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SN exclusive: Texas AD Chris Del Conte talks horns down, Texas title hopes, Big 12 future

Sporting News — (John Hoover)

AUSTIN, Texas — Longhorns athletic director Chris Del Conte has helped breathe new life into the University of Texas, especially in football, where a $175 million rebuild is underway in the south end zone. More importantly, Texas is back in the national college football discussion with its annual rivalry against Oklahoma looming on Saturday.

Del Conte, a self-described son of hippies who grew up in a New Mexico commune that he calls “a children’s home,” has been at the center of an image makeover in Austin.

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Toward the end of DeLoss Dodds’ 32-year-tenure as Texas AD — and certainly after his retirement — things got a little sideways on the Forty Acres. Mack Brown’s illustrious time ended with a whimper and his successor, Charlie Strong, never regained momentum. Steve Patterson lasted just 22 months In the AD chair, and former player-turned-lawyer Mike Perrin wasn’t a long-term solution.

Del Conte’s arrival from TCU in December 2017 signaled stability. But it also shoved what many perceived as a staid and somewhat self-absorbed “This is Texas” mindset into the 21st century.

Del Conte, 51, is not just an effective fundraiser. Humble roots and an uplifting approach to each day allow him to connect with Joe Sixpack just as easily as he does with Mr. Moneybags.

Walking into a recent home game up Bevo Boulevard — the midway-styled game day celebration he and his staff have developed into appointment pregame — Del Conte stopped over and over to pose for pictures with Texas faithful and describe his vision for the future. It’s only fitting: Throughout the previous week, he’d reached out to many of them on social media, addressing their concerns with his usual Twitter suggestion box. That included the serious matter of some students getting trampled in a pregame crush trying to get into the LSU game.

Texas is paying Del Conte $1.54 million this year to helm a colossus that generated $212 million in revenue in 2018 — the largest in all of college athletics. But the school also pays him and his everyman countenance to smooth over any existing airs that might come off as elitist to outsiders. He handles that with understated efficacy.

In his office overlooking Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, Del Conte has plenty of impressive Longhorn memorabilia and adornments. But the ones he proudly shows off are the framed photos of his family — mom, dad, brother, sister, and dozens of children, basically in foster care. They’re posing — hanging out, really — in front of the barn, or they’re gathered on the front porch of the family home.

“What a wonderful way to grow up,” he said.

No one could guess which of those faces from the fuzzy old photos, taken on a sprawling New Mexico ranch, would grow up to be CEO of the largest college athletic department in the country.

Del Conte recently sat down with Sporting News before the Longhorns’ home game against Oklahoma State to talk about repairs he has made in UT’s athletic department and its aging infrastructure, the future of the Big 12 Conference, what he thinks about the College Football Playoff structure, the horns-down controversy and more:

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Sporting News: Other schools are mimicking the success you’ve had with fan engagement outside the stadium. Where did your idea for Bevo Boulevard come from?

Chris Del Conte: Oh, I’m a big fan of R&D: rip off and duplicate. That is the idea that the University of Texas invented the wishbone, and Barry (Switzer) went down and got it and so did Bear (Bryant). They all came down here. It’s always been an R&D society.

But when I was at TCU, I would come here and just realize that we are surrounded by an urban campus and our parking garages and our tailgating is not going to be the same as A&M or Iowa State or K-State. We didn’t have a bunch of land. I looked at that, and at the same time, you think about the power of the couch and people staying at home and watching the television and the multiple games you have. So I really went to Disneyland and studied what they do. The idea that you start your experience when the ticket renewal happens, how it’s packaged. When you come to the hotel, how you’re greeted. And when you come to the park, the sights, the smells, everything — it’s much more than the rides. It’s the whole experience. Then when you leave to come home, you’re completely wore out because you spent three hours trying to get on The Matterhorn and your kids are all jacked up and you come home and go, ‘God, that was crazy … can we go back again?’

Well, you combine that with, after spending that time with Disney, you go to Southwest Airlines and look at the value they bring and what they bring to the table with the very best customer service, value-driven entity. And they have low prices, but they guarantee you a great trip to and from.

