On December 9 2017, TCU’s Chris Del Conte was named the vice president and director of intercollegiate athletics at the University of Texas. Since his hiring, he’s appeared on Longhorn Network, met with donors, and even reached out to various fans who normally wouldn’t have access to him on social media.
Del Conte had a good thing going for him at TCU. He built an athletic department where football and men’s basketball, which Del Conte described in an interview as the “economic engine” for the rest of the programs the NCAA fields, had successful coaches and pristine new facilities.
So why Texas?
“I wanted to see if I could do the job, test myself with the job, and challenge myself with the job,” Del Conte said. “There plenty of opportunities to go other places, but at the University of Texas, this is the ultimate athletic director’s job.”
In his introductory press conference and throughout the interview, Del Conte continued to explain how student-athletes have an opportunity to win a national championship at Texas that few other places provide.
For the revenue sports, neither has been anywhere close to that mark in recent years. Volleyball, men’s golf, track, and women’s basketball have been successful, but those aren’t the hypothetical engines. Darrell K Royal – Texas Memorial Stadium has been partially empty for much of the past few seasons, and the Frank Erwin Center is lacking in home court advantage due to average results.
So when UT president Greg Fenves gave Del Conte the call to be AD, he knew exactly what the job entailed and what his responsibilities were.
Since being hired a little more than one month ago, Del Conte has tried to get the lay of the land on the Forty Acres. He does this by walking office-to-office and building-to-building in order to get a feel for who he is working for; Texas student-athletes and coaches.
At TCU, it was much easier for him to do this. The Horned Frogs had most of their athletic facilities centralized in one area, and had a much smaller staff.
“It’s just different,” Del Conte said. “When you have that big of an organization, it’s just breaking down the silos. I think when you become this big, you become silo driven.”
Del Conte mentioned undertaking S.W.O.T. analyses during his beginning days in office, and while he’s in the process of that, he’s placing value on just getting to know everyone in the building, as happens with people moving on to new jobs.
Texas’ new AD enjoys learning what drives people and makes them tick. One of his go-to questions when meeting someone is asking what book they are reading or just finished reading. “Reading books is a way to look at things a little bit differently, maybe through someone else’s eyes,” Del Conte said.
In the interview, Del Conte had the question turned on him. He said he’s currently reading Patrick Lencioni’s “The Advantage.” Amazon’s description says the author “makes the case that there is no better way to achieve profound improvement in an organization than by attacking the root causes of dysfunction, politics, and confusion.”
While meeting with his UT constituents, he has been looking for their definition of what UT’s greatest strengths and weaknesses are. He is working to figure out how he can help rather than the alternative.
Del Conte believes that each coach is the “CEO of the program,” and that he should honor the coach’s program and do everything that he can as AD to help them win.
“Before I start pointing fingers at a coach and saying this or that, I must look back and say what did I do to help that coach be successful?” Del Conte said. “What did we do as an enterprise?”
The enterprise, Del Conte admitted, is a failed enterprise. At most athletic departments, football and basketball are the only sports that operate in the black. Texas is one of the more profitable athletic departments in the nation, but that doesn’t mean that golf, soccer and softball are raking in the dough.
“I am running a failed business model,” Del Conte said. “If you’re a business person, a business person in an MBA class, and you had 19 shampoo products and only one made money? What are you going to do?”
The answer, of course, is to shut down the other 18, but that’s not an option at Texas or anywhere.
What Del Conte has noticed and has noted several times in his first month is the change in stature from his former job. At TCU, he had to scratch tooth and nail to increase the notoriety of the Horned Frogs, including several major conference changes.
That effort lead to him being part of an extremely successful athletic program. At Texas, the expectations he’s embracing are much higher.
“I came here for that brand and to win a national championship across all sports,” Del Conte said. “That is what we have to continue to embrace. It’s not being arrogant. It’s just a fact. Embrace it. Do the very best that you can and live up to it.”
Each athletic department and athletic director is constantly faced with several projects and expansions in order to improve his athletic department.
Del Conte began his tenure with a well-received and well-covered gift from former Longhorn and current Golden State Warrior Kevin Durant, who donated $3 million to a school he spent just one season.
That was the first of what Del Conte said will be several projects to be announced in the coming weeks, but he knows the two biggest projects that are looming on his agenda.
“We have the tennis event coming up,” Del Conte said, referencing the new tennis center across Interstate-35. “We have some big gifts we’re going to announce in the next couple of weeks, pretty fantastic. Then we’ll continue to fundraise on the little projects we have because we have two big things that we have to address, the basketball stadium and the south end zone project. Those are going to require formal approval, formal plans, and those are things that we’ll address as they come down the pipe.”
Football, despite being the economic engine, isn’t the most pressing issue at this point. The university is in the process of completing the Dell Medical School, and that will require the Erwin Center to be torn down at some point.
Del Conte did not say whether the new basketball arena or the south end zone expansion was a higher priority than the other, but he admitted the arena was most pressing because “that venue is slated to be no más.”
Over and over, Del Conte repeated that Texas has always been the beacon of facilities in terms of college football. He complimented head football coach Tom Herman’s drive last year to improve a facility that Del Conte said had “good bones” but needed a “band aid.”
There are several projects and expansions Del Conte knows he has to work on before he can focus all his attention to the two big ones, including ones for golf, baseball and potentially swimming.
Per Del Conte, most of the meetings and workings behind the new basketball arena are in the early stages. There is no “drop-dead” date that the AD needs to be out of the Erwin Center by, and there are no set plans as far as location, capacity, or amenities.
