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Hire of Steve Sarkisian will serve as defining decision of Chis Del Conte’s Texas legacy

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So far, the Longhorns athletics director has made successful hires, but his first football hire will determine how history views Del Conte’s time on the Forty Acres.

Texas v Rice Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

You can’t overstate how important the hiring of Steve Sarkisian will be to the future of Texas Longhorns football and the overall athletic program.

Obviously, it’s a big decision. You could argue every head coaching move is a “big” decision, but especially one that involves a program that hasn’t won a conference championship in over a decade while simultaneously only reaching 10-wins during a season once.

It’s not important just because of the lack of success that has befuddled the Texas football program nor because Sarkisian has won the national championship twice as an assistant coach, but because of Chris Del Conte.

While he’s only in his third year as the athletics director at Texas, it’s the first time Del Conte truly has had to make a colossal decision regarding the most important athletic program at on the Forty Acres.

Del Conte has spearheaded numerous projects that plan to upgrade Texas facilities, such as the $175 Million south end zone project at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium and the building of the Moody Center arena, the public-private partnership that will provide Longhorns basketball with a new facility at no cost to the school. He’s also helped add an Olympic outdoor pool to the Texas Swim Center while introducing Bevo Blvd. and Longhorn City Limits to enhance the game-day experience at football games.

That isn’t even in the full list of all the capital projects and other changes undertaken by Del Conte since his arrival.

While the Sarkisian hire is without a doubt the biggest decision Del Conte made yet on the Forty Acres, it’s not the first head coaching change.

Del Conte hired three different coaches before Sark — softball coach Mike White from Oregon, track and field coach Edrick Floréal from Kentucky, and women’s basketball coach Vic Schaefer from Mississippi State.

All three were well-respected coaches at their particular programs and all three hires were slightly unexpected.

White led the Oregon to six Women College World Series births before moving to Austin and in his first year took Texas to their first WCWS since 2013. Horns spent time ranked No. 1 during the 2019-20 season before COVID-19 shut down the season.

Floréal led the men’s and women’s track and field team to top-10s in the NCAA Outdoor Championship in his first season on the Forty Acres as well.

Schaefer resurrected the Mississippi State’s basketball program and led them to the Sweet Sixteen, an Elite Eight, and two national championship appearances in his final four years in Starkville.

All three hires have shown promising returns, but with all due respect to those programs, they don’t carry the same weight as football does in Austin.

Tom Herman had just wrapped up a 6-6 regular season finish in his first season at Texas when Del Conte was introduced as the next athletics director on Dec. 11, 2017.

Shaka Smart, Karen Aston, Mack Brown, and Judy Conradt were mentioned in Del Conte’s introductory monologue, but not Herman. In fact, the only time he spoke about the head coach at the time was when asked directly about his relationship with Herman.

By the time the 2020 season was winding down, the relationship between Herman and Del Conte was fully fractured, with much of the blame due to the deafening silence from CDC during a football season engulfed in Urban Meyer-to-Texas rumors following two straight early-season losses. Only after Meyer reportedly turned down the Texas job did Del Conte issued a public statement about Herman’s future with the program, but even that “statement” caused more harm than good.

“There’s been a lot of speculation about the future of our Football coach. My policy is to wait until the end of the season before evaluating and commenting on our football program and coaches. With the close of the regular season, I want to reiterate that Herman is our coach,” Del Conte said.

Del Conte quickly had to clarify that he planned to retain Herman as the Texas head football coach. And yet, one month after Del Conte’s statement, Steve Sarkisian was introduced as the next Texas head coach when Herman was fired only hours after blowing out Colorado in the Alamo Bowl.

Instead of addressing the loud Meyer rumors that echoed across Texas-based subscription sites and social media, Del Conte left Herman alone to face the music. By the time he issued the lukewarm statement of public support, Herman was already a dead man walking — not even a blowout victory over Colorado could save him, although Del Conte didn’t quite frame it that way.

“From the time I made the statement, I had not completed my evaluation,” Del Conte said. “When I completed that evaluation, it became apparent a change needed to be made.”

Despite the Meyer fiasco and whether you liked or disliked Del Conte’s handling of the Herman firing, the Texas athletics director did something that Steve Patterson and Mike Perrin failed to do.

Back when Del Contre was introduced as the replacement to Perrin, he was asked about his philosophy and what his role would be as the athletics director.

“We know when this place is rowing the boat in the same direction, there’s nothing that can stop it,” Del Conte said. “My job is to guide that.”

Unlike the hirings of Sarkisian’s predecessors, Herman and Charlie Strong, the decision to hire Sarkisian was discussed and agreed upon by three different people in three different tiers of the university.

Del Conte asked Kevin Eltife, the Chairman of the Board of Regents, to be involved with the decision making to move on from Herman and find the next head coach along with Jay Hartzell, the university’s new president.

All three rowing the boat together in the same direction, a rare moment of alignment at a university often defined by dysfunction at its highest levels of leadership.

According to Del Conte, Eltife was the first to throw out the name of Sarkisian, then serving as the Alabama offensive coordinator. “I like him, too,” Del Conte responded. “He’s the guy,” Hartzell added.

Leaving the meeting, Del Conte marveled at the level of agreement between the three largest stakeholders in a decision that has huge long-term financial ramifications for the university. “Holy cow, we all agree,” Del Conte thought to himself.

That level of agreement doesn’t necessarily mean that the Sarkisian hire will work — there are no guarantees in this industry — but a unified decision from the Board of Regents down to the office of the president down to the athletics director is what Texas desperately needed after a decade filled with uncertainty.

Yet it also doesn’t erase Del Conte’s head-scratching decision to extend Tom Herman’s contract after the Sugar Bowl victory over Georgia following the 2018 season, a game that Texas for which was only eligible because Oklahoma qualified for the CFB Playoff.

You can define whether or not a head coach is successful by what his record shows. Herman’s showed zero conference championships. But how can you define the success of an athletics director?

Sure, you can look at the record of wins and losses and count up the number of conference championships but that doesn’t take into account the things Del Conte does off the court or field. He has an innate ability to fundraise (see Herman’s buyout and the $130 million grant for the new basketball arena) while being able to connect just as well with the donors as he can with fans (see CDC’s social media savviness).

Del Conte will always be remembered as the athletics director who hired Sarkisian, just as Patterson will always have his name attached to Strong and Perrin’s name to Herman.

But unlike the aforementioned Patterson and Perrin, Del Conte may ultimately be remembered as the athletics director who sparked the revitalization of the Texas football program.