Wearing a suit and tie every weekday, Cory Patterson was on the path most expected from the finance major.
He worked on IRAs for major firms such as Bank of America and A.G. Edwards in St. Louis. Patterson, who grew up in a high-crime neighborhood in the city and was the first in his family to graduate from college, knew he had made it.
Only one thing.
"It just wasn't for me," he said.
Patterson worked with accounts that dealt with divorce and death.
"Everyone you talk to is mad and upset," he said. "I did well in school in (accounting), but it was really stressful for me. I didn't handle that stress well, that corporate stress. I was always thinking about it."
After work, he would rush to volunteer coach a youth football team at a Boys & Girls Club.
"It became a stress relief," he said. "I loved it. The football field was like home."
Patterson, 37, could be the poster child for pursuing happiness. Only four years removed from working in accounting, he is a Big Ten assistant football coach.
Plucked out of Trinity Catholic High School – where as head coach from 2015 to 2017, he transformed the program into a powerhouse – he joined Illinois coach Lovie Smith's staff as tight ends coach in January.
"The biggest acquisition of this whole year is Cory Patterson," CBS Sports national recruiting analyst Tom Lemming said. "He's the most prolific high school coach in Missouri. This guy could change next year's recruiting completely around. It's the best move I've seen Illinois make in years."
The Illini received a commitment last month from Trinity Catholic quarterback Isaiah Williams, the top-ranked Class of 2019 recruit in Missouri and No. 29 nationally in the 247Sports.com composite rankings. Other Trinity Catholic players – such as four-star linebacker Shammond Cooper, running back Alphonzo Andrews Jr., wide receiver Marcus Washington and offensive tackle Ira Henry – are considering scholarship offers from the Illini.
Establishing recruiting pipelines is key for Illinois to rebuild from a winless Big Ten season.
"As a recruiter, yeah, we expected good things," Smith said. "(He's) a guy who knows the St. Louis area an awful lot. He should be a good recruiter whatever area we put him in. He won't just be in St. Louis. As a man, once you have a conversation with him, you see something right there. He's genuine."
When Smith recruited Larry Boyd, now a rising sophomore offensive lineman, out of Trinity Catholic, he witnessed Patterson's abilities.
After two seasons as an assistant coach, Patterson took over the struggling program and went 27-6 in his three seasons as head coach, leading the Titans to the 2016 Missouri Class 2 title game. The 2017 squad went 9-1 and reached the state semifinals.
"When I got the phone call (from Illinois), I was really surprised by it," said Patterson, who has two daughters – Nyla, 8, and Nori, 2 – with his wife, Tiffany. "I had to make a decision fast. ... It bothered me a little because I was so close to the guys I coached, some of them since they were 5, 6 years old. They were like my babies."
Mentoring young athletes drew him to coaching.
A 2002 graduate of Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Mo. – where a knee injury cut short his playing career – Patterson scuttled from his accounting jobs to youth coaching. He later accepted a position in St. Louis Community College's accounting department, then coached as an assistant after school at Christian Brothers College High School before heading to volunteer in the evening with a youth team called The Future.
"The youth (coaching job) was free," Patterson said. "None of the jobs were paying a ton. It was just really what I wanted to do."
After serving as Trinity Catholic's offensive coordinator in 2013-14, Patterson was hired as head coach in 2015.
At all of his coaching stops, Patterson has scrimped, borrowed or charged his own credit cards to take players on college tours and to hear experts in various fields – such as pilots – give advice on success. At Trinity, they took at least two trips per month.
"I just figured it out," he said. "I'd call old friends: 'Hey, I'm broke. I'm down to my last couple hundred dollars. Can you help us?' "
Those associated with the high school program recall Patterson feeding players, hosting families at his home and driving players home from practices. He was also a sophomore dean and gym and health teacher at Trinity before coaching in the afternoons.
"You couldn't find a kid who played for him who didn't think he would do anything for them," said Bill Cooper, Shammond Cooper's dad and an assistant coach at Trinity.
Patterson said he related to players who grew up in poverty or in gang-filled neighborhoods and felt he could be a positive example.
"A lot of the guys I had come from struggling environments," he said. "You are what you see. If you're in a neighborhood with drugs or violence, you start becoming that."
Patterson grew up with his parents and five siblings in Walnut Park, "one of the roughest areas in St. Louis," he said. Gunfire was not uncommon. Friends died from gun violence.
He said both of his brothers have been in prison. His mom does not have a high school education, he said, and his dad did not finish middle school.
But they pushed him to excel.
"My dad is a stickler," said Patterson, who boxed at his dad's request while growing up. "He's like: 'You're going to do what I want you to do. You don't have an opinion.' We couldn't come home and watch TV and then do homework. My dad would call teachers, be at every parent- teacher conference. Believe me, you didn't want to be the person with the bad grades."
"When you see people fail in front of you, you want to be the guy to make it," Patterson said. "For me to make it meant to survive where I grew up and be able to take care of my family. It wasn't being a millionaire."
Patterson finished in the top five in his high school class and earned a Rotary Club scholar award while also excelling at football and basketball and was popular enough to be voted homecoming king. He dreamed of becoming an aeronautical engineer but wasn't all bookworm. He even performed in a rap group called Blackout and Wonder with his best friend, Anthony White.
"It's just something in him that wanted to be different, not be a product of his environment," White said. "It was important to him to change that message and show that people who do come from those upbringings, they can be positive members of society. He was very determined to be successful."
Success has come quickly for Patterson. He expects to help Illinois rebuild by connecting with players the same way he did in St. Louis.
"It's all about relationships," he said. "(Parents) saw how much I took care of young men. People understand and know I'm going to do the right things for their sons. I think that will continue on at the college level."