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Volume 23 No. 17
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Photo: espn images

Game day with Chris Del Conte

It’s 5 a.m. and already oppressively muggy when Chris Del Conte pulls up in his white Ford F150 truck at the Fairmont Hotel in Austin. In 13 1/2 hours, the Longhorns will kickoff against LSU, and the Texas athletic director already is tired from the two donor events he attended the night before that went late into the evening, including one hosted by Texas alum Roger Clemens. Operating on four hours of sleep, Del Conte swings by the Fairmont to pick me up.

A few weeks earlier, Del Conte had invited me to spend the day with him on Sept. 7 when the 9th-ranked Longhorns faced the 6th-ranked Tigers. At the time, neither of us knew that ESPN’s “College GameDay” would be in town, meaning our day would start much earlier than planned. By the time he dropped me off at 12:30 a.m. that night, I had spent almost 20 hours shadowing Del Conte.

In that time it became clear why Del Conte — in just his second year at Texas but already considered one of the nation’s top ADs from tenures at TCU and Rice — has been the jolt of energy the Longhorns needed. He completely transformed football game days in Austin with fan fests at Bevo Blvd. and Smokey’s Midway. Top musical acts play at Longhorn City Limits across the street from the stadium just hours before kickoff. On this day, before one of the most anticipated games of the season, officials estimated 50,000 people without a ticket to the game congregated for these fan events through the afternoon and evening. 

As Del Conte made his way through the burnt-orange crush of people that afternoon, fans repeatedly praised him for making game day such a big event. “Thank you, Mr. Del Conte. You’ve put the T back in Texas,” said one woman in the crowd. Del Conte, looking cool despite being drenched in sweat on a day when the high eventually reached 103 degrees, finally made his way into the school’s new Hall of Fame and the relief of air conditioning.

By kickoff, the tone of the evening had changed from celebratory to concerned. Students had stampeded through the gates to get the best seats in the general admission sections, and accounts of what happened were popping up on Twitter. Del Conte was preoccupied during much of the game with learning about what happened. Questions about safety would dog the Longhorns for the next two weeks, resulting in policy changes to student entry. At the game, Del Conte, sitting in his customary seat on the left side of the AD’s suite, frequently looked up to watch a play only to return to his phone, where he was getting updates from his staff.

The sellout crowd of 98,763, one of whom was actor and Texas fan Matthew McConaughey, watched the Longhorns lose, 45-38. More than an hour after the game ended, Del Conte and I returned to his truck. It took 90 minutes to go 1.8 miles back to the hotel. While sitting in an endless pack of vehicles, Del Conte dictated his thoughts into his phone for a Monday morning meeting. One of the topics to be covered — postgame traffic.