After more than two years of stewardship from Texas Longhorns interim athletics director Mike Perrin, the Austin American-Statesman dropped a bombshell scoop on December 9, 2017 that TCU Horned Frogs athletics director Chris Del Conte was set to take over that role for Perrin in Austin.
Hiring Del Conte from a Big 12 rival was major coup for a program that largely struggled to find effective leadership since making the ill-fated decision to hire Steve Patterson to replace the legendary but ultimately flawed DeLoss Dodds in 2013. Perrin had done an admirable job repairing the damage caused by Patterson, particularly with boosters, but was never a long-term solution. After all, he was a lawyer by trade with no real experience managing the behemoth that is Texas athletics.
Enter Del Conte, who fulfilled and perhaps even surpassed expectations over his first year on the Forty Acres by making himself available to every single Longhorns fan, improving the game-day experience across multiple sports, and advancing multiple key capital projects.
At a young age, Del Conte’s father, a Christian missionary who raised his son and many other children on a ranch outside of Taos, New Mexico, instilled multiple values in his son — be humble, be honest, serve others.
“My philosophy is simple: my job is to support coaches and student-athletes in their endeavors to win championships, period,” Del Conte said when he was introduced at Texas. “That’s it. I have a reverse pyramid. I am a servant leader.”
Serving his own family was a key concern for Del Conte when he considered whether he should accept the job at Texas. He has two daughters who are in high school and he worried about how the move would impact them — he’d promised them that he would wait until they graduated to make a move.
“Life is all about taking risks. If you never take a risk, you will never achieve your dreams,” one texted him.
The other daughter asked him to listen to “The Climb” by Miley Cyrus, an ode to moving and climbing and maintaining faith.
“Their message was clear: They knew this was the type of opportunity I dreamed of and they, along with my wife Robin, were on board and excited to join me on this wonderful and fortunate journey,” Del Conte wrote in a reflective Forty Acres Insider on Tuesday.
After a year on the job, Del Conte hasn’t just molded Texas athletics in his own image, he’s molded it in the image of Longhorns fans, coaches, and athletes. He’s simply the conduit, and an incredible one at that.
One of the first major decisions that Del Conte made to improve fan experience was one so obvious that it’s truly remarkable that it wasn’t made years ago — removing the plywood wall in left field at UFCU Disch-Falk Field that kept fans from watching games from outside the outfield fence.
The OccupyLF movement began many years ago, but took a major hit when Dodds put up the plywood barrier with advertisements on it in 2012. Want to look at a single decision that serves as a microcosm of how Texas athletics went so wrong? Destroying arguably the best aspect of the game-day environment at the Disch ranks near the top.
Relatedly, the ease with which Del Conte corrected that blunder clearly illustrates his ability to make the simple decisions without allowing concerns about advertisements or making sure that fans buy tickets to baseball games cloud his common sense.
During the second home series of the 2018 baseball season, Del Conte did what he does so well — he went on a walk to understand his fanbase and asked the OccupyLFers about the plywood barrier.
Two days later, it came down. Simple.
“You want people to come and participate,” Del Conte told the Austin American-Statesman. “Why would you put up barriers? It made no sense to me. So, take it down.”
For the superstitious baseball fans in the group, it was a decision that helped remove the barrier to the Longhorns once again hosting and winning a regional. In a real sense, Del Conte’s decision revitalized the core of support for Texas baseball — its sweaty, dedicated, booze-soaked heart. A defibrillation, so to speak.
Even before the changes made to the baseball program, Del Conte followed through on plans created by Perrin and head coach Tom Herman to correct some significant issues with the football program’s gameday experience.
The biggest changes in January were moving student seating to a contiguous section in the southeast corner of the stadium with a new general admission policy that abandoned Perrin’s ill-advised idea to force students to secure wristbands at the soccer stadium before entering Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.
Opposing fans were moved from that section into the northeast upper deck, along with the opposing band.
More changes followed before the season began. Bevo Blvd. Longhorn City Limits. Cheaper concessions. An Uber Zone lot so fans could catch rides to and from games with greater ease.
Shutting off San Jacinto Blvd. to provide a pregame street party called Bevo Blvd. for fans with happy hour drink pricing, two giant LED screens to watch games, a parade for Bevo, and a stadium stampede for the team as they arrived supercharged the entire gameday experience.