So you think of an athletic program, what does that provide you? So we lowered concession prices and said, ‘Timeout. We’re going to have a completely value-driven idea.’ So for me, when I got here, I looked at, ‘Let’s create different things.’ When I was at Washington State, there was a guy named Ernie Howsell. He had Cougar Mania, which is a fifth-quarter rally after games. I went to Cal Poly, it was called the Mustang Stampede. At Arizona, it was Fan Fiesta. At TCU, it was called Frog Alley. I took every one of those ideas and said, ‘We’re going to create Bevo’s Boulevard to try to create a place where it’s a gathering point in front of the stadium.’

This past year I went to the State Fair for the first time and I saw the midway. I go, ‘Let’s put a midway all the way down and we’ll call it Smokey’s Midway.’ New this year. It looks just like when you go to the state fair. It is wild. It’s about a hundred yards of just straight state fair midway. And then we added a concert. What is Austin known for? Beer, food trucks and music. So we … formed with Stubbs (BBQ) and ACL and we call it Longhorn City Limits. Last week we had Midland. We had Aloe Blacc. We have a free concert. This week, the Gin Blossoms came in. And LBJ Lawn’s the perfect amphitheater. And they have all these places for fans to come celebrate the University of Texas.

So we took bits and pieces over the years and morphed it into what we could do here and it’s caught on.

SN: In essence, you’re nurturing the next generation of Longhorn fans to come back and say, ‘This is where I did this, and we went to this game and Sam Ehlinger threw this pass.’ …

CDC: Well, you’re creating a memory. You’re also asking fans to come to your place and spend discretionary income. They don’t have to buy a T-shirt. They don’t have to come to our games. So we’re running an enterprise based on peoples’ passion. We had to add value to that passion. As attendance is waning around the country, it has to be more than the game. It better be a 24-48-hour experience. So when we ask them to come down here, that’s what we’re creating.

Now, the game is important. Winning is critically important. But what is important, too, is all the value you add around it so they go, ‘You know what? Win, lose or draw, I had a great time and I’m coming back to support my team.’

SN: A lot of this is initiative based on fan alternatives — the 80-inch TV screen, air conditioning. …

CDC: Sure. Now we’re distracted by a lot of things, but we still provide live entertainment … this is their team. I’m a custodian of that team, but we’d better add value to that experience because they have other choices, and those choices are varied now. But when you think about TV at home, the accoutrements at home, you get to watch 22 games, you don’t leave, your buddies come over and you have that — but you’re not here. So when you come here, we have to create a reason why you want to come here outside of the game.

SN: You walk the grounds before each home game. Why?

CDC: Yeah. I get up here about 5:30 and I’ll walk every — restrooms, make sure they’re clean, make sure it’s ready to rock and roll. Because you’re inviting them into your house. When you have guests come into your house, you make sure it’s clean, make sure it’s tidied up, right? We’re inviting 100,000 people. So on the day of the game, we’ll walk every facet of the stadium and make sure it looks great. And I’ll walk with them.

But really, I’m talking about the day. We’ve got this cooking, we’ve got that, what are we ready for? But we’ll walk the entire grounds. But when I go on road trips, we’ll land and our team gets there and I’ll go to the game and it’ll be me, the marketing director, the CFO, development officer and another person, and we’ll meet up and I’ll say, ‘OK, I want you to go to look at what they do well. You go look at the food. You go look at the parking lots. I’m going to look at facilities.’ Whatever it may be, we will scour. And usually what I’ll do, I’ll walk as far as I can outside the stadium, I’ll do a (concentric) circle until I get in. So you see what everyone does. You’re just stealing ideas, thinking about things. Then they’ll come in and they’ll walk every floor of the stadium and they’ll see the designs they have cooking, what they do that’s great to their (experience).

When I was at Iowa, they played ‘Sweet Caroline.’ They do that at Wisconsin. I came here, I said, ‘We’ve got to go do something. I got something for you.’ So we did ‘Don’t Stop Believin’.’ Last year against Iowa State and the (cell phone) lights came on. It was just totally organic. So we’re constantly looking at something we can do and we’ll add to the mosaic here.

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SN: Mosaic is a great word because another one of those tiles is your interaction with fans on Twitter. It’s almost like a mailbag or suggestion box. Why?

