TYLER — The “This is Texas Tour” is finished, but the rebuild is ongoing.
Athletic director Chris Del Conte played to a full room Wednesday night at the Holiday Inn in Earl Campbell’s hometown, closing out the 10-city tour with promises of better facilities, more wins and plenty of enthusiasm to a crowd he said was the most energetic of the tour.
For all I know, he could have said that to several other towns he visited, but my fellow Tylerites ate it up nonetheless.
If he wanted to, Del Conte could hang up the AD’s hat and become a stand-up comedian because there were plenty of laughs to go around. The scheduled emcee had a conflict, so Del Conte grabbed the mic and interviewed soccer coach Angela Kelly, diving coach Matt Scoggin and men’s basketball coach Shaka Smart. He had copious notes on index cards — he does his homework — and mixed in a few barbs between questions to the audience’s delight.
“Let’s be honest, none of you are bright enough to get into the University of Texas,” he said to big laughs.
Del Conte’s barnstorming tour of the state was brilliant in its execution and more effective than Charlie Strong’s similar 2014 effort because he involved coaches from several sports and members from other departments like admissions and the Texas Exes.
It was a review of the past sports year, from the successes of the golf and track teams to baseball’s regular-season Big 12 title. Of course, the program’s financial successes will come down to how well things go in football and basketball and there were plenty of those discussions during a 30-minute Q&A after the coaches spoke.
Back when the Horns were winning in everything — between 2002 and 2005 — it wouldn’t be unusual to see different coaches sprout up at other sporting events. Del Conte wanted to bring that kind of camaraderie with this tour. While it was definitely about getting fans excited about the future and getting some donation dollars along the way, he also wanted to send a message to his coaches that they’re all on the same team. To that end, he has a coaches retreat scheduled.
“It’s been really neat for me to get to spend time for some of the other coaches on the travel, and talk shop with them and get to know their personal stories and learn about their teams more,” Smart said. “We all get so busy that sometimes we get tunnel vision, so that’s been good as well.”
Smart was always close to former coaches Strong and Augie Garrido but was interested to learn something about his current colleagues, including Kelly, whose talents went far beyond being a Hall of Fame soccer player turned head coach. She won a national badminton championship in Canada at age 14, something Del Conte shared with the audience.
Football coach Tom Herman didn’t make the trip but there was plenty of discussion about the gridiron, from the game-day experience to scheduling national powers Alabama and Ohio State, all the way down to the price for a plate of nachos at the concession stands.
“We’re going to be like Walmart,” Del Conte said. “We’re going to roll back those prices. Not too far back, but we’re rolling them back.”
More laughs of course.
It wasn’t all smiles and giggles from CDC. During our sit-down he talked about outgoing softball coach Connie Clark, who stepped down earlier that day in a tearful meeting with Del Conte and women’s athletic director Chris Plonsky, who also was in Tyler. Clark, the only coach in program history, lead the team for 22 seasons, including three College World Series appearances, but didn’t win a title despite the presence of eventual Hall of Fame pitcher Cat Osterman on her roster.
I chatted briefly with Plonsky about her former hire, and it was nothing but respect for what Clark accomplished. When asked about any financial settlements, Del Conte steered the conversation toward his admiration for the coach though it’s a well-known practice at Texas to take care of its coaches after a parting of the ways.
“She told us it was time,” he said. “She’s the OG. She’s the originator. She started that program. She built that stadium. There’s a lot of sweat and tears. She’s a wonderful lady. She said it was time for her to turn the keys over to someone else. We hugged and talked about what we wanted to do next in life and that was it.”
Looking ahead, this won’t be the last of the the statewide Longhorns tours. Del Conte loves the hands-on approach and he is at his best when he can deal directly with the people.
Yes, this is Texas. The state was reminded of that over the last month and if the athletic director gets his way, the nation is next.