Football

Longhorns AD Chris Del Conte: ‘Texas needs to get back to being Texas — period’

In a wide-ranging interview, Texas' new athletic director addresses issues from football to fundraising

Posted January 10th, 2018

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New Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte is going around meeting every team on campus. When he met with men’s basketball players, he had a simple request.

“Everyone take out your phones,” Del Conte told them, according to two people who were in the room. “Here is my number. Call me anytime.”

It’s easy to walk around the University of Texas facilities and learn everyone’s name. But Del Conte is embedding himself into UT’s culture in just about every way imaginable.

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One month on the job, Del Conte said he was given no specific mandate by Texas President Gregory L. Fenves. The two met for drinks in New York in early December and Fenves essentially offered him the job.

“Texas needs to get back to being Texas — period,” Del Conte said Tuesday. “I don’t worry about anyone else around. My job is to worry about the University of Texas now. We have a phenomenal brand, great city, great recruiting base, great state. If we do what we’re supposed to do, we’re fine.”

Interim Men’s Athletics Director Mike Perrin, Chris Del Conte and Texas President Greg Fenves pose for photo as Del Conte is announced as the new vice president and athletics director at the University of Texas, Monday, Dec. 11, 2017. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)

In a wide-ranging interview, the new athletic director acknowledged the challenges of building a basketball arena and enclosing the south end zone of Royal-Memorial Stadium. He has faith in the strength of the Big 12 Conference and “firmly believes” the Longhorn Network will continue unabated.

He’s having all senior-level staff members read Patrick Lencioni’s book “The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else In Business.”

“You guys all ought to get it,” Del Conte said. “The idea of ‘The Advantage’ is a book for us to talk about what is our advantage at the University of Texas? What is our advantage? We should accentuate our advantages.”

One of Del Conte’s biggest advantages has been his accessibility to fans. He’ll usually respond to random fans on Twitter late at night. It’s a move that punctures one of the longest-running gripes about a major college athletic program — that one fan’s voice isn’t heard.

“At night, I don’t know what the hell I’m twittering out,” Del Conte said with a laugh. “But it is the idea that I’m going to be responsive to anybody and anybody. And I think that’s because we should be.”

Texas cheerleader celebrates a Longhorn field goal against Texas Tech in the first half of a Big 12 Conference football game at Royal-Memorial Stadium, Friday, Nov. 24, 2017. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)

Del Conte, who spent the last eight years running TCU athletics, is still getting his arms around the size and scope of the Texas job. He compared it to the size of an aircraft carrier.

“When I tell the aircraft carrier to turn right — turn right!, turn right! — you tell seven people and it comes back up seven times. Turn right?,” he said. “And when you’re small, you’re in and out. So part of it is the organization and learning how everyone operates.”

Del Conte is fully aware that football is what revs the department’s financial engines. Full details have yet to emerge on defensive coordinator Todd Orlando’s new contract. But Del Conte was certainly involved in bumping Orlando’s deal to $1.7 million annually. He’s fully in tune with the idea that Orlando “helps promote our brand” and helped coach Tom Herman have success.

“First time we won a bowl game since 2012, right? Pretty awesome,” Del Conte said. “Got a young football coach who has an amazing recruiting class. Those things are things you can build off of. We look and say we should win a national championship tomorrow, that’s foolish thinking. But it’s the idea that he’s building the pieces of a team that he should be successful on.”

Chris Del Conte speaks during a press conference announcing him as the new vice president and athletics director at the University of Texas, Monday, Dec. 11, 2017. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)

Del Conte wants to assemble committees to look at improving the game-day atmosphere inside Royal-Memorial Stadium. The school is also considering changes to the UT student seating sections and doing away with the much-maligned wristband policy.

While at TCU, Del Conte typically arrived at stadiums hours before kickoff and sent senior staff members to go look around and report their findings. “Rip off and duplicate,” Del Conte called it.

Del Conte said he will have the final authority on all hirings and firings but will work closely with women’s athletic director Chris Plonsky and sport administrators.

Del Conte was known as a fundraising dynamo at TCU. He’s already gone with a proverbial hat in hand to some of UT’s biggest hitters.

“It’s like dating, you know what I mean? But I’m not afraid of asking,” Del Conte said. “I asked a guy the other day for $15 million. He thought I was crazy. I said, ‘I need it. My man, let’s do this.’ He said, ‘Are you crazy?’ No, but you can do it. C’mon.

“He’s only going to tell you no,” he continued. “Ha! Who cares? I’ll go back at it when he says no. It’s like a dance. You ask a girl on a date and she says no, you afraid to go back and ask someone else out?”

Del Conte said this particular donor had been asked for a big donation before. Del Conte hit him with the new request before they even ordered dinner. “I wanted him to know that there was an ask on the table and that we needed him,” the athletic director said.

Major donations can take months, even years, before coming to fruition. Kevin Durant recently gave $3 million to the university in the largest gift ever by a Texas-ex now playing professional sports. But that was in the works for almost a full year.

Del Conte said simply that he can’t wait for the football or basketball team to have success before asking for money.

“My job is to come and talk the case for the University of Texas,” Del Conte said. “This is what we need for us to be successful. We need your help. I am running a business for them, an enterprise for them. For every donor that buys a season ticket or a T-shirt or donates a million dollars, I’m working for them.

“If we waited until we won a national championship for someone to jump on the bandwagon, then they’re not the wind beneath the wings that we need,” he added. “If they are, they’re helping support our program right now. Every single Longhorn has been phenomenal. But I don’t want to wait until we have a winning season to go ask for money. That would be that I’m not doing my job.”

Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com.

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