CDC: Well, at the end of the day, I work for them. I report to the president, but I work for everyone. And one of the things I tell our staff here is those customers are precious to us. Whatever they are. We have to be more prevalent and more responsible to them. I’m going to do it and I want you to do it. And what’s interesting, one of our facilities people came up with the Fan First tag. She’s lovely, but she was in the events staff. She came up and said, ‘I’ve got something new.’ We put a population together of four or five people in the room, she came up with a great idea, they ran with it and now we have Fan First. They call up and Fan First is on it. They’re getting into customer service, we’re rewarding them, we’re recognizing them. But our fan base is also seeing that we are there. And one of the things that we had was, ‘We are Texas.’ Well, that’s great to say that. But we are here to serve you. But our own staff needs to know that it’s coming from me as well. So the detriment of my wife and our marriage — she’s always busting my chops, ‘Will you turn off that phone?’ But the reality is, whatever I say on the phone they all follow, and they follow through. So if I say, ‘We’ll get right on it,’ our staff’s right on it, they tweet it out and go check it, and it’s just permeating within our building.

SN: So where does this gift of yours come from, to be able to connect with both the common man and the billionaire, to be able to raise the money that you do? And not just here, because you did an unbelievable job raising money at TCU as well?

CDC: You know, I grew up in a children’s home, and I think always having — my father started that children’s home when he was 19-21 years old. My mom, they got married, they were from the generation of the ‘60s and they were going to serve humanity and they went through this idea that he was going to work for the UN and it was awesome what he did, but what he always preached to us was, ‘Serve others, be honest and be humble.’ And I think that lesson from him is always, ‘Hey, there’s something greater than yourself.’ I think when you think about culture — the most overused word in America — what culture is to me, is when you sacrifice one’s thought for the ability of the team to succeed. I may think I’m a five-tool player, but I’m really a two-tool player — well, be good at those two things. Do your job for the betterment of the team. If you can sacrifice what you think you are and accentuate your strength, what you’re really good at, then we can all enjoy the fruits of our labor.

So I just feel like it’s a privilege to work here, so I treat every day like it’s an awesome day. And I wake up every morning give it your best self. And when I lay my head on the pillow before I go to sleep, I’ll review the day and I always ask if I gave it my best self.

SN: I was talking with (Oklahoma AD) Joe Castiglione a few years ago and OU had just announced they were going to bowl in the south side of the stadium, and I said, ‘Joe, didn’t you guys just raise a bunch of money for major renovations on this same spot?’ And he said, ‘Yes, it can be frustrating, we just spent this money and it still feels brand new; but that’s the cost of staying in front.’ Can it be frustrating to keep going after the same donors for more money when they just made a significant donation?

CDC: No, because at the end of the day, when we did the north end zone, the south end zone was the football operations building, and that was built for Darrell Royal and renovated for John Mackovic. That’s how old that building is. We had not touched that building for our student-athletes since 1993 or ’94, but it was built for Coach Royal in ’69. That’s how old that building was. So tearing down that building, renovating that building, creating different amenities — loge box seating, club seating like they have with the Cowboys, we have plazas going on, we’ve had different with that, we’ve had generous founders that have given us a significant amount of money to start that project. It is phenomenal. But all with the intent that we are going to provide the very best for our student-athletes.

If our expectations are here (eye level), then all of those expectations must be fulfilled with whatever the market will bear. And what the market will bear is whatever people want to see. Texas should be the very best. Right? But if we’re now operating a 1950 Bunsen burner, teaching chemistry in 2019, our expectations and what facts are don’t match. So what our job is to bring those facts to what our expectations are, with the help of people. So when you ask for money, you’re asking, ‘What do you want for your program?’ Everyone who loves the University of Texas will lay out what their wants are, and my job is to say, ‘OK, here’s our plan for that; we’re going to need your help. Are you willing to help?’

SN: Is it as simple as build new facilities, get the best athletes to come to those facilities, win more games, everybody’s happy?

CDC: I don’t think it’s that. Because at the end of the day, we’re the front porch. Most important thing is the University of Texas. We want athletics to be great, but kids come here for an education at the University of Texas. And the alumni association welcomes them back. So it’s really the front porch, the house and the back porch. But if we want to win, and if we want to compete at the highest level, then that is the expectation. What should be matched with your expectation is what will enable you to get great coaching, get great student-athlete that will enable them to fulfill their dreams, and then provide an environment that’s completely sold out and awesome for those kids to say, ‘Yeah, that was great. I want to be a Longhorn.’

SN: Did you really have a pipe burst last year?

