Football

‘It’s Texas’ land:’ In selling his future vision, Chris Del Conte appeals to old-fashioned Longhorn pride

Texas AD openly asking fans to wear burnt orange on Fridays, put a flag in your front yard as Longhorns search for on-field success

Posted May 18th, 2018

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Story highlights
  • “Don’t ever be afraid to tell people, damn right I’m a Longhorn.”
  • Football has left fans disappointed. Texas is only five games above .500 this decade.
  • Both Del Conte, Tom Herman want fans to complete an online survey to give their feedback.

HOUSTON — It’s quite odd to hear an athletic director implore — check that, practically beg — the fan base to wear their school colors.

It’s especially odd to hear that from Texas’ Chris Del Conte, who oversees a college athletic behemoth that sells more T-shirts than anyone else.

Yet that’s what he’s done thus far on the “This is Texas Tour.” Sure, his comments about the gameday atmosphere have drawn rave reviews. Fans love that he wants to remove cars from San Jacinto Blvd. and turn it into a “carnival” he’s calling Bevo Blvd. Spontaneous applause breaks out whenever Del Conte mentions eliminating the in-game “weather report.” No offense, Scott Fisher.

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Del Conte’s open appeal to one’s Longhorn pride is the overriding message. Wear burnt orange on Fridays, Del Conte tells the congregation. Put a UT flag in your yard. No one has made such a bold-faced plea since Mack Brown asked fans to “Come early, be loud and stay late” upon his arrival in 1998.

Del Conte’s message is quite simple, as he told a group of Texas Exes in San Antonio. “Don’t ever be embarrassed to walk around and say you’re a Longhorn,” he said Tuesday. “Don’t ever be afraid to tell people, damn right I’m a Longhorn.”

The next night in Houston, one fan stood up and thanked him.

“You heard what that guy said out there. I went over and thanked that guy,” long-time UT swimming coach Eddie Reese said. He wanted to talk more about UT football than any of his 14 NCAA national titles.

“That’s infectious,” Reese said. “I’ve been here a long time and I’ve heard people talk about great Texas football. There hasn’t been much of it.”

This is a fan base that’s grown accustomed to disappointment. Connor Williams, the recent second-round pick by the Cowboys, was a grade-schooler when Vince Young scored on fourth-and-5 against USC. This incoming freshman class was probably 5 years old when UT won the 2005 national title.

This decade has been full of fits and starts. Embarrassed at home by Iowa State, humiliated at Kansas. Fans wanted change in 2013 even though Brown was one half away from winning the Big 12 title. Along the way, fans saw botched coin flips, missed extra-point attempts and a head-spinning array of quarterbacks.

The Longhorns are merely five games over .500 since the start of the 2010 season, the one immediately following their last national championship game appearance. That 53-48 record spans three head coaches, four athletic directors and two university presidents.

It’s easy to see why there’s malaise. “We have to own that,” Del Conte said. But he’s looking forward.

Fans watch a halftime show during a Big 12 Conference football game at Royal-Memorial Stadium, Friday, Nov. 24, 2017. ANA RAMIREZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Take Wednesday’s news, for example. Del Conte signed a home-and-home agreement with Alabama for the 2022 and 2023 seasons. UT will host first. That aligns with other big names on future schedules — like LSU (2019-20), Ohio State (2025-26) and Michigan (2024, 2027). That’s not the planning of an athletic department that believes it will stay down.

“I think last year, three plays, take ’em away and we win three big games. BIG games!,” Reese said. “That changes the whole national scene.”

Alas, Texas will start this upcoming season probably outside of the Top 25 after a 7-6 campaign that snapped a three-year losing skid. Without on-field results to trumpet, Del Conte is furiously laying the groundwork for the day Texas returns to national prominence.

That means getting fans reinvigorated about the brand itself.

“No one’s embarrassed about being a UT grad,” Del Conte said. “What I’m saying is that people blame us for all this other shenanigans, all these other schools leaving (the Big 12). This school left. Some school left. Well, who are they going to talk about? Oh, it was UT.

“Well, guess what? We are the University of Texas,” he said. “Be proud of who we are. We don’t have to sit there and apologize for being the University of Texas and why schools left our conference and whatnot. They left for their own reasons. We stayed for our reasons, and we’re a proud member of the Big 12 and we’re moving forward.”

Texas fans cheer during the Texas Orange-White spring football game in Austin, Texas, on Saturday, April 21, 2018. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Del Conte’s message resonates with fans and coaches. “Anytime Chris gets up there and starts talking about our brand, the first thing that goes into my head is to make sure I’m doing my job at a high level,” defensive coordinator Todd Orlando said.

At every tour stop, Del Conte asks how many fans received a survey from the athletic department. “Who’s filled that out? Let me see hands. That’s not enough,” he says. The survey itself is a detailed exercise that leaves no stone unturned.

Said football coach Tom Herman: “It’s real. Chris Del Conte wouldn’t have sent the survey that he did if it wasn’t real. And it’s awesome.”

The results were loud and clear. Fans want UT to curb the non-stop assault of in-game advertisements. Del Conte said school officials previously had a 26-page script. Now, it’s down to two pages. This season, when opponents call a timeout before a big third-down play, the game producer has the authority to cue the band and skip commercials.

Del Conte wants to make the game itself an event, with the help of a little R&D — “rip-off and duplicate.” Other schools have music and events outside the stadium. Del Conte wants to put concerts on the LBJ Library lawn before the game to draw in students in addition to jazzing up San Jacinto Blvd.

He wants to build a $10-million hall of honor inside the north end zone at Royal-Memorial Stadium. To Del Conte, it’s unthinkable that Texas would not have a showcase for its athletic past.

He’s eyeing a $140-million overhaul of the south end zone and the Moncrief-Neuhaus Athletic Center, too. “Do you realize that building was built for John Mackovic? That’s four coaches ago. Hel-l-o,” Del Conte said.

Most of UT’s non-revenue sports are thriving. But football is the economic driver. “When you buy a football season ticket, you are supporting all of them,” Del Conte said before turning to point at multiple UT coaches in Houston.

According to the latest audited figures, the Texas football program generated $142 million during the 2016-17 academic year. The program raked in a record-setting $214 million overall.

Imagine what Alabama will be walking into on Sept. 10, 2022, if Del Conte completes his entire vision.

UT players will walk from the locker room, go through a club with fans and run through a plume of white smoke onto a natural grass field. Fans in field suites, those in the south end zone club and the rest of the 100,000 in attendance go nuts.

Those fans will have already enjoyed a pre-game concert or spent time catching with old friends at various tailgate spots. Parents and alumni will walk their children through UT’s hall of honor, showing them clips of 53 Veer Pass, Roll Left and, of course, fourth-and-5.

And everyone is wearing burnt orange and flashing the “Hook ’em” hand signal.

“We sell more merchandise than anybody in the country,” Del Conte said. “What I’m saying is that if you’re in Nova Scotia, Singapore, Johannesburg or if you’re in Auckland on Fridays, wear burnt orange. That’s what I’m saying. There’s a song that goes this land is your land, this land is my land. It’s Texas’ land.”

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

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