Football

Chris Del Conte faces a bull of a problem in Texas football’s future

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Darrell K Royal’s desk sits in the office of the athletic director of the University of Texas. The legendary football coach was faced with many decisions, including several that altered the future of the department he oversaw while men’s athletic director from 1962 to 1980.

Chris Del Conte now sits behind Royal’s desk. The former TCU athletic director recognized the outsized expectations of the same position at UT. He knew what he was getting into, and even gave Texas fans a taste of bovine humor his first day on the job.

“Why not at the University of Texas?” Del Conte said during his introductory press conference in December of 2017. “It is like riding a bull, eight seconds, hang on, let’s see what we can do.”

Of the bulls in the draw, Del Conte has little experience with one of the more difficult rides he could be paired with. As an athletic director at Rice, TCU, and Texas, Del Conte has hired just one head football coach. He has never had to fire one. In fact, the only coaches he dismissed and found replacements for among the men’s major sports were basketball coaches.

Del Conte has hired well at Texas, snatching Mike White from Oregon for softball and Vic Schaefer from Mississippi State for women’s basketball. Neither of those hires drew a quarter of the scrutiny a potential replacement for Tom Herman would field.

Momentous decisions now are before Del Conte. Does he replace Herman after four years and a 6-3 2020 season? It seems as if he has already tried to do so in Texas’ pursuit of Urban Meyer. Even if the three-time national champion coach does not make Austin his new home, does Del Conte make a move and begin the search for the 31st head coach of the Longhorn football program? He does not appear to want to do that quite yet, releasing a statement Saturday that seemed to muddy the picture regarding Herman rather than clarify it.

Looking back on his career, these decisions would be new draws for Del Conte. This upcoming ride may be the one that defines him professionally. 

Texas head coach Tom Herman (Will Gallagher/IT)

A look at the athletic buildings on TCU’s campus would illustrate the impact Del Conte can have on a department. You would see a renovated football stadium, a new basketball arena, an upgraded baseball stadium, and all would have the Big 12 logo brandished in plenty of places. The buildings were all built debt-free for TCU. The conference logo required additional work from Del Conte.

The accomplishment Del Conte is best known for is his effort to bring TCU into the Big 12, including traveling to Austin to personally ask former athletic director DeLoss Dodds for a ‘yes’ vote to add the Frogs. It changed the fate of TCU forever, and almost paid off in the form of a College Football Playoff appearance within a handful of years.

Being an athletic director, however, is a multifaceted role. It’s not all about fundraising. It’s not all about professional associations. Personnel decisions are crucial, and while at TCU, Del Conte was never forced to prove his mettle in that regard.

When he arrived at TCU, football head coach Gary Patterson and baseball head coach Jim Schlossnagle were in the middle of their successful and current tenures in Fort Worth. His lone men’s major sport hire occurred in 2016 when he relieved Trent Johnson and hired Jamie Dixon to lead the men’s basketball program.

Dixon was a no-brainer for Del Conte. Pittsburgh let him go after an 11th NCAA Tournament appearance in 13 seasons. He was a TCU alumnus, and a job was open at his alma mater. Del Conte’s search list was possibly one name in length. The circumstances around the hire could not have been more favorable for the Horned Frogs.

Del Conte’s hiring record at Rice is similarly short. Owl baseball, Rice’s most successful sport, was in the hands of Wayne Graham. The program won the 2003 national championship and was in Omaha the day Del Conte was introduced in 2006, as well as the two seasons following. Del Conte did replace Rice alumnus Willis Wilson as head basketball coach in 2008 with Ben Braun. Wilson won 219 games in 16 seasons. Braun didn’t last 200 games.

Owl football remains where Del Conte made his only football head coaching hire. When Todd Graham abruptly left Rice for Tulsa after one season, Del Conte tapped Texas State head coach David Bailiff to replace him. Bailiff lasted 11 seasons in Houston, winning three bowl games and one C-USA championship between 2007 and 2017.

Hindsight views Bailiff’s hire positively but that is with nearly 14 years to evaluate the move. Those 14 years are a long time between making the personnel move that resonates throughout an entire school, let alone the athletic department.

Head football coach was never an issue at TCU. Things went well enough for TCU to unveil a statue of Patterson back in 2016.

TCU head coach Gary Patterson and Jalen Reagor (Will Gallagher/IT)

Now, it is the issue at Texas in a year filled with so many other issues. Texas representatives made their desire for Meyer known but saw their efforts stagnate. All this was while Herman coached games and recruited for Texas.

A dismissal would not be Del Conte’s first at Texas, but Herman’s would no doubt be his first big one at Texas. Men’s tennis, track and field, softball, and women’s basketball simply do not compare to filling the seat once occupied by Royal. The head coach’s seat, that is.

Del Conte has illustrated his strengths in his three years as athletic director. The football program broke ground on a new football facility combined with the enclosure of the south end zone of Darrell K Royal – Texas Memorial Stadium in 2019. Swimming coach Eddie Reese recently received the outdoor pool promised to him by Royal. Longhorn baseball has an indoor facility with the latest and greatest tech. The Moody Center will one day replace the Frank Erwin Center at no cost to the university.

Outside of the high-dollar fundraising, Del Conte has reached out to all Longhorn fans with his presence on social media and through his posts on TexasSports.com. His outreach is not just digital in nature. Del Conte turned San Jacinto Blvd. into Bevo Blvd. on gamedays, a carnival-like atmosphere with pre-game appeals for fans of all ages.

His administrative know-how will come in handy when conference realignment becomes the hot topic once again. After coordinating one school’s admittance into the power players of college athletics, there’s little reason to believe he won’t be able to do it once more.

That said, Longhorn football isn’t looking for administrative know-how or fundraising at this juncture. It’s looking for someone to navigate the current process and keep all parties, whether it be UT president Jay Hartzell or ready-to-help(-and-influence) boosters, on for the ride.

Texas is a different bull compared to ones Del Conte has ridden in Houston and Fort Worth, and those strongly associated with the bull have little time for its… stuff.

For the first time in his career, Del Conte is confronted with a decision on the head football coach’s future. It wouldn’t be cheap to remove Herman but keeping him around when it seems like fans and many notable blue-chip recruits have lost faith could deliver a financial impact, too. That’s a financial impact Texas would struggle to absorb in light of ongoing construction and 2020’s drastic effect on intercollegiate athletics.

Royal once quipped “you’ve got to be in position for luck to happen.” Del Conte has not been in this position in his career, but this is part of his job.

The chute is about to open. The eight seconds are about to begin.

Hang on.