CDC: I did. So this side of the stadium — it’s pretty funny — the stadium was built in 1924, World War I memorial. Legislature came back, ‘We’re going to honor the World War I veterans,’ and when you walk up you see the doughboy right out front. Well, this side was expanded in ’68-69. Belmont Hall came on, upper deck. They just connected the pipes to the old cast iron pipes. So we’re playing USC last year, you know, first time here at the University of Texas, I’m on the opposite side of the stadium, I get a phone call: ‘You’re not going to believe it. Pipe burst.’ I’m like, ‘There’s no way.’ The game is going on, barely started, and I run all the way across. Our facilities guy meets me and he looks like he just saw death, sweating everywhere. He said, ‘You’re not going to believe it.’ I run all the way — all the restrooms on that upper deck are now flooding. They’re broke. Nothing’s happening. We’ll say gray water. Walk in the suite, and it’s seeping through like it’s from ‘The Shining.’ And my main man, they tell him, ‘You’ve got to vacate!’ And he grabs a bottle of Jack Daniels, takes a pull and goes, ‘Boys, I ain’t leavin.’ I’m ridin’ her out.’ We won the game, but we spent $11 million dollars this summer fixing the infrastructure.

What happened was just expand, expand, expand, expand and finally it just said, ‘Come on now.’ It went to the original piping in 1924. Come on now. That’s a lot of stuff. That’s damn near a century. No pipes in the house last a century.

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SN: Texas football season ticket prices have been static for four years? Why is that?

CDC: Well I think the last year, we came off, just went to a bowl game, we had just gotten here, I think a month, won the first bowl game we’d won in 4-5 years and the expectation was, ‘Here we go.’ I said, ‘Guys, let’s hold off a minute.’ The next year, we had a phenomenal year, we went to the Sugar Bowl, I said, ‘Guys, we’re asking people to come celebrate us. The expectation should not be let’s go win and gouge.’

We went from basically, when Mack Brown was here, we had about 60,000 season tickets. By the time Charlie had left, we dropped down to about 43,000. We’re back up to 63,000. Just broke our record. All-time high. Let’s just celebrate us. Let’s worry about momentum. Gouging does not make — there will be a time and place we have to address raising ticket prices. We do every year with the escalation of cost. But there’s no need to do that if you have open inventory. Let’s do a better job of creating an opportunity for people to come celebrate our university with open inventory and not look to just continue to pile on those that have been with you for 30-40 years.

At some point in time, we’ll have to increase ticket prices, but now is not the time. We dropped concession prices. Our average price for concessions per game is about $1.1 to $1.2 million. We lowered prices and last week against LSU, we did $2.4 million in concessions. So, you know it was hot. Beer was flowing. But the reality was that by dropping prices, they’re consuming more, they’re enjoying it more and they’re coming. So you can either take your 40,000 (season tickets), jack the prices up and then do that and have 40,000 empty inventory, well, let’s sell that 40,000 at the same price the 40 is paying, and we’re all in together. That’s our philosophy.

SN: When you were at TCU, there was a big push to find the best conference and upgrade the facilities and upgrade the profile of the university, certainly the football program did that, and then you got into the Big 12 and you were the newcomers, so maybe you didn’t see the disharmony. But (Big 12 commissioner) Bob Bowlsby has talked this year about there being a harmony in the conference that wasn’t here before, almost like a brotherhood between the presidents, the ADs, whatnot. Why do you think that is? Has the Big 12 kind of grown up, grown out of its teenager phase?

CDC: Well, I think any time you have massive shifts like we did, right, no different than when the Southwest Conference broke up and the Big 12 was formed, or when Conference USA was formed, or you had members of the ACC leaving to go to the Big Ten. All those things happened in a short time. Conference changes has been going on since the dawn of time. Chicago’s a member of the Big Ten. Tulane was a member of the SEC. All these things happened in such a short amount of time. We lost four schools in that time, so it was real tumultuous for the Big 12.

But, at the end of the day, leadership — by the commissioner, by the presidents, by the ADs — staying the course. When I got to TCU, they asked us two questions: Can you build us a stadium, and can you get us into a BCS conference. I was at Rice; ‘I’ll do whatever you ask, boys. Yeah, we can do the stadium, no problem.’ So we actually joined the Big East first. A&M and Missouri were in the Big 12 and they said they were going to stay at 10 when Colorado and Nebraska left. So the following year they (left), we were very fortunate, we had great leadership with Chancellor (Victor) Boschini, phenomenal coach with Gary Patterson, and my job was to package that where we could go where we did, and the Big 12 was an unbelievable fit for them. But at that time, the waters were really shaky.

