For a school long known for dysfunction, the Texas Longhorns were not only able to conduct the search for a new athletic director entirely behind the scenes and out of the public spotlight, but hire the ideal candidate to lead the program into the future in Chris Del Conte.
In a Monday press conference, Texas will introduce Del Conte at 11 a.m. CT on Longhorn Network and streaming on TexasSports.com.
The former TCU Horned Frogs athletic director demonstrated several key attributes while in Fort Worth that will serve him well in Austin, where he faces some tremendous challenges in a number of different areas. The hope is that the big three sports have long-term solutions in place, so the pressure is on Del Conte to make other key decisions that will define the program’s future in massive ways.
At one point, the Horned Frogs seemed destined the wander the fringes of the college sports landscape after the school was unceremoniously discarded by the Southwest Conference when the Big 12 was created.
From 1996 to 2000, TCU played in the WAC. The following year, the Horned Frogs moved to Conference USA for four years before joining the Mountain West.
Within a year of Del Conte arriving, he’d secured an invitation to the Big East, which the school then declined when the Big 12 suffered defections from Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska, and Texas A&M. In less than three years on the job, Del Conte had returned TCU to the big-time college sports.
It wasn’t easy — realignment threatened the future of the Big East, so Del Conte networked with anyone who had connections to Big 12 presidents to talk up TCU. With the school’s future hanging in the balance, Del Conte traveled to Austin to meet with then-athletic director DeLoss Dodds in an attempt to convince the longtime power broker to support the Horned Frogs as an addition to the conference.
He didn’t know Dodds and he didn’t even have a meeting scheduled. The two talked for four hours before Del Conte returned to Fort Worth and continued pitching TCU to other athletic directors around the conference.
Days later, Del Conte received a call from interim commissioner officially inviting the Horned Frogs to the Big 12 following a conference call on expansion with all the athletic directors.
In the declining years of the DeLoss Dodds era, Texas notably lacked forward-thinking vision. Interim athletic director Mike Perrin was brought in as a stop-gap replacement following the disastrous tenure of Steve Patterson. Perrin didn’t assume the interim role with any expectation that he would make critical decisions beyond coaching hires — he was there mostly to placate angry donors and return some semblance of sanity to the position.
Now Del Conte will lead the Longhorns into the future. He’ll have to decide whether to remain in the Big 12 when the television grant of rights expires in 2025. In the interim, the most pressing issue is whether the conference decides to expand.
Under Perrin, Texas lost a significant degree of influence in realignment, but Del Conte’s experience, acumen, and charisma should once again elevate the Longhorns to the position the school previously occupied as a key driver of conference-wide decisions.
The prickly nature of disgraced former athletic director Steve Patterson had a severe impact on the school’s relationships with donors and helped exacerbate tensions between donors in Houston and Dallas.
Del Conte is known for his personable nature, which helped him raise over $300 million for construction projects that completely reshaped TCU athletics. All of that funding came from donors.
One of Del Conte's best stories he loves to tell is about TCU's facility expansion. How much debt does TCU carry? "Zip, nada, baby," he says. Always with huge smile.— Brian Davis (@BDavisAAS) December 9, 2017
During the 2017 fiscal year, the athletic department receiving nearly $32 million in donations, including a record $13 million from the Frog Club Annual Giving.
One of the reasons why Del Conte connects so well with donors is because of his commitment to communication:
He has done it all with a panache that has often overshadowed his genuine connection with the TCU community. He responds to emails and calls from fans worried about seating, parking and concessions. No problem is too small; no person is insignificant.
Patterson, by contrast, was often regarded as aloof and arrogant. Perrin is much more friendly, but largely drew on his longtime connections to the school as a football letterman.
With the Dell Medical School precipitating major changes to the UT campus and forcing the construction of new facilities across multiple sports, Del Conte will once again have to generate hundreds of millions in donations to the school.
If his track record with the Horned Frogs is any indication, there’s a strong chance he can raise it all.
From the football stadium to the basketball arena to the baseball stadium to the volleyball program to the track and field stadium to a new sports medicine center, Del Conte reshaped the entire TCU campus in his vision as it regarded athletics.
The undertaking at Texas won’t be as significant, but it will require the construction of an entirely new basketball arena and new practice facilities for football, basketball, and volleyball.
The basketball arena will be the largest undertaking — the Texas Athletics Master Plan recommended a location, but there are still key decisions Del Conte will have to make about its size and other considerations like where to place the student section.
There are also plans to rebuild the south end zone of Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, which would also likely involved the renovation or demolition of the Moncrief-Neuhaus athletic center.
Disch-Falk Field will receive planned upgrades to benefit the fan experience and enhanced player development facilities that will require the acquisition of land.
In all, the plan is for virtually every program to receive upgrades.
Del Conte benefited from the presence of football coach Gary Patterson and baseball coach Jim Schlossnagle upon his arrival at TCU. However, Del Conte’s ability to upgrade facilities with donations helped keep both coaches on campus, aided by extensions that he granted to both coaches.
And without Del Conte’s work getting the Horned Frogs into the Big 12, it’s possible that both coaches would have left. At the least, donors would have been less likely to fund new facilities.
The major coup for Del Conte was the hire of Pittsburgh basketball coach Jamie Dixon, a TCU alum who has had an incredible and immediate impact.
If Texas needs to replace any of the coaches in the major sports over the next several years, Del Conte will probably make the right choice.
In Fort Worth, Del Conte was known for keeping private contract negotiations and coaching hires out of the public eye, in stark contrast to the turbulent and public nature of recent coaching hires at Texas.
The news of Del Conte coming to Austin broke only minutes before the school was ready to announce the hire, almost unheard of with the Longhorns program. Expect the secretive and private nature of the search and negotiations to continue — Del Conte is excellent at information control.
The three top cumulative grade-point averages for TCU student-athletes have come during the last three semesters — better than 3.0 each time. During the last athletic year, there were 120 graduates from the athletic programs, indicating that the academic support systems put in place by Del Conte are working well.
When looking at Del Conte’s entire track record, it becomes clear that he’s one of the best administrators in college sports. To add him at Texas at the cost of a conference rival is a move that should continue to echo across the years in positive ways for the Longhorns.
And that’s exciting.