Champions: Texas-sized AD
Chris Del Conte sat across the table from DeLoss Dodds, the longtime Texas athletic director, with three binders of information about what TCU would bring to the Big 12.
By this time, 2011, Dodds was in his 30th year as the Longhorns’ AD and was easily the most influential figure in the conference he helped found. TCU was looking for a new conference home after the Big East fell apart.
So that day Dodds took Del Conte, TCU’s AD, to his favorite spot: Headliners, a private club on the 21st floor of a downtown Austin high rise. This was Del Conte’s one shot to convince Dodds that the Horned Frogs would be a good addition to the Big 12.
“I was so nervous,” Del Conte said.
As Del Conte opened the first binder to begin his presentation, Dodds stopped him.
“Where are you from?” Dodds asked. “Where’d you grow up?”
Dodds was well aware of TCU. He wanted to know about Del Conte. Before long, they were trading stories about their youth and their background in athletics.
“I forgot all about the binders,” Del Conte said. “We just talked. In that one really stressful moment, he made me feel like the most important person in the world.”
A few hours passed and the binders remained unopened on the corner of the table. Dodds finished his drink, slapped his hand on the table and rose from his chair.
“DeLoss got up and said, ‘I’ve heard enough,’” Del Conte said. “He turned and walked off like John Wayne.”
The next day, the Big 12 by unanimous vote extended an invitation to TCU.
In his time at Texas, Dodds, now 77 and retired, wielded a level of sway that some say made him more powerful than the Big 12 commissioner, maybe as powerful as any AD in the country. By the time he stepped aside in 2013, he had cultivated Texas into an athletic juggernaut with a $165 million annual budget, the largest of any program at the power five level.
“When you run a program that successful, there’s a level of influence that goes with it,” said Joe Castiglione, Oklahoma’s AD, who developed a strong friendship with Dodds despite the rivalry between the two schools. “That sort of goes with the territory. But also, he was an exceedingly bright, tough-minded leader who truly wanted the best for the Big 12.”
Dodds will forever be known as the visionary who oversaw the golden era of Texas athletics, launched the Longhorn Network and became one of the architects of the Big 12. Beyond all of those legacy-making events, though, Texas came to appreciate Dodds, a native Kansan, as a leader whose Midwestern values never left him.
First Look podcast: DeLoss Dodds and more
To those who know him best, Dodds’ significance is rooted in who he is and the relationships he forged, not what he built. Whether it was his trademark “How ya doing, Babe” to a coach in the hallway or just a quick call to stay in touch with Texas’ many powerful boosters such as Tom Hicks or Red McCombs, Dodds developed a level of respect that lasted three decades and goes on today.
Even as the Longhorns positioned themselves as the model athletic department during the golden era in the 2000s, Dodds was quick to remind his staff and coaches: “We can always be better than we are.”
“Despite having the best athletic program in America, there was always a sense of ‘Let’s be better.’ I really admire that about him,” said Kenny Jastrow, a Texas grad and one of its most involved alums.
When Dodds was growing up in Riley, Kan., population 700, only one house in town had a television. That happened to be the house where his childhood sweetheart, Mary Ann, lived. DeLoss would ride his bicycle past her house while delivering newspapers and peek in the front door to see if the TV was on. It wasn’t long before the visits to watch TV turned into visits to see Mary Ann.
“We grew up buddies,” Dodds said of Mary Ann, who later became his wife. In August, they’ll celebrate 60 years of marriage.
Growing up in small-town Kansas was just what you’d imagine. Dodds would leave his house in the morning and not return until dark. Sports — football in the fall, basketball in the winter and track in the spring — were at the center of those days.
At the small high school in Riley, Dodds graduated as part of a class of 11. Riley’s six-man football team was one of the best in the area.
“We had three big kids and three fast kids, so that’s all you needed,” Dodds said.
On the first play of every game, the strong-armed quarterback would throw a deep pass to DeLoss, who could run past everybody.
|Dodds’ collegiate athletic career began as an All-American sprinter at Kansas State and then as a highly successful track and field coach at his alma mater from 1963 until 1976, where he won six conference titles.
