Bohls: Texas' Chris Del Conte is facing the biggest challenge of his career
Years ago, when DeLoss Dodds announced he was retiring as the best athletic director in the country, I made a list of potential candidates as a Texas successor.
Among them was Chris Del Conte, an aspiring if glib hotshot from TCU.
At that time, he was a rising star but didn’t quite appear ready for such an undertaking, and my comment on Del Conte included the line that he talks “more than a circus barker.”
That nickname stuck, but two Texas athletic directors later, Del Conte waited his turn, the school made do with Steve Patterson and attorney Mike Perrin, and he so grew on then-President Gregory L. Fenves during a get-acquainted session in New York City that he was plucked out of Fort Worth and hired in December 2017.
He’s been a big success and has gotten high marks on most everything save a premature coaching extension for his football coach and an ambiguous stand on the polarizing alma mater, “The Eyes of Texas."
The circus barker knows he is now performing under the big tent.
And the elephant in the room is Tom Herman, and the decision Del Conte faces could easily be a $40 million decision or more, given staff buyouts and the price tag for a high-profile replacement.
Del Conte left the job security and comfort zone that was under-the-radar TCU and accepted the challenge of running the most profitable athletic program in the country and elevating the prominent Longhorns brand that has slipped dramatically.
That’s why he is facing the biggest crisis in his entire professional life when he determines the fate of the fourth-year head football coach who just hasn’t gotten it done.
Del Conte has to get this right.
Herman played it right down the middle in his Monday press conference. Asked if he had clarity about his job security, he said, “I am absolutely and completely focused on getting our team ready to beat Kansas State and I’m not worried about anything other than that.”
Sounds like a lame-duck coach.
Del Conte and Herman spoke a couple of times over the weekend since Texas’ excruciating 23-20 loss to Iowa State that pretty much killed the Longhorns’ chances of reaching the Big 12 title game and said they were “very productive.” Yet, there was no public declaration of support for Herman from Del Conte. No endorsement.
“Very, very much,” Herman said when asked how productive. “So yeah, yeah every conversation. Chris and I are great. We’ve got a great relationship.”
Having a great relationship and being assured he will be here in 2021 are not the same thing.
Every conceivable sign suggests Herman will be gone after this season, probably after the Kansas game in two weeks although I say why put off the inevitable and let a coach dangle in limbo. That doesn’t spare him any dignity, and a decision to replace him would be better made sooner to afford more success before the Dec. 16 early signing period begins for recruits.
For all the smoke, there is nothing concrete to say Urban Meyer is poised to accept an offer from Texas although one source said a five-year, $50 million might be offered. Two administration sources have told the Statesman there is no certainty the Longhorns can land Meyer. Del Conte and President Jay Hartzell have to decide if they have a strong candidate as Plan B if Meyer says no. Would a Matt Campbell, James Franklin, Luke Fickell, Mario Christobal or Bryan Harsin excite recruits and the fan base? Could they get one of them?
Without question, the decisions in the next few weeks will shape and perhaps alter the image of an administrator who hates conflict and drama and wants peace and stability more than the late John Lennon.
He’s made tough choices before.
And he deserves the benefit of the doubt.
Del Conte greased the skids for Connie Clark’s exit and hired a premier softball coach in Oregon’s Mike White. He chose not to renew the contract of Karen Aston, whose women's basketball program had topped out, and hired one of the best five coaches in the country in Mississippi State’s Vic Schaefer.
Del Conte went out and hired the highly respected Edrick Floreal from Kentucky to run Texas’ track and field program.
In doing so, he hired men’s coaches to run two of the school’s highest profile women’s sports while volleyball coach Jerritt Elliott is another. That’s not always a popular decision. And he hired an African-American to head the track program.
Del Conte is more than a fund-raiser and social-media master. He’ll listen to a fan bugging him on Twitter about the plumbing in Section 6, but he’s also behind the financial pledges to build a $175 million south end zone football complex and the $388 million Moody Center that will be home to Longhorns basketball perhaps as soon as February 2022.
But firing and hiring coaches will always be the biggest part of an athletic director’s job.
In some respects, this isn’t Del Conte’s first rodeo, but it kinda is on this big a stage. You don’t get the same scrutiny at a TCU or a Rice than you do at Texas. Or the $2.08 million salary.
Screw this up, and the fan base will be out for blood, and not just the coach’s.
It’s in his hands.