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Broken planes, cops, hot tubs: Texas athletic director's wild road trip to NCAA Tournament

Brian Davis
Austin American-Statesman

MILWAUKEE — Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte wins the award for most dedicated fan.

Or maybe the craziest, for driving from Austin to Milwaukee — approximately 1,200 miles — in about 18 hours for the NCAA Tournament.

How Del Conte ended up leaving the airport, picking up a UT fan and his son, and driving across America is a wild adventure that only “CDC” can tell. It all began with plane trouble early Thursday morning at the Austin airport.

It took some effort — and a lot of gas — but Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte was able to make it to Milwaukee in time for Friday's NCAA Tournament opener between Texas and Virginia Tech. He picked up two UT fans at the Austin airport and drove nearly 1,200 miles.

“The first flight got canceled, had to get off the plane. Mechanical issues,” Del Conte told the American-Statesman. “Second fight was delayed, and it was jampacked on Southwest, couldn’t get on. The third flight, I was trying to go standby. They put me on a regional jet, but the fog came rolling in so bad, that plane had to land in Waco, believe it or not.”

So here’s Del Conte, spending his whole day at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport worried about getting to Fiserv Forum to watch the Longhorns on Friday. What’s an athletic director to do?

More:Texas basketball can exorcise NCAA Tournament demons with win over Virginia Tech

“So I look over to this guy, who’s sitting there with his son, they just got off the plane, they’re trying to work it, maybe he goes standby, yada, yada, and I said, ‘I know you and your son are going to Wisconsin for a father-son trip. I’ll drive. C’mon, let’s go,’” Del Conte said.

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Texas fan Patrick Smith, known to friends as “Wheels,” and his son Hodges were happy to join Del Conte for a true my-friends-won’t-believe-this journey.

“When we got to Dallas, my son said, ‘Dad, what do you want to do?’” Patrick Smith said minutes before Texas tipped off against Virginia Tech. “I was the deciding vote.”

Now they’ll have a story they can tell forever. 

The trio climbed into Del Conte’s Ford F-250 pickup and left Austin by midmorning. At least, that’s as best as Del Conte remembers. His Twitter timeline became something of a black-box recorder to capture the memories.

“This was not a properly thought out thing. Nothing logical,” Del Conte said. “I did get to see Americana.”

The trio raced north on Interstate 35 to Dallas and then wound up on U.S. 69 to get through Oklahoma. “I don’t even know the roads,” Del Conte said. “You just press the buttons and the little lady on the machine tells you where to go.”

Sure, Del Conte could have gotten to Dallas and called a UT booster with access to a plane. But now with Smith and his son, he was committed to the open road.

“I got pulled over in Oklahoma,” Del Conte said. “I look over and he says, ‘How fast you going?’ I’m not really sure. Then he goes, ‘It’s 45, but you’re going 60.’ But he said, ‘Keep it straight,’ and walked away. An Oklahoma trooper did me a solid.

“He heard we were going to the SEC and he said, ‘Good work, buddy,’ and let me go.”

Then it was up the road into southern Missouri and eventually Illinois. As the price of gas is now skyrocketing out of sight, there’s no telling how much it cost Del Conte to drive through America’s heartland — on his own dime. And of course, they had to stop numerous times along the way.

“Well, my man has the bladder of a walnut,” Del Conte said. “So about every two hours, we were stopping.”

They did stop for a quick bite and finally called it a night in Springfield, Ill. — home of Abraham Lincoln. Based on Del Conte’s Twitter account, they were rolling through St. Louis before 11 p.m.

“We pull in 12 o’clock and I said, ‘Hey, man, I just need two rooms, please.’ The guy goes OK. One had a hot tub, and he said, ‘Please no essential oils in the hot tub.’ I’m like, what you talking about? So we got two rooms, I walk in, and there’s a hot tub right in the middle of the bedroom. 

“Whoa, what is going on in Illinois that I need to worry about?”

Everybody had a 6 a.m. wake-up call Friday, and they finished off the drive into Milwaukee. Del Conte was talking with the Statesman while sitting just off the baseline at Fiserv Forum. He made it with plenty of time to spare.

So now Del Conte has another problem. He’s got to drive back — or figure out a way to get his Ford back to Austin.

“We win two games, you’re riding back with me!” Del Conte said. “We win a couple games, we’ll be in good shape.”

Win, lose or draw, Smith said, “Yeah, we’re flying home.”  

Contact Brian Davis by phone or text at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com or @BDavisAAS.