Longhorn City Limits, which featured opening and headlining acts before each game helped capture the music-loving spirit of Austin and focused on landing performances from local music legends like Reckless Kelly, Old 97’s, and Ghostland Observatory, along with worldwide acts like Aloe Blacc.
“There are so many other options to stay home or go to your local craft brew pub and watch the game,” executive senior associate athletics director for external affairs Drew Martin told Billboard. “The onus is on us to provide them with an experience that is worth, not just their money, but their time.”
During the game, the athletics staff decreased the number of advertisements to allow the space for truly magical moments like fans singing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” with their cell phone flashlights creating a concert-like experience on Senior Night against Iowa State.
Senior tight end Andrew Beck, who committed to Mack Brown and endured the failed Charlie Strong era to earn well-deserved recognition as a survivor, said after the game that he was so distracted by the scene when he went onto the field that he didn’t even know what play was called.
The result was a home-field advantage for the Longhorns that hasn’t been present on a consistent basis for a long time. The student section was consistently packed before kickoff with the exception of the Baylor game on ACL weekend and notoriously late-arriving Texas fans and alumni managed to make it into the stadium before kickoff more often, too.
“What a difference Chris Del Conte and Drew Martin and their crew have made in terms of their vision,” Herman said after the Iowa State game. “But all of the credit to the atmosphere in DKR goes to our fan base and our students.
”And, wow, were they awesome again tonight. They have set the bar very, very high around here and it’s a bar that needs to be maintained week after week. Again, I say on behalf of our team, thank you.”
Throughout the season, Herman wasn’t the only one who noticed the difference. Players did. National commentators did. And fans did, too, clearly.
Changes at the Erwin Center are more difficult to implement in a way that will make the same type of difference, but Del Conte and his staff have unveiled lower prices on concessions and happy-hour pricing before games. The double-header for the men’s and women’s teams last Sunday featured a basketball version of Bevo Blvd.
The more important decisions regarding the fan experience at basketball games will be the new on-campus arena. Thinking outside the box, Del Conte has solicited design proposals for the arena from private entities with design and construction experience to form a public-private partnership that would require little investment from the university.
Del Conte also selected global architecture and design firm Populous to handle the renovation of the football stadium’s south end zone, a project expected to cost $175 million that will also include updates to the Moncrief-Neuhaus Athletics Complex that houses the offices for the coaching staff.
And while those plans were already in the works, Del Conte noticed the need to house trophies and memorabilia that are currently stored in Georgetown, so he raised money for the Texas Hall of Honor, a project that will cost $10 million and take up 30,000 square feet in the football stadium’s north end zone.
Other projects have already completed or in the works.
“Last spring, we completed our state-of-the art Texas Tennis Center and on the heels of record-setting commitments from our supporters and fundraising efforts of our Longhorn Foundation, we are in the process of much needed upgrades to many of our athletics venues,” Del Conte wrote. “We recently broke ground on Baseball’s J. Dan Brown Family Player Development Center at UFCU Disch-Falk Field; have Coach Reese’s long-awaited outdoor pool on the way; and renovations are in the works for our Softball, Soccer, and Track and Field facilities.”
Call Del Conte’s approach a form of empathetic pragmatism. Everything he does makes so much sense that even after a year under his leadership, it’s hard to imagine how the athletics department was led so astray by refusing to make all of those easy decisions. By lacking any real vision. And yet, here we are now, thanks to the leadership that Texas has desperately needed for years.
Of course, raising the capital necessary to execute all the upgrades to facilities isn’t necessarily easy, as evidenced by Patterson’s failures in that regard. Del Conte’s charisma and personability, though, makes it seem easy.
The result is that Del Conte has already transformed the program — not only in his image, but with the input of all the relevant stakeholders, all of whom will continue to have a voice in Texas athletics thanks to Del Conte’s responsiveness.
“All of this is because our focus is on ‘we’ and not ‘me.’ We appreciate you, are grateful for a truly amazing year, and we still need your help as we continue to put the ‘T’ back in Texas,” Del Conte wrote on Tuesday.
“Let’s do this together!”