This must’ve been one memorable Labor Day cookout.
“I was at home about to fire up the grill,” Mike Perrin said Wednesday, “and my phone rang.”
On the other end was Texas President Gregory L. Fenves. Two days after the Longhorns suffered a 35-point loss at Notre Dame to open the season, Fenves was cooking something up himself.
Steve Patterson, Texas’ athletic director, would soon be out. Fenves wanted to know if Perrin would become the interim AD.
Nine days after that holiday conversation, Perrin was introduced as Patterson’s temporary replacement during a half-hour press conference on Wednesday inside the Main Building.
Angry season ticket holders and disgruntled key donors will probably be glad to know the 68-year-old Perrin is one of their own. He played linebacker under coach Darrell Royal in the late 1960s and once owned Smokey, the cannon that’s fired at UT football games.
“Everybody that I’ve talked with that knows Mike says (he) absolutely has integrity and confidence in his ability to lead our great athletics department,” Fenves said.
Patterson lasted 22 months before getting fired on Tuesday. Fenves termed it “a mutual decision” and characterized Patterson’s departure as a resignation.
At least one major donor was happy. “I was delighted that Greg Fenves took the action that he did and delighted he did it in such a straight-forward way and put that issue to rest,” Red McCombs told the American-Statesman on Wednesday.
Now, Perrin steps into the void and wants more than anything to calm the waters and get people excited about UT athletics again. At the moment, Fenves indicated there are no plans to launch a search for a permanent AD.
“I’ve been concerned. I sat in the stands last week and saw empty seats,” Perrin said, noting the announced crowd for last Saturday’s Rice game looked about 20,000 short of capacity at Royal-Memorial Stadium. And more than 7,000 tickets remain on the Texas end of the Cotton Bowl for the Oct. 10 matchup against Oklahoma.
“It concerns me that fans, last week, voted with their feet,” Perrin said.
Perrin said it’s difficult to unwind the policies that Patterson already has in place. Season ticket sales for the 2015 football season are already done. The men’s basketball team is contractually bound to fly to Shanghai, China, in November.
But Perrin can finish off what should be a blockbuster contract extension with Nike. The Houston attorney could help negotiate a settlement on the embarrassing Joe Wickline lawsuit against Oklahoma State. And more than anything else, Perrin can give UT coaches his full support.
“I stand firmly behind our coaches,” said Perrin, who said he considers Charlie Strong a personal friend and really seems energized by UT’s new basketball coach. “If you don’t get infectious about basketball with Shaka Smart, your switch isn’t turned on.”
Perrin’s admission about the Labor Day telephone call was revealing. It showed Fenves was ready to fire Patterson long before anyone realized it could happen.
The next day, on Sept. 8, Fenves met with the Statesman’s editorial board and indicated he and Patterson were “working through the issues.” It was a vague statement not intended to be interpreted as public support. On Monday night, he called key members of the UT System Board of Regents to inform them of his decision, two sources said. Fenves also spoke with Strong and Smart that night to inform them of Patterson’s impending dismissal.
Patterson was summoned to Fenves’ office at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday and told he was being let go. Fenves spent the day negotiating a buyout settlement with Patterson’s attorney, Rusty Hardin. A UT source told the Statesman that Patterson’s buyout will be less than $3 million.
Fenves and Perrin met with UT’s coaches at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday. Then, they attended an all-athletic department staff meeting in the Centennial Room inside Bellmont Hall.
From there, both men went over to the Main Building for the press conference. Patterson’s predecessor, DeLoss Dodds, sat off to the side. The man who spent 32 years building UT athletics into a college sports behemoth was ecstatic his longtime friend was taking over.
“I’m not talking to you guys unless it’s about farming,” said Dodds, who now spends his days shunning the spotlight. “I’ve known Mike for years. He’s a friend, and I wanted to support him.”
Perrin is also a friend to the Texas Exes, the school’s alumni organization. He reached out to Texas Exes executive director Leslie Cedar on Tuesday night and asked specifically about halftime.
Last Saturday’s game was the first where fans could reach the alumni center only through Gate 7 because of beer sales inside Royal-Memorial Stadium. Perrin wanted to know how fans reacted to the changes, Cedar said.
“The first thing out of his mouth was let’s get on the road, go see people and go to as many Texas Exes functions as we can,” Perrin said.
Texas women’s AD Chris Plonsky said Fenves’ decision was “a beautiful hire.”
“I think this news was well received,” Plonsky said. “Mike, you can see how calm he is and methodical. Melinda, I think, is actually the fireball.”
Melinda Hill Perrin, Mike’s wife, was named a 2012 Distinguished Alumnus by the Texas Exes along with future UT Chancellor Bill McRaven and former First Lady Laura Bush.
Mike Perrin agreed to a one-year deal worth $750,000, which runs through next August. Could it last longer? At this point, it’s uncertain.
“You know, I’m not an English major, but the word ‘interim,’ to me, has a real meaning,” Perrin said. “Whatever President Fenves attaches to that is my use of it as well.”