UT President Gregory L. Fenves during pre-game festivities at Royal-Memorial Stadium on Saturday September 12, 2015. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Football

One year later, Gregory L. Fenves is now ‘up to speed’ on Texas athletics

In an exclusive interview on his first year, Fenves discusses academics, a new basketball arena and Charlie Strong’s pivotal third season.

Posted June 3rd, 2016

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Story highlights
  • Fenves, on where he's at concerning UT and Big 12 athletics: 'Well, I’m up to speed. I learned a lot this year.'
  • Assuming there are no other options, Fenves wants the new basketball arena to be south of UT's track and soccer stadium.
  • After Charlie Strong's past two solid recruiting classes, Fenves sees progress being made with the football program.

IRVING — Gregory L. Fenves’ first day as president at the University of Texas went off without a hitch last June, save for one line during a 20-minute press conference.

Fenves, an engineer by trade and a highly intelligent man with three decades in academia, let it slip that “athletics is the one area of the university that I’m not as familiar with.” Those in the north end zone offices within Royal-Memorial Stadium must have cringed on June 3, 2015.

Now, 365 days later, here is Fenves, leaning back into a deep blue couch at the Four Seasons Resort and Club, looking tanned and relaxed after a recent beach vacation with his wife, Carmel. Armed with a binder full of information about the Big 12 Conference, Fenves is ready for the Big 12 meetings. He’s eager, really.

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“Well, I’m up to speed,” Fenves said in an exclusive interview with the American-Statesman. “I learned a lot this year. I feel very comfortable with my knowledge and approach to our athletics program, which is a fantastic program.”

This has been no ordinary first year on the job. Fenves dealt with a host of hot-button campus issues, including the removal of a controversial statue, the campus carry debate and an on-campus homicide of a UT student.

Two days after that introductory press conference last June, Fenves learned of possible academic misconduct in athletics. That triggered a wide-ranging internal review, though ultimately no NCAA infractions. And three months into the job, Fenves fired Steve Patterson, the controversial athletic director who’d been hired by Fenves’ predecessor, Bill Powers. And in December, Fenves did the once-unthinkable for a UT president: He flew to Tulsa, Okla., with head coach Charlie Strong to help lure an assistant coach to Austin.

USE THIS PHOTO Interim athletic director Michael Perrin and University of Texas President Gregory Fenves sign the
USE THIS PHOTO
Interim athletic director Michael Perrin and University of Texas President Gregory Fenves sign the “hook em” during a press conference, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, announcing Steve Patterson’s replacement after his departure the day before, at the University of Texas, in Austin, Texas.(RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Fenves appointed longtime UT supporter Mike Perrin, a lawyer with no college administrative experience, to become Texas’ new athletic director. He approved the release of a UT athletics master plan, which gives insight into a new basketball arena.

As president, Fenves ultimately has the final decision over Strong’s fate. He recently signed off on the decision to reassign Augie Garrido, the winningest baseball coach in NCAA Division I history days after Garrido completed his 20th season. And now Fenves finds himself a pivotal player in major Big 12 decisions, alongside his University of Oklahoma counterpart.

“He’s an extraordinary person, and the University of Texas has obviously made a very good choice,” David Boren said.

If UT’s president supports conference expansion or a new championship game, it likely happens. If not, forget it. While Fenves is open to hearing about expansion, he likes the current 10-team framework.

“Let me start off by saying how he has handled everything,” said UT Chancellor Bill McRaven, who recounts Fenves’ first year like he’s reading off a greatest hits collection. “I mean, I’ll tell ya, he is knocking it out of the park on just about every tough issue.

“So I think what you’ll find with how he’s handled athletics, he’s listening, as he tends to do. He’s a great listener,” McRaven said. “He’s listening to Mike Perrin, listening to the coaches, listening to the people who have expertise on athletics. Again, he’s a great engineer. He listens. He gets the facts. He doesn’t jump to conclusions. So as I think we go forward, we’re going to find he may be one of the very best we have in terms of understanding the nuances of athletics.”

Perrin said he has enjoyed the close-knit relationship he’s formed with Fenves. Both Fenves and Perrin have grown into their roles over the last year, if their appearances at this week’s Big 12 spring meetings are any indication.

“He’s all the superlatives you would expect for the president of the University of Texas at Austin,” Perrin said. “I can’t think of a part of it that he is not personally interested in.”

Immediate controversy

Strictly from an athletics perspective, the internal review conducted by Alabama attorney Gene Marsh was the biggest issue on Fenves’ plate this past year. The Chronicle of Higher Education published a report that alleged three instances of possible misconduct by former men’s basketball players.

Historically, the university wants to avoid NCAA trouble at all costs. The football program even dismissed an assistant coach this offseason just for being implicated in an NCAA investigation at Ole Miss, the coach’s previous employer.

“I spent my first weekend as president thinking about everything I knew about our program, which was very positive in terms of our integrity,” Fenves said. “But you look at the national scene — and I won’t name any particular universities — but some have real problems that affect the institutional reputations. This was my first experience of having to deal with it. And as a new president, I wanted to make sure there weren’t systematic problems.”