But you could see that in the Big 12, the Big 12 Conference has finished first or second in every single sport we sponsor in the last five years. No. 1 or 2 in basketball, men and women, baseball, softball, track and field, tennis, tennis, football — across the board, we’ve been one or two, and outside of one year we’ve had a member play in the CFP. So all those things were galvanized by the idea that you play everybody twice, you don’t duck anybody in terms of all the sports, in football you play a round robin, and the footprint works. Having that continuity has been great.

SN: The leadership at the schools, David Boren at Oklahoma, several changes here at the University of Texas, other presidents and chancellors have left — before, it might have been egos involved, now it seems more like, ‘Hey, we’re new here, can you show us around?’ Is there some of that going on with the Big 12?

CDC: Yeah, could be. I think (Texas president Greg Fenves) — (Bill) Powers was the president, we’ve had one presidential change with Powers; Boschini’s always been at TCU; Boren, there’s been a leadership change, they’re onto his second president since his retirement. I think the reality of it is, it was stabilized by the success of our teams on the field. The national noise quieted down. We have phenomenal coaches in this league. The success of our student-athletes and our coaches has quieted down a lot of noise, and all of a sudden — Bob, who was an AD at Stanford, he sat in this chair, well respected, galvanized with a great plan. Old presidents and old chancellors and old athletic directors came with a plan and said, ‘OK, this is what we’re going to do, we believe in the mission.’ So you have old and new. The first year, everyone was kind of nervous and jittery — what is going to happen? TCU and Baylor tied for the league, didn’t get in, the national news was a little bit, ‘What is happening?’ They said you have to have a 13th data point. Well, all those things have been addressed, and yet all of our sports have risen. And so I think the national rhetoric has embraced the model that we’re trying to put forth.

SN: The future of the Big 12, if you were a speculator, which way would you put your money? Will it expand? I’ve gotten that question a dozen times already this year, ‘What do you think about UCF? What do you think about Houston?’

CDC: I don’t know that. I think we’ve put our stake in the ground on the model that 10 works. It works for basketball, it works for football, because you play everybody. The difference, when you have 10, you play everybody in your league, twice in basketball. We’re not playing divisions, and one time, this or that. In football (in the SEC), you may play Georgia one time in nine years. Right? We play everybody every year. You’re going to get our best two teams playing in the championship. So what we’ve really put the stake down in the model that 10 work. I came from the Pac-10. I’m a Pac-10 guy. I understand it. It does work. And it’s bearing out when all of our sports that we sponsor are 1 or 2 in the country at the end of the year in breadth of conference success.

SN: Bob Stoops used to talk about stability being such a factor at Oklahoma with he and Joe Castiglione and David Boren together for 18 years. Not sure it had never been done before at a school of that size or stature. With the turnover in leadership at Texas over the last decade, do you feel that is starting to stabilize with yourself, Greg Fenves and Tom Herman?

CDC: Well, you could say the same thing here at Texas. It was Mack Brown, Deloss Dodds — Deloss was here for 33 years, Ricky Barnes was here for 16, Mack for 16, Augie (Garrido), we had unbelievable coaches that had an unbelievable tenure for such a long, long time. They all left in such a quick fashion. And organizations go through that. We’ve had three chancellors, two presidents, four ADs, three football coaches, two basketball coaches and two baseball coaches in six years. But up until that point, we had no change for almost 20 years. So when you have that change and disruption in such a short time period, it’ll take most program to their knees. It bended our knee, but we were not on our knees. The organization of the University of Texas is so much bigger. But that disruption hurt us. For sure. But for 20 years, you could see the fruits of their labors were unbelievable.

SN: And you think it’s heading that direction again?

CDC: Oh sure. I like the coaching staff, I like our president, I like the investments that we’re making. We’re spending $200 million on a football building, we’re building a brand new arena that’s a little under $400 million, every one of our sports has a brand new facility, we gave baseball and softball, track, soccer, the pool, all of them, we gave them all $10 million. ‘Go fix up your facilities. Let’s make sure and do what we need to do.’ Built a brand new athletics hall of fame to celebrate our university. So I think all those things are adding to the momentum, and then the success our coaches are having.