What Del Conte does know is that whatever venue, location, and details they decide on, the decision will be made with the needs of the city in mind.
“In our town, with the music scene that we have and the vibrant city we have, we have to have a multi-use facility,” Del Conte said. “You have to think through that, and all the parameters that work. It doesn’t mean you diminish home-court advantage. You can build modern arenas that have all the things and accoutrements you need to do a concert to a basketball game to Cirque du Soleil. You have to have one of those in this town.”
Coaching contracts and various arms races
Del Conte was asked about recent reports saying that Texas defensive coordinator Todd Orlando was in talks to receive an extension and raise after he fielded a defense that finished 21st in the nation and second in the Big 12 in defensive S&P+.
While the AD did not get into details, he spoke in general that made it sound as if he knew the importance of not only keeping Orlando, but other coaches who continuously showcase good products.
“Our goal is to make sure that Todd Orlando is here coaching at the University of Texas,” Del Conte said. “If you know me from TCU, I am not going to lose coaches. My job is to maintain coaches. We want them, we’re going to keep them. Period.”
He has skins on the wall when it comes to not losing coaches, too. Over his 18 seasons as TCU’s head football coach, Gary Patterson has received multiple overtures, including from schools within the state. The same goes for TCU’s baseball coach, Jim Schlossnagle. Despite other programs of “increased stature” calling with heavy interest, Del Conte made sure they stayed.
The reason Del Conte made sure to keep coaches, especially a program-revolutionizing coach like Patterson, is because he knew the economic impact they had for the entire AD.
“When a football coach the caliber of a coach that’s helping our program be successful, that benefits all 20 of our sports, my job is to make sure we keep those coaches at the University of Texas within reason,” Del Conte said. “when I was faced with the challenge of losing coaches at TCU that were helping our brand, helping not only our economic engine but helping our brand, then those coaches needed to be rewarded because the end result for that university and the improvement of those successful programs disseminate throughout the entire university.”
Some schools, including several within the state, have drastically altered what is seen as the market rate for head and assistant football coaches. In addition, millions and millions of dollars are being spent on facilities and pumped into other areas, while the student-athlete only sees the money from their monthly stipend.
Del Conte, who credits collegiate athletics for getting him to where he is today, sees no problem in the system. During the interview, Del Conte said that college athletics provided scholarships and education to young people at a level only surpassed by the GI Bill.
“The ultimate idea of college athletics, in my opinion, is you’re still providing the opportunity for young people to get a great education,” Del Conte said. “I had Emmanuel [Acho] in my office the other day with our linebacker [Malik Jefferson]. We were discussing life in general. We’re providing more opportunity for young people to get an education than ever before.”
All this money being spent has made amateurism a hot topic, and some questioning whether the NCAA’s idea of amateurism is a sham, let alone sustainable.
For Del Conte, it’s a problem few have.
“We are providing opportunities for 523 student athletes,” he said. “Two percent of those go pro. Two percent. That’s it. If you look at our football team right now, maybe two percent will go pro. The rest will become lawyers, doctors, productive citizens.”
When asked point-blank if a college player should be able to make money off his likeness, Del Conte said no. “Go pro, then.”
“If you come to Texas, you’re going to get a great education and we’re going to provide you with the platform to do that,” Del Conte said. “I’m not running an enterprise based on one person. I’m running it based on the totality of 523.”
When the topic of the football program came up, Del Conte’s face lit up with excitement.
“First time we won a bowl game since 2012, right? Pretty awesome,” Del Conte said. “Our young football coach has an amazing recruiting class. Those things are things you can build off of. You look at it and say we should win a national championship tomorrow? That’s foolish thinking. The idea is that he is building the bits and pieces of the team that he should be successful on. His recruiting class is great. He’s going to finish with a great recruiting class. I like his staff.”
Del Conte chose to focus more on the positive rather than the mediocre to negative by Texas standards of the past eight seasons. He admitted that media and fans may quickly look for the negative rather than searching for the positive, but that’s not his job.
“I have to look at the positive lights that are happening,” Del Conte said. “I’m not asking you to do that, but I’m looking at that. This year, our first year head coach won a bowl game. First year head coach has the No. 2 recruiting class in the country. Those are positive things that I’m looking at.”
While preparing for the Texas Bowl in Houston, Herman and the Longhorns were able to practice at the University of Houston. Herman, who previously coached at Houston, worked hard to get an indoor practice facility for the Cougars during his two season on Cullen Blvd.
Herman gushed about the indoor facility at a media availability during bowl practices, and Del Conte understands why. “For him to get a chance to see what his intellectual property was, that’s pretty exciting,” Del Conte said.
Every coach has their wish list, and it’s almost a given that most of the coaches in the athletic department have tried to give Del Conte their wish list.
For Del Conte, programs don’t need to prove to be successful in order for him to ask for various improvements for the program.
“I don’t want to wait ‘til we say we have a winning season for me to go ask for money,” Del Conte said. “That would mean that I’m not doing my job.”
He cited helping to build TCU’s new basketball arena despite not fielding the most successful program prior to the arrival of Jaime Dixon as TCU’s head men’s basketball coach. He also helped build Tudor Fieldhouse at Rice despite the Owls not having a strong basketball tradition.
Toward the end of the interview, Del Conte illustrated a situation where he lived up to what he had said.
“I’m not afraid of asking,” Del Conte said. “I asked a guy for $15 million the other day and he thought I was crazy.”
Del Conte didn’t get the large sum of money, but for him “the point is the expectation was going to be ‘we need your help.’ Why not make the ask? I’m not being disrespectful. It’s not being disingenuous. We need your help and we’re going to get right together.”