His Colorado tenure ended the way these things tend to for major college head coaches, with Ricardo Patton vacating Boulder amid an acrimonious split and on the heels of the worst year in his 11-plus season run as CU's basketball coach.
Eight years later a much different Patton has returned to the Centennial State. Humbled by the trials of his profession while making what he describes as a concerted effort to enjoy the perks of his job a little more freely, Patton is back in the college game as an assistant to another prominent figure from the CU basketball program, Rodney Billups, with the new regime at the University of Denver.
The architect of the greatest pre-Tad Boyle success Colorado basketball has enjoyed in the modern NCAA era is more than content with his background role as a teacher and advisor at DU.
"I'm extremely proud of the fact that we elevated the (CU) program's success," Patton said. "We went to the NCAA Tournament twice and probably should have gone a third time. I'm really proud of the fact our kids graduated. I still have kids that call me and thank me for the discipline we had in the program. We did things the right way. The program was never in any NCAA scrutiny. I'm most proud of that."
Patton, of course, played the lead role in bringing Billups' older brother, Chauncey Billups, to Boulder, helping to forge the career of a man now considered the premier ambassador of basketball in Colorado. Patton led the Buffs to their first NCAA tourney appearance in 28 years in 1997, with Chauncey Billups scoring 24 points in a memorable first-round upset of Indiana.
By the time Patton completed the final year of his final contract in 2006-07, he had amassed 184 wins — a figure that still ranks second all-time at CU behind Sox Walseth's 261. By then, however, the hyper-intense Patton was being criticized for his lack of communication and affability with fans and boosters.
Patton didn't exactly improve his legacy in a subsequent four-year stint at Northern Illinois that ended with a 35-83 mark. Yet afterward Patton returned to his roots, taking the reins at Central High School in Memphis for three seasons. Competing in a hotbed of a league that included former NBA stars Todd Day and Anfernee Hardaway among his coaching rivals, Patton compiled a 43-34 mark in three seasons before getting contacted by Rodney Billups this past spring.
Eager to continue his mentor role while bringing his relationship with the Billups family full circle, Patton jumped at the opportunity.
"Going back to high school really re-opened my eyes to how much a freshman doesn't know when he steps on a college campus, how unprepared they are to mentally prepare for games." Patton said. "That was a good experience for me and I'm glad I was able to do that.
"I smile more now. When you're in the grind and you're in the middle of building a program, I thought it was us against the world sometimes (at CU). I didn't really have a lot of time to smile. But you learn over the years which battles to choose and which ones are more important. When you're young, you just don't know what you don't know. Fortunately I was able to be a head coach for 15 years and figure some things out."
From the moment Rodney Billups took the DU job on the heels of a six-year stint on Boyle's staff, he has lauded the chance to bring a coach with Patton's wealth of experience to his bench. Not only has the 57-year old Patton already weathered the ups and downs of life as a Division I head coach, but he is past the point of needing a job like the one at DU as a springboard to bigger things.
Mix in Patton's strong recruiting ties in the south and his longstanding personal relationship with the Billups family, and it is the perfect fit for Patton to return to the college game.
"When I was going through this process and I thought I had a chance to get this job, I called coach Patton that night and said I needed him with me," Rodney Billups said. "He said, 'All right, when do I need to be there?' The process has been seamless. He's always on top of everything that's going on in the office. He's great on the floor. He's teaching me how to become a successful head coach. Without him, I'm not sure the success we've had in these six short weeks would be where it's at."