The other part of Texas’ and the NCAA’s economic engine, men’s basketball, is currently 11-5 in the Big 12, likely the most competitive conference in the country this season.
Chris Del Conte mentioned head men’s basketball coach Shaka Smart by name several times during his introductory press conference, and his work at TCU is evidence how highly he regards men’s basketball in an athletic department.
TCU only has seven NCAA tournament appearances in its entire history, yet Del Conte saw the importance it has on a program. Despite having a mostly mediocre basketball history, Del Conte convinced TCU donors to help build Schollmaier Arena, one of the nicest facilities in the Big 12.
Del Conte will have to build another arena soon, but his basketball situation seems much better at Texas than it did at TCU.
During the interview, Del Conte admitted he had only attended three games this season; home games against Kansas and Michigan and the road win at Iowa State. He still was optimistic about the future of Smart’s program.
Smart’s recruiting classes, like Herman’s, drew Del Conte’s praise. The AD admitted that in the difficult Big 12, not having a consistent starting lineup was difficult for the Horns.
“He’s not had the same starting lineup for the three games that I’ve been there,” Del Conte said. “We’re talking one or two players that have been out every single time. It’s hard to be consistent.”
Del Conte was asked again if a program needed to win for it to be rewarded with new facilities or amenities. He responded with a similar answer to what he said about the football program.
“It would be difficult for me to go out and say ‘you must win before we build something,’” Del Conte said. “That’s not right. We, collectively, all must help. Coaches, student-athletes, donors, friends, parents, you name it, collectively, every Longhorn must help. If you’re not in the theater helping, then you are on the fence criticizing and you’re not doing anything about it.”
CFP, B12, LHN
During the College Football Playoff era, only one Big 12 team has made it into the top four: Oklahoma.
In 2014, Del Conte’s TCU team was held out of the playoff after sharing the Big 12 Championship with Baylor. With this in his past, it would be easy for Del Conte to think that the Big 12 was not a stable conference conducive to success for Texas. However, Del Conte sang its praises.
“At the end of the day, if you look at the Big 12 for the moment, were we not No. 1 or 2 last year for every single sport we participated in?” Del Conte asked.
To his point, the Big 12 was successful in many of the sports it participated in. For Del Conte, it’s not so much the problems the Big 12 has as the problems the Big 12 seems to have.
“We don’t,” Del Conte answered when asked why the league has a perception problem. “We have a media problem. We are number one or two in every single sport we sponsor. That is phenomenal. We have a 10 team round robin. You have nine games you play. You play a Power 5 opponent. If you win your league, you get in the CFP. Oklahoma’s done it twice.”
Referencing 2014, Del Conte said that it was not a perception problem that kept TCU and Baylor out of the playoff, but rather scheduling. At the end of the season Baylor had two wins against teams in the CFP top 25, TCU and Kansas State. TCU only had one, Kansas State. Ohio State, who made it into the playoff despite being ranked behind the Horned Frogs and Bears for much of the year, had three.
The media topic that year was that the Big 12 did not have a thirteenth data point the other conferences had. For Del Conte, now all those criticisms have been solved.
“Now you have addressed every question,” Del Conte said. “You play a round robin, you don’t duck anybody – nine game schedule. Everyone plays a Power 5 opponent. You play 10 great games. We just have to go take care of business and the rest of it handles itself.”
This season, the thirteenth data point worked against the Big 12’s favor. Had the conference not had a title game, Oklahoma likely still enters the playoff and TCU would have received an invite to one of the other four New Year’s Six bowl games.
TCU’s loss in the Big 12 Championship game knocked them down in the polls, relegating the Horned Frogs to the Alamo Bowl where they defeated Stanford. A New Year’s Six appearance would have brought more viewers and more dollars to the Big 12, but the conference championship cost the conference that.
Even with this negative result, Del Conte said the championship game did its job.
“The goal is never to get into a New Year’s Six bowl,” Del Conte said about the championship game. “The goal was to get into the CFP.”
Despite the on-field and on-court successes, television viewership and TV contracts are some of the leading factors in what will happen to the landscape of college football conferences in the next few years.
Del Conte was asked if there were enough viewers for the Big 12 to be sustainable. “There’s plenty of viewership in this great state,” he replied, citing the Texas Bowl as the most viewed and most attended non-playoff bowl game in the 2017 postseason.
Not necessarily an anchor weighing it down, but an elephant in the room regarding Texas’ next move as far as TV contracts go is the Longhorn Network.
“A phenomenal tool for the University of Texas,” Del Conte said describing LHN. “It is 24/7 for the University of Texas. What a great recruiting tool. What a great platform for us to tell our story.”
Since he only recently started the job, Del Conte’s experience with LHN so far has been his day-one interview with Lowell Galindo. “That’s as far as I know about it,” he added.
Del Conte wasn’t prepared to dive into detail about the LHN, saying he is still in the look, listen, and learn phase when it comes to things like that. He did say he believed Texas and ESPN would honor the terms of the contract, and that Texas planned for it to continue until its expiration.
“It’s a signed contract,” Del Conte said. “I firmly believe it will be.”
Texas has been one of the few athletic departments in the country to maintain a split between the men’s and women’s athletic department. While the men’s AD position has been a rotating door these past five years, women’s AD, Chris Plonsky, is in her 16th year, overlooking her side of the athletic department.
As he did at his introductory press conference, Del Conte sang Plonsky’ praises. During the interview, he maintained that the expectations for her job are the same as for his.
“Texas first,” Del Conte said. “That’s how I operate with everyone. University of Texas first. We’re a program of putting coaches and student-athletes first.”
He said he believed too much was being made about what his and Plonsky’s roles were, repeating that everyone’s job in the athletic department was “Texas first.”
However, when asked who the decision would fall to if volleyball head coach Jerritt Elliott or women’s basketball head coach Karen Aston needed something, he would be in the room.
“Here’s who they’re going to call; a normal chain of command,” Del Conte said. “Every major decision, I will be involved in.”
Del Conte dismissed very few coaches while athletic director at TCU, but he understands it is a role he might have to take on at some point during his time at Texas. When asked about specific coaching contracts in the athletic department, Del Conte refused to comment saying that he didn’t want to say anything about contracts without having all the details. He did admit the buck stops with him.
Given a hypothetical on if “Coach X” needed to be hired or fired, Del Conte said he would be calling the shots. “Any decision that will be made, I will be the person ultimately responsible for making that decision,” he said.