Marsh’s law firm, which had contractual authority to charge $525 per hour, ultimately produced a 49-page report that cleared the university of wrongdoing but offered 14 suggestions for improvement. Fenves ordered the athletic department to implement all of them.

The report indicated there is too much emphasis on maintaining high grade point averages instead of moving athletes closer to graduation, something that drew men’s basketball coach Shaka Smart’s ire.

The American-Statesman has reported that Randa Ryan, UT’s head of academic services in athletics, is no longer working with students. However, Ryan has not been made available for interviews for more than two years, and the university refuses to acknowledge whether she remains in charge.

Fenves declined to talk about specific personnel, but added, “We will be making changes over the course of the year to make a great program even better.”

The Erwin Center is home to the UT men’s and women’s basketball teams but also features graduations, concerts and other events. (Ricardo B. Brazziell/American-Statesman)
The Erwin Center’s center replacement will be a hot-button issue for Fenves in the upcoming years. There’s a plan to build the new arena on campus, but that’s not set in stone. (Ricardo B. Brazziell/American-Statesman)

A new basketball arena

Fenves joked that deans and provosts can get stuff done. “But you have to be president to get certain things done,” he said.

One of the long-term facilities issues facing the campus is the continued growth of Dell Medical School and the need for a new basketball arena. The master plan released in late May all but declares the parking lot south of Mike A. Myers track and soccer stadium as the site of the new arena, as the Statesman first reported in February 2015.

Currently, the university has labeled that parking lot as the “preferred site” for an on-campus facility. Fenves envisions a true basketball arena, one that has 10,000 to 12,000 seats and might cost $250 million.

“Absent any other options, I want to build a basketball arena on that site south of Mike Myers Stadium,” Fenves said. “We can turn Texas into a basketball powerhouse with these two teams.

“Before we start tearing up the concrete, we’ve got a lot of steps,” Fenves said. “We’ve got to put the funding in place. That’s (in the) early stages. We’ve got some rough estimates about what a basketball arena is. But I’m very familiar with how you do these big capital projects.”

Former men’s coach Rick Barnes always lamented how the Erwin Center’s massive lower bowl hinders the fan experience. To crank up the fan volume, it truly must be at or near its 16,540-seat capacity.

Fenves, who was a regular attendee at men’s and women’s games, said he wants a building that is “sold out, tight, loud and exciting.”

“If you’ve been in a sold-out arena where it’s really thumping, you don’t quite get that in the Erwin Center,” he said. “So if we are going to build an arena, my preference is it be designed to be a premier venue for basketball.”

Fenves is aware of utilities issues slowing down the construction of a new tennis faculty on the east side of Interstate 35. “We’re going to build the tennis center. It’s going to get done,” he said.

And Charlie Strong?

This question still stand out: Why did Fenves get on that plane to Tulsa?

“You know, I get asked this question a lot,” Fenves said.

For a president halfway through his first year, Fenves took an incredible risk by flying with Strong to help land offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert. Texas had already offered the job to TCU’s Sonny Cumbie and got turned down. If that late-night mission wasn’t successful, it would’ve been embarrassing beyond belief and dealt real political damage to both Fenves and Strong.

“In every role I’ve had at UT as a leader of college, chief academic officer and now as president, one of my big responsibilities is recruiting talent,” Fenves said. “I help recruit faculty, helped recruit department chairs, helped recruit student-athletes. Shaka brings some of his recruits by my office. That’s my business.

“Coach Strong is doing a great job,” he said. “He’s working on his recruiting, and of course, he’s had two tremendous recruitment seasons. He needed to work on his staff. He knew that, Mike knew that, I knew that. I offered to help in a key recruitment.”

Matt Mattox, Charlie Strong and Sterlin Gilbert pose for a picture during a press conference Dec. 14, 2015. Photo by Jay Janner
Fenves was partly responsible for closing the deal to bring new assistants Matt Mattox, left, and Sterlin Gilbert, right, to head coach Charlie Strong’s staff. (Jay Janner/American-Statesman)

Fenves said he doesn’t like when people present him their first, second or third choices. He abhors labels. Fenves simply wants names.

“I think we’ve got a tremendous offensive coordinator, and I’ve been really impressed with Sterlin since he’s come here,” Fenves said. “I’m pleased with the outcome, and I think Coach Strong is also.”

So about the football coach …

“I get asked this question: How many wins are needed? I’m not going to answer that,” said Fenves, who admits this is a pivotal year for Strong. In two seasons, Strong has gone 11-14 at Texas. The Longhorns have not had three consecutive losing seasons since the 1930s.

“This last season, it could have gone very differently. Some bad breaks. That’s sports,” Fenves said. “But I think Charlie is methodically building a team with his great recruitments and with his coaches. That alone, I see as progress. Now, fans want them to perform on the field. Charlie wants them to perform on the field. So we’ll assess that when the season’s over.”

Fenves professes that this is the “best job I’ve ever had.” He seems to enjoy his relationships with Gov. Greg Abbott, McRaven and the UT regents. Fenves had specific goals for what he wants to do on campus.

He’s got similar high hopes for UT athletics.

“We’ll get it moving again. I’m very optimistic,” Fenves said. “We’ve gone through some rough times and various measures. But I’m very optimistic that we’re getting everything done.”

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

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