Even though Dodds went to Kansas State on a football scholarship, he gravitated to track, where he became one of the nation’s top quarter-milers with a best of 45.9 seconds. Dodds said he was probably better in the 880, “which should have been my event.”
He went on to win the Big Eight title in the 440 and narrowly missed a spot on the 1960 U.S. Olympic team.
After that, he said, “what I really wanted to be was a high school coach.”
And that’s exactly what Dodds told Kansas State’s president when he interviewed to be the university’s track and field coach a few years after graduation. But there was another factor: Mary Ann worked in the KSU president’s office.
“The president said, ‘Well, we don’t want to lose Mary Ann,’ so he offered me the job,” DeLoss said.
A distinguished 13-year coaching run, from 1963 to 1976, led Dodds to the next phase of his career as K-State’s athletic director, where in 1978 he took an upside-down budget and put the Wildcats back on solid financial footing. Kansas State was close to home — just 20 miles from Riley — it was his alma mater, and it was comfortable.
So when the Longhorns came calling in 1981 with an offer to become their AD, Dodds briefly thought about it before turning it down. That night, Dodds got a life-changing call from a man he didn’t know, James Ayres, a professor of English and Shakespearean literature at Texas. Ayres was part of the Longhorns’ athletic council that was searching for the next AD.
“What the hell is a Shakespeare professor doing on the athletic council?” Ayres recalled Dodds saying. Ayres spent the next hour on the phone recruiting Dodds to come to Texas.
“DeLoss was not being very responsive,” Ayres remembered. “But we kept talking and I finally offered to bring him a barbecue supper if he took the job.”
Dodds rose early the next morning and he woke up Mary Ann.
“We’ve got to go to Texas,” he told his wife.
“This was a chance for us to get out of our comfort zone and see what we’re made of,” Dodds says today.
Dodds’ hiring was considered a surprise because he came from outside the Longhorn family.
His oldest son, Doug, might have said it best when he described Texas: “It’s a different world down here,” something his father learned quickly.
For the first few years at Texas, Dodds was still “that guy from Kansas State,” which made everyday tasks like fundraising even harder.
“DeLoss had to earn his reputation,” said Bill Powers, the former university president. “He wasn’t always ‘The DeLoss Dodds.’ But what people found out is that he was the finest athletic director in the country.”
One of the decisions that became a pillar of his three-decade run came in 1986, five years after he’d taken the job. Dodds was exhausted and frustrated by the way the Longhorns handled fundraising. Financial gifts went into quasi-slush funds for each sport, which led to turf wars inside the athletic department.
Dodds put an end to it with the formation of the Longhorn Foundation, which provided a centralized agency to collect gifts. No longer would donors be giving to football or basketball. They’d be giving to Texas.
In the first year, donations doubled from $500,000 to $1 million and the stage was set for Texas to be one of the most prolific fundraising athletic departments in the country.
|Dodds oversaw what many Longhorns consider the golden era of Texas athletics, winning 14 national championships, including football with coach Mack Brown in 2005 (left), and more than 100 conference titles.
Texas was generating $40 million or more in annual gifts by the time Dodds retired. He also developed a program that still today enables athletes to return to Texas and finish their degree with the athletic department picking up the tab.
The Longhorn Foundation contributed mightily to one of Dodds’ most important legacies, his ability to unite a fan base full of millionaire donors. When former professional team owners like Tom Hicks and Red McCombs are among the donor base, it’s easy to imagine the pressure they can exert.
But Dodds had just the right touch. He kept them informed and made them feel like they had a seat at the table, even though Dodds clearly had the final say.
“There’s a lot of people with money in Texas and they all have an opinion,” Dodds said. “So you have to learn to talk before you act and make sure everybody knows where you’re going.”
Texas women’s AD Chris Plonsky, who has been at the school for more than 20 years, worked side by side with Dodds.
“DeLoss doesn’t operate with an iron mallet,” she said. “It’s over drinks and dinners and casual conversations. Bringing people along is part of his gift. I’ve never seen a more diplomatic, suave approach that’s so effective at turning a room. It’s never ‘My way or the highway,’ but people come around.”
Even now, Longhorns call the late 1990s through the 2000s the golden era of Texas athletics.
