyed. And I told them you’ve got to keep believing . Trust me, and I promise these things will work.”
He didn’t know if he would, but he would notice an attitude in the players who would become his 2022 TCU defense that was different from other defenses he had coached in the past.
“We had the spring game, and they finally started to look like they were picking up the defense a little bit,” he said. “And they knew they were just beginning to scratch the surface of its potential and really starting to understand what it’s all about.
“I remember as we walked off the field that day, everybody said in one way or another, ‘Shucks, Coach, I wish this was still going on. I wish we had 15 more days of practice.’ Usually, especially in spring ball, when the last play is made, so are your players. But not these guys. Then I knew that they were preparing something for us here, and that it might be special. Then in fall camp, these guys just showed up really hungry.”
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After making a name for himself among Texas high school coaches during his two decades in Stephenville, Gillespie earned his first chance to become Tulsa’s collegiate defensive coordinator, replacing a local legend to Young.
Young had coached and coordinated defenses from Ohio State to Oklahoma to USC. It was Young who coordinated Kansas’ defense in 2007 and is partly responsible for the Jayhawks’ best year of football in history.
It was Young, an Okie, who coordinated Tulsa’s defense from 2015 to 2018. It was Young who hired Gillespie to become his linebackers coach. And it was Young who stepped aside, withdrawing to make way for Gillespie to use his trademark 3-3-5 pressure defence.
In Tulsa, coaching alongside one of his best friends in Montgomery, Gillespie turned outside linebacker Zaven Collins into a Bednarik Award winner, Nagurski Award winner and first-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. But during those six years, it was clear that he and his family did not want to stay in Okie for long.
“I was born and raised in this area (North Texas) and it’s my home,” Gillespie told FOX Sports. “When we left Texas and went to Tulsa, my family and I first thought was how far could we get home?”
Gillespie laughed at the thought because he had no idea what his life would look like seven years after he decided to leave his high school football coaching position in Stephenville, where he spent the first 21 years of his career of coach But he knows he’s better for it.
“My daughter graduated from the University of Tulsa,” he said. “She met her husband in Tulsa. We were blessed with three grandchildren, we only had a third there, and if I hadn’t taken this job (in Tulsa), I wouldn’t have these things right now.”
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Beginning in fall camp, Gillespie implored his TCU players to keep pushing but not too hard. There were times when he felt they were playing fast but out of control.
“I could hear a little bit of them thinking, ‘We’ve got to get better, and we’ve got to get better right now.’ that you don’t want to be championship-caliber right now. As much as I’d like to play championship-caliber football, sustaining that for 14 weeks is tough.
“You want to peak when you need to, and I started telling them about six weeks ago, coming into week 10 or 11, that’s when we’re looking to play some of our best football so far and use them as lines basis to play. even better football every week after.”
He deliberately periodized his attitude, not unlike strength coaches who periodize their workouts, so they could peak at exactly the right time. And boy, have they done it so far. Last Saturday in Texas, Gillespie’s Horned Frogs silenced a loud, burnt orange-clad majority in Austin.
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With the man who built the TCU defensive brand on the opposite sideline, the Horned Frogs held the Longhorns to their lowest offensive output in a game since 1997 (three points) and lowest total yards in a game since the 12 seniors started playing. in 1996 (199). TCU also held Texas running back Bijan Robinson, a likely first-round pick, to just 29 rushing yards on 12 carries.
It was a defensive masterpiece against Steve Sarkisian, a man known for his offensive creativity and winner of the Broyles Award, given to the nation’s best assistant coach.
Now it’s Gillespie who is in the mix for the Broyles Award (for the second time), listed as one of November’s 51 nominees for the honor. He will face stiff competition from Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, Michigan defensive coordinator Jesse Minter and Georgia offensive coordinator Todd Monken, among others.
If Gillespie wins, there’s no telling how long he’ll remain an assistant coach. Eight of the last nine Broyles Award winners have gone on to become Power 5 head coaches after winning it, including Mike Locksley (Maryland), Brent Venables (Oklahoma), Tony Elliott (Virginia), Riley and Sarkisian.
So have you thought about running your own major league football program?
“Has it crossed my mind? Absolutely,” he said. “But I love what I’m doing at TCU. God has always given me a sense of peace as I contemplate the right decision for me and my family. It’s the peace that brought me to Tulsa and the peace that brings me bring to TCU. So if there’s peace in a position like that, then yes. But I’m pretty calm right now.”
By all accounts, it should be. The 10-0 Horned Frogs are one of four undefeated teams remaining in the sport and one of four that control their own destiny when it comes to the College Football Playoff. Win the next three games, starting with Baylor on Saturday (noon ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app), and they should be there.
[What we’re watching in TCU-Baylor]
And Gillespie knows what a CFP appearance would mean to the Horned Frog faithful. After all, in 2014, a bunch of suits in a boardroom picked Ohio State over TCU and Baylor for the coveted fourth playoff spot, making the folks at Fort Worth believed if their brand was the size of the Buckeyes, maybe they were. they would have been the ones to win the national title that season.
The wound is still sore at Amon G. Carter Stadium, and now that they have the CFP selection committee right where they want it, Gillespie wants to help TCU fans get through it.
“We understand what we’ve done so far, but it’s not over,” he said. “We’ve got to win. And like anything in life, I don’t want to get in on somebody else’s credit. I want to get in on my own. So we’ve got to go take care of our business.”
RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast “The number one college football show.“Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young i subscribe to “The RJ Young Show” on YouTube.
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