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.
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:
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.
To read the rest of John Hoover’s Q&A with Chris Del Conte, click here: