STAFF WRITER JENNIFER FIERRO
HORSESHOE BAY — A month before the University of Texas at Austin hired Chris Del Conte to lead its athletics program, he had turned down the athletic director position at a Southeastern Conference school.
The former Texas Christian University athletic director talked about why he chose Texas, facility upgrades, fundraising, and other Longhorns tidbits during a regular gathering of the Horseshoe Bay Sports Club on Aug. 27 at Horseshoe Bay Resort.
“You go somewhere where you can make a difference,” he said about taking the job in Austin. “The University of Texas is arguably the biggest and best athletic program in the country.”
He recalled his astonishment the night in December 2017 when UT President Greg Fenves offered him the job and how he told his wife the family could be moving to Austin.
However, there was one hurdle: He had promised his children, the oldest of whom was entering her senior year in high school, they would remain in the Metroplex.
“‘I want you guys to think about this. This is an opportunity I don’t want to pass up,’” he recalled telling them. “Next thing I know, they’re looking up burnt orange dresses.”
His first official day was Dec. 11, 2017.
While UT has one of the premier athletic programs in the country, maintaining that status doesn’t come without challenges, especially considering the loss of three coaches in the years before Del Conte joined the Longhorns.
Del Conte noted that Texas lost three quintessential coaches all within three years of each other: head football coach Mack Brown in 2013, head basketball coach Rick Barnes in 2015, and head baseball coach Augie Garrido in 2016.
“That left us on shaky ground,” Del Conte said. “You lose iconic coaches, it would take anyone to the ground. It took us to our knees. We’re starting to get ourselves out of it.”
Since arriving at UT, Del Conte has taken on a massive fundraising effort, bringing in $60 million in six months, according to reports, to upgrade facilities. He wants to raise enough funds to cover $140 million in upgrades, including a new outdoor swimming pool, a football hall of fame, stands at the tennis facility, and improvements at Darrell K. Royal Texas Memorial Stadium starting in 2019.
It’s not all fundraising. Del Conte is looking at public-private partnerships for a new basketball arena to replace the Frank Erwin Center.
Del Conte said he has made staffing changes and other decisions to benefit the department.
While his job revolves around athletics, he’s aware of some of the problems with which other major university athletics programs are grappling.
During the Horseshoe Bay Sports Club program, someone asked Del Conte what he and UT officials do to prevent situations such as the sexual assault scandal involving Baylor University football players and the denial of Ohio State University head coach Urban Meyer this August of knowledge about domestic violence charges against his former receivers coach Zach Smith. Meyer later said he was unprepared for the question regarding his knowledge of the matter when he first denied knowing anything about it in July. OSU officials have suspended Meyer from coaching during the first three Buckeyes games of the 2018 season.
Del Conte said he calls an all-staff meeting every time there’s a national story of this magnitude in college sports.
“I print out the process of what we do and don’t do,” he said. “You can train, but someone still makes that mistake. You continue training and overtrain. I never want anyone to say Texas (has a) lack of institutional control. You constantly train and teach.”
Morality clauses are put in contracts and coaches are told the situations to avoid to keep their jobs, he added.
Del Conte is not in favor of paying student-athletes but believes an increase in the stipend or cost of attendance is the solution. If players got paid, their scholarships and all that comes with them, which includes tuition, room, board, unlimited meals, and access to the training room, would end. The athletes might be asked to pay for those items.
“I love the value of education. I love the value of what it brings,” he said. “Most (student-athletes) leave with no debt.”
Del Conte has initiated several changes since arriving on the “40 Acres.”
One big change was combining the men’s and women’s athletic departments and moving Chris Plonsky from women’s athletic director to Del Conte’s chief of staff. She still oversees volleyball and women’s basketball.
Texas is the last major university to combine the men’s and women’s departments, which were set up by athletic director Darrell K. Royal after the passage of Title IX in the early 1970s.
“Chris Plonsky is phenomenal,” Del Conte said. “She’s created one efficient model.”
In college sports, only football and men’s basketball bring in enough money to pay for the other sports, he said. The combination is an easier way to manage all athletics programs, he added.
That also meant eliminating positions or not replacing them within the department. Del Conte had 429 employees in the athletic department for 20 sports. By contrast, he said, the University of Oklahoma has 200 employees.
“We were inefficient in how we went about our business,” Del Conte said.
The Horseshoe Bay Sports Club meets once a month at Horseshoe Bay Resort. Read more about the group at 101HighlandLakes.com.