With stealth hiring of Chris Del Conte, UT President Gregory L. Fenves set the wheels in motion for radical change in athletics
Posted June 22nd, 2018
For Texas athletics, the 2017-18 athletic year was successful. Taken on the whole, it always is.
Sure, the Longhorns enjoyed their typical success in non-revenue sports. Texas hauled in yet another national championship in men’s swimming and diving, its fourth straight and 14th overall under legendary lion Eddie Reese. The men’s and women’s golf teams both showcased shining future pros. Volleyball was solid again, and after some bumpy times, both soccer and softball got back on the winning track.
In fact, all 20 of Texas’ varsity sports reached the postseason. No other school in Division I athletics had a 100-percent success rate. Texas teams produced 10 top-10 season finishes at NCAA championships, tied for the fifth-most in school history. “We’re all, I think, headed in the right direction,” football coach Tom Herman told the American-Statesman in May.
But setting aside wins and losses, this athletic year will be remembered most for being radically transformative off the field. It was the year that UT brass finally awoke to a harsh reality: Texas athletics had become a complacent, opaque behemoth that relied too much on fan loyalty and faded glory. Folks got lazy.
It was also the year where the Longhorns took decisive action.
After the football team posted a 6-6 regular-season record, UT President Gregory L. Fenves sensed the natives were restless, possibly drifting toward apathy. He needed to hire a permanent athletic director. So he conducted a quiet search on his own. No search committee, no interference from overzealous boosters.
On a nondescript Saturday in December, Fenves announced the hiring of TCU’s Chris Del Conte, the energetic force behind the Horned Frogs’ ascension in the Big 12. It was a bold move. A top athletic official at another Big 12 school even told the American-Statesman, “That’s quite a coup.”
Del Conte dominated the introductory press conference, cried along the way and won the room. Fenves couldn’t have been happier. His new athletic director hit social media hard, even on Christmas Day, responding to fans directly and engaging them in a way no one from UT ever has.
“It would be an honor to have you stop by our tailgate in Omaha,” UT fan Mike Skaggs tweeted this week from the College World Series. Del Conte responded by tweeting, “Tell me where and I’ll stop by.”
His bold message to everyone this spring was simple: Be proud to be a Longhorn. Wear orange on Fridays. Put a flag in your yard. Essentially, he asked fans to proudly raise the “Hook ’em” hand sign.
“Don’t ever be afraid to tell people, damn right I’m a Longhorn,” Del Conte told fans in Dallas on the “This is Texas Tour” stop.
Del Conte and Herman are both relatively new, and they weren’t been here for the demoralizing losses to Iowa State and Kansas. They weren’t around as Texas posted three straight losing seasons in football from 2014-16. But, as Herman said after getting hired, “There’s a reason why we’re here.”
The football program is 53-48 since the start of the 2010 season, the one immediately following Texas’ last appearance in a national championship game. “We have to own that,” Del Conte said.
To get fans excited again, Del Conte put a laser-like focus on improving the game-day environment. He announced plans for “Bevo Boulevard.” Cars along San Jacinto Blvd. would be removed and the entire street outside Royal-Memorial Stadium will become a “carnival,” he said. And he wants to spend $10 million to build a hall of honor inside the north end zone of Royal-Memorial Stadium.
He dramatically reduced the amount of advertisements played during games and warned fans they may not like the music choices. The players will, though. The previous game script was more than 20 pages. “Now, it’s basically front and back,” he said in May.
Frankly, these are some of the same things former athletic director Steve Patterson pursued. “Same strategy, better packaging,” one former UT athletic department employee said.
Del Conte also killed a student wristband policy that created chaos last season. This season, student seating is first come, first served. Students also will be moved from the northeast corner to the southeast corner.
Visitor seating, previously located in the southeast corner, is now in the upper deck. That puts more Texas fans closer to the field near the goal line and south end zone.
Del Conte also took his time learning the entire athletic staff, figuring out who does what. Ultimately he chose to lay off various employees from all over the department. The Statesman first learned that at least 13 had been let go, but a source later said the number was 24. Other open positions would not be filled, reducing the staff total by about 40.
Del Conte openly admits that “I have no control over wins and losses.” His job is to provide coaches and athletes everything they need to be successful. He’s stated mission is for every team to be ranked among the top 10 and competing for national championships.
“He has embraced us and the challenge like nobody has ever done,” Reese said of Del Conte.
Other coaches are on board. “We have to make this place the most special place where other schools are envious,” new track coach Edrick Floréal said at his introductory press conference.
Of course, UT fans will have a dramatically different view of everything if the football team can resume its winning ways. “Football is the engine that drives the bus,” Herman said in May.
The 2018-19 athletic year promises to see more growth. Both the football and men’s basketball programs have highly-touted freshmen classes joining the fray. Women’s basketball has another bumper crop of talented newcomers, too.
USC will be at Royal-Memorial Stadium on Sept. 15 for a prime-time rematch of last year’s terrific game in Los Angeles. If the Longhorns can win, fan energy will surge.
“I’m just trying to get the train rolling,” Del Conte said.
Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email email@example.com.
How Texas fared: 2017-18
A look at how each Texas sports season fared in 2017-18, listed in order of final finish. Every Longhorns sports program qualified for the NCAA postseason:
Men’s swimming and diving: Won a fourth straight national championship, UT’s lone national title this year
Rowing: Third in the NCAAs, a second straight top-5 finish and the best season in UT history
Men’s golf: Tied for 2nd in the Big 12, fell in the NCAA quarterfinals (5th overall)
Women’s swimming and diving: Sixth at the NCAAs for the second straight year, UT’s best back-to-back seasons since 2001-02
Baseball: 43-22, won the Big 12 title, made it to the College World Series (tied for 7th overall)
Volleyball: 27-3, swept through the Big 12, NCAA regional finalists
Women’s basketball: 28-7, fell in the NCAA Sweet 16; won 24 or more games for the fourth straight year
Soccer: 14-4-3, third round of the NCAAs; tied a UT record with 11 shutouts and tied for the school’s fifth-most wins
Women’s tennis: 24-5, won the Big 12, NCAA round of 16 loss ended its 19-match win streak
Men’s tennis: 19-7, won the Big 12, fell in the NCAA round of 16
Women’s golf: Won the Big 12, tied for 12th in the NCAAs — UT’s best finish since 2004
Indoor men’s track and field: Finished 12th at the NCAAs
Football: 6-6 regular season, won the Texas Bowl
Outdoor men’s track and field: Second in the Big 12, 25th at the NCAAs
Men’s basketball: 19-15, NCAA first-round loss
Men’s cross country: Second in the Big 12, 30th at the NCAAs
Women’s cross country: Third in the Big 12, 31st at the NCAAs
Outdoor women’s track and field: Second in the Big 12, 34th at the NCAAs
Indoor women’s track and field: Won the Big 12 for the fourth time in five years, tied for 54th at the NCAAs
Softball: 33-26, NCAA regional loss