Dodds hired baseball coach Augie Garrido in 1997, football coach Mack Brown after the ’97 season and basketball coach Rick Barnes after the ’98 season. All three achieved nearly unparalleled success during that time, collecting national championships in football and baseball, and the school’s first Final Four trip in basketball since 1947.
The run of success put Texas at the centerpiece of conference realignment in 2010. Dodds flirted with the then Pac-10 before deciding to stay put in the Big 12 and hold together the fragile league. As part of the decision, Dodds was concerned about the travel for the Longhorns’ student athletes.
“DeLoss in many circles wore the black hat because of Texas’ prominence,” said Chuck Neinas, the former Big Eight commissioner who was Big 12 interim commissioner during 2011-12. “People don’t believe this, but DeLoss took the lead in trying to solve the situation and keep the Big 12 together. He was the one who recommended that the conference start sharing revenue equally, which was applauded by the rest of the conference. DeLoss doesn’t get the credit for trying to smooth the waters.”
Texas’ golden era through the 2000s also was the time when it separated itself financially. Dodds negotiated a new multimedia rights deal with Host Communications (now WME-IMG) and a new licensing arrangement with Collegiate Licensing Co., and was part of the Big 12’s talks for an enhanced Big 12 TV deal with ESPN and Fox.
In Dodds’ 32 years at the helm, Texas tripled its budget every decade.
“DeLoss had been preparing for this since he arrived in 1981,” Plonsky said. “He knew what this place could be.”
|After 32 years, Dodds announces his retirement as Texas AD in 2013 with school president Bill Powers.
The school’s multimedia contract remains one of the nation’s few revenue-share agreements. Most deals guarantee the school a certain amount of money, but Dodds wanted a contract that would enable Texas to share in the rights holder’s success.
The risk in a revenue-share deal is that sales go poorly and the school takes less money than it expected, but that hasn’t been the case at Texas, which takes 82.5 percent of the revenue when sales exceed $15 million, which they have for several years.
“He’d negotiate hard and when we had a deal, he’d use all the resources he had to help us,” said Tom Stultz, former president of Host Communications who now runs the college business for JMI Sports.
Stultz worked with Dodds to create the model for the Longhorn Network and ended up selling the rights to ESPN for $300 million over 20 years, which further separated Texas from its peers.
Chip Brown, the veteran Texas reporter for Orangebloods.com, said the Longhorn Network, launched in 2011, was a masterful stroke for several reasons, not the least of which was the revenue.
“It was a windfall that completely anchored Texas to the Big 12,” Brown said. “ESPN so overpaid for the network that it’s practically impossible for Texas to leave the Big 12 now. It became a testimony to everything DeLoss built.”
Three-plus years into retirement as athletic director, DeLoss and Mary Ann split time between their home in Austin and their retreat in the Texas Hill Country about 60 miles west of Austin.
Even at 77, Dodds does his own yard work. He always wanted to be known as a guy who cut his own grass. He likes to brag that the garage in his getaway home in Marble Falls is filled with “nine things that have motors.”
|These days he enjoys his retirement with his wife of nearly 60 years, Mary Ann.
What you quickly learn about Dodds is that he does everything with a purpose, whether he’s driving into town or walking with pace through the building that leads to Headliners.
But when he arrives at his lunchtime haunt, the man with the Midwestern charm slows down. He knows the wait staff by name and asks how their children are doing. He introduces the security chief as the best youth basketball coach in Austin.
“One of the many pearls of wisdom I’ve learned from DeLoss is that you’re supposed to know the people who support you,” TCU’s Del Conte said. “It’s your job to know them and make them feel equally as important.”
Through all of the groundbreaking events that shaped Dodds’ legacy as one of the nation’s best ADs, Dodds always brought it back to people.
It’s the only way an AD could have survived — thrived even — for three decades at Texas.
“He was so good at that fine line of being a boss and a friend,” former football coach Mack Brown said. “To be that successful at a place as political and difficult as Texas, it’ll never happen again.”
|The DeLoss Dodds way at Texas mixed vision, a knack for balancing relationships and an understated tone to create an athletic juggernaut.