At a time of year when the football coaching carousel is typically revolving in a blur, last weekend brought two athletic director moves in the Big 12 that were sudden and stealthy.
Last Saturday, Kirk Bohls of The Austin American-Statesman broke the news that Texas had hired TCU athletic director Chris Del Conte. Next to the Longhorns’ flirtation with Nick Saban, it’s one of the biggest transactions to involve UT since Darrell Royal came to town.
And 48 hours later, TCU announced that it had promoted Jeremiah Donati, Del Conte’s top assistant, as its new AD. Donati’s speedy promotion didn’t create the waves in Fort Worth like those in Austin but the quick and clean decision making indicated TCU has a clue of what to do as a big-time school.
That was in doubt at the beginning of this decade. With conferences changing membership like a teenage girl changes outfits, TCU hoped to move up to the Power Five level. It thought it had done so by joining the Big East but soon after that decision, the Big East lost Syracuse and Pitt to the ACC and was headed toward football extinction.
Del Conte winding up at Texas is ironic because it was Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds who helped TCU earn an invitation to the Big 12. In September of 2011, the Big 12 needed at least two new members after the departure of Missouri and Texas A&M to the SEC. The gregarious Del Conte started working the phones around the Big 12. He found a crucial ally in Oklahoma AD Joe Castiglione, but Del Conte knew that support from Texas was crucial.
As Del Conte tells the story, he arrived in Austin to meet with Dodds. It’s unclear whether it was a scheduled meeting but Del Conte said he waited several hours. Dodds finally emerged from his office.
“Who are you?,” he asked. When Del Conte introduced himself, Dodds misunderstood his name.
“Well, c’mon, Del. Let’s go have a drink and discuss it,” Dodds said.
Four hours later, Del Conte had talked while Dodds listened. He demurred when Del Conte offered him prepared folders as part of the presentation. The next morning, a conference call with Big 12 ADs voted to invite TCU.
Castiglione, texted Del Conte, “I don’t know what you did, but it worked.”
TCU had positioned itself with new and improved facilities and savvy coaching hires. After being snubbed when the Big 12 was formed in the mid-1990s, in two decades it finally attained membership. Del Conte helped push the ball across the goal line.
TCU’s 58,000 living alumni would be a good spring game attendance for the Longhorns. The Texas motto is “What starts here changes the world.” Del Conte doesn’t need to change the world but he will be in charge of an athletic department with the biggest budget that has frequently not been getting the bang (or the national championships) for its buck.
“I think that’s why you come to the University of Texas, for that challenge,” Del Conte said. I think the vision for the University of Texas has been set long ago. It’s to win championships, to do it the right way, to be a beacon to follow. The standard of intercollegiate athletics has been set here.”
Here’s a quick review of three key players involved in what led to new leadership in Austin:
Steve Patterson: He was hired to replace the all-powerful wizard DeLoss Dodds. Patterson tried to bring a pro sports management style to Austin and failed miserably. His 22-month reign of error scared and scarred the athletic department.
Mike Perrin: A former UT football player in the 1960s for Darrell Royal, Perrin was brought in on an interim basis when Patterson was fired in September 2015. He had no experience in running an athletic department – background was as a trial lawyer – but his presence calmed the waters and returned a sense of normalcy. His interim tag was eventually removed but it was evident he wasn’t a long-term answer. The biggest hire he made was baseball coach David Pierce but Perrin’s inexperience was displayed as it was a month-long, stumbling process to the final outcome.
Greg Fenves: The successor to Bill Powers, Fenves was educated in engineering at Cornell and Cal and lacked a background in big-time college sports. However, he’s shown a willingness and understanding to step up and swing for the fences. He helped former coach Charlie Strong hire the offensive coordinator he wanted and after firing Strong, Fenves led the covert operation to swoop in and steal Tom Herman from LSU. His off-the-radar courtship of Del Conte will become legendary in the pantheon of college sports hires.
Going forward, Del Conte faces these crucial issues/decisions:
. The school’s biggest challenge remains finding a football coach that can finish better than .500. Tom Herman’s first season in Austin was disappointing. It was bookended by home games its shouldn’t have lost (Maryland and Texas Tech). The Longhorns’ bowl opponent (Missouri) is on a roll with an explosive offense. In other words, the mirror image of Texas. Every other UT sport could win a national championship but that won’t move the needle unless and until football starts winning and winning big.
· Word of Del Conte’s hiring came the day after Texas A&M launched $75 million into the sun and signed Jimbo Fisher to a 10-year guaranteed deal. The all hat, no cattle Aggies are serious about this football stuff (it just means more, after all). Fisher’s presence will, for a few years at least, alter the recruiting dynamic in the state and make Herman’s job tougher. Plus, there will continue to be calls for Texas and A&M to renew their series. Del Conte will have to maneuver through that minefield.
· One example of the massive complications of a state school like UT is the fact the school has plans to raze the Erwin Center, the 40-year-old home of Longhorns basketball. Tearing down the facility is part of the expansion of the Dell Medical School and the UT Health District. (Imagine Duke razing Cameron for a new law school.) While “The Drum” is past its expiration date, finding space for a new on-campus arena (and parking) is an immense challenge. They’ve already crammed 400 acres on the Forty Acres. An on-campus basketball facility is crucial. Del Conte oversaw several successful facility projects at TCU and he’ll need all his moxie to figure out the basketball facility issue.
. Control and mollify the Big Bucks. There are dozens of donors like Red McCombs, but few like to have their voices heard. McCombs did much to undermine Strong’s time in Austin when he questioned if the new football coach was fit for the job. (Insert a hint of racism if you like.) At Del Conte’s introductory news conference, McCombs took a shot at Herman: “Quite frankly, I thought (Tom Herman) had put it together, but he didn’t. We’re on short shrift there. We’ve got to get it done.” He’s not wrong but Del Conte’s problem is there are others like McCombs who will express their displeasure in private phone calls. Keeping the money flowing and the contributors happy is a major undertaking for whoever is the athletic director at UT.
Currently, it’s possible to win the argument that of the four Lone Star state schools in the Big 12, TCU’s athletic department is in the best competitive shape. Texas has now hired the boss of that department. Combined with UT’s platinum-plated ATM card, it will be interesting to see what Chris Del Conte can accomplish in Austin.