In November 2013, Texas took an unconventional tact and hired Arizona State’s Steve Patterson as its athletic director. The move confused officials around college sports, as Patterson’s reputation was unproven in college circles and unpopular in professional ones.
Patterson’s Texas tenure came to an unceremonious and inevitable end Tuesday, with a source telling SI.com that the terms of his firing are expected to be finalized by the end of the day. The 22-month Patterson era—formalized as an error today—provides a cautionary tale of what happens when university officials defy common sense and try to outsmart convention. When it flops, you look that much dumber.
The issues with Texas’s antiquated athletic department, struggling football program and current leadership void can all be traced back to the arrogance, obliviousness and apathy of the school’s administrative decision makers. They let athletic director DeLoss Dodds, hired in 1981, hang around too long until things became dire with the football program in September 2013. Dodds let Mack Brown stay around too long as the program atrophied, assuming the victories would keep coming despite the obvious diminishing results after the Longhorns reached the 2009 national title game.
Texas was so busy counting the money from its new television network and playing realignment bully that it completely neglected the reason it had earned its position of power in the first place. Texas was too big to fail, until it kept on failing.
New Texas president Gregory Fenves, who was hired in June, finds himself having to clean up the errors of his predecessor, Bill Powers. It was Powers and the hiring committee who Patterson charmed with his dynamic in-person interview to prompt them to make the surprise hire. They couldn’t have whiffed worse.
As Texas starts over again, Fenves would be wise to do what Powers neglected to do—make the obvious hire in Oliver Luck. (A source told SI that the search may not begin until the spring.)
Texas officials interviewed Luck, then the athletic director at West Virginia, in 2013. Luck, who graduated from law school at Texas, badly wanted the job and was among the large chorus stunned by Patterson’s hiring. Luck moved on to work at the NCAA in 2014, but he could likely be lured back to Austin. After all, the choice between one of college sports’ strongest brands (Texas) as opposed to its weakest (the NCAA) isn’t much of a choice.
The Luck family perfectly crystalizes this current era of Texas incompetence. Former Longhorns football coach Mack Brown passed on offering a scholarship to Oliver’s son Andrew in 2008, a decision that potentially set the football program back at least five years. (Brown went all-in on ’09 quarterback Garrett Gilbert, who flopped in Austin. Texas hasn’t started a competent quarterback since Colt McCoy left town after the 2009 season).
The baffling part of overlooking Oliver Luck was that the duality of his résumé from the athletics and business sector fit just what Texas needed. Luck brought MLS’s Dynamo to Houston and secured public financing to build BBVA Compass Stadium. As the CEO of the Houston Sports Authority, Luck also played a major role in the completion of the Texans’ NRG Stadium and the building of the Rockets’ Toyota Center. He brings an ability to relate to, connect with and lead people, which Patterson sorely lacked.
Instead of providing a magic bullet for years of administrative neglect, Patterson now leaves bullet holes that will require more than a few Band-Aids to fix. His era blew up in such a fantastic mushroom cloud of donor angst, season-ticket-holder revolt and awkwardly handled firings that the mess he inherited actually gets overlooked. Anyone gone to a Texas basketball game lately? The Erwin Center has all the charms and atmosphere of a 1984 wood-paneled station wagon.
Patterson’s tenure is a reminder that charm and warmth are still part of the job description for college athletics, no matter how big the business has gotten. That’s why Texas will look to someone like Luck, Louisville’s Tom Jurich, Kansas State’s John Currie, Mississippi State’s Scott Stricklin or Arizona’s Greg Byrne to replace Patterson. It’s hard to fail as badly as Texas has the past five years as an athletic department, so it won’t take a genius to fix it. Just a competent and experienced athletic director that finds time for boosters willing to give $1 million.
There’s one candidate that shouldn’t get an iota of consideration—Mack Brown. The reason that Texas’s football program is toiling right now has everything to do with Brown mailing in his final years as Texas’ coach. Strong has had his own issues at Texas, including finding a quarterback, but he’s been handicapped by a roster bereft of talent.
Strong and Brown have said all the right things about each other publicly and maintain a solid relationship. But Texas officials let Brown stay two years too long. That helped lead to two of the biggest travesties in Texas football history—the lack of a Longhorns player picked in 2014 NFL draft and the lack of a player on Athlon’s preseason All-Big 12 team this year. The negative effects aren’t over yet, either; two NFL scouts told SI.com on Tuesday that it’s unlikely any Texas senior will get drafted this year. (Redshirt junior defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway offers the best chance as a potential late-round pick, but the best talent is among the underclassmen).
Letting Texas slip to that low of a talent level is like the Yankees needing to call up their entire starting infield from Class A or Morgan Stanley filling its trading desk with Cape Cod Community College dropouts. It’s almost incomparable negligence to have such a powerful program, brand and recruiting location and not exploit it better than Brown did at the end. (Strong left Louisville to send three first-round picks to the NFL in 2014 and 10 overall picks last year.)
Brown has gotten a pass for the talent void he created while doing what he did best at Texas in the end—smiling for the cameras. How can he become Strong’s boss after his own poor performance put Strong in such a disadvantageous position to begin his tenure?
The onus is on Fenves to make a more inspired choice than his predecessor. It won’t take deft leadership skills to find the obvious, just Luck.