Mud Pits, Red Tape and the Texas Turnaround Long in Coming

The duo driving the future of Texas football knows that the Longhorns' abundance of resources hasn't always been an advantage. If new AD Chris Del Conte can address what felled past regimes, can second-year coach Tom Herman take the program back to national prominence? Plus, a personal barbecue breakthrough in Austin and the rest of this week's Punt, Pass & Pork.
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AUSTIN, Texas — Chris Del Conte was about to leave the room as Tom Herman walked in. “Hey boss,” the second-year Texas football coach said to the new Texas athletic director last Tuesday. “Heck of a meeting this morning.” And then Herman flashed a huge grin.

Unbeknownst to Herman, Del Conte had just talked about that meeting during an interview with myself and former Colorado, UCLA and Washington coach Rick Neuheisel for a show that aired on SiriusXM last week (and is still available on demand on the SiriusXM app if you’d like to listen). “I had a head coaches meeting this morning to talk about what they would like us to be moving forward,” said Del Conte, who left TCU in December to move three hours south. “Then we will build our culture around their wants and wishes.”

In other words, Del Conte told his coaches that burnt orange and white would be the only school colors from this point forward. For the previous few years, the secondary color at Texas was tape red.

To understand why this would matter so much to coaches at Texas—and specifically to the football coach at Texas—consider the case of the unintended mud pit. On a small hill above the Texas practice fields is a covered area. This is where the players seek shade during breaks. It’s also where they drink copious amounts of water. When a hundred large men open water taps for a few minutes from an elevated position, that tends to lead to significant runoff. That runoff would pool at the bottom of the hill and turn part of one of the practice field sidelines into a mud pit. The solution Texas staffers devised was simple and cheap. They realized that if they covered the hill with artificial turf and created a small turf landing, the water would evaporate before it could mix with soil and create mud. For the nation’s wealthiest athletic department, this low-tech fix should have taken a few days.

It took months.

This is only one small example, but multiply that by several hundred and you’ll understand the aggravation of Texas football coaches relative to some of their peers who have dealt with less bureaucracy on a daily basis. We keep wondering why Texas hasn’t won big since the Longhorns won the Big 12 and reached the national title game in 2009, but perhaps we’re putting too much blame on the coaches and not enough blame on the place. We’re about to find out how much that matters—if at all—because Del Conte likely will streamline some of the issues that Mack Brown, Charlie Strong and Herman have faced.

Controlling for that factor should help provide a better answer for an intriguing question: Is it just difficult to win at football at Texas?

This sounds like a foolish question, because from the outside, there should be nothing easier than winning football games at Texas. The Longhorns have more money than anyone else. They have prime exposure in the form of their own cable network. They can offer an education from an Association of American Universities member that is considered one of the nation’s most prestigious public universities. They sit in the middle of one of America’s most fertile football recruiting grounds. Given these factors, mediocre seasons should never happen. Yet let’s examine what has happened since Darrell Royal retired after the 1976 season.

Fred Akers followed Royal by winning at least nine games in six of his first seven seasons, but after going 11–1 in 1983, Akers never won more than eight in a season again and left for Purdue after going 5–6 in ’86. David McWilliams went 10–2 in 1990 but went 21–24 in his other four seasons at Texas. John Mackovic went 10-2-1 in ’95 and coached a 7–4 team to an upset of Nebraska in the inaugural Big 12 title game in ’96, but he was fired after posting a 4–7 record in ’97.

In came Mack Brown, whose first 12 seasons created the current idea of what Texas football should be. Brown won nine games in each of his first three seasons and then won double-digit games for nine consecutive years. This included a national championship in 2005 and the aforementioned BCS title game after the ’09 season. During that period, Texas went 101–16. Since then, Texas has gone 53–48. That isn’t as good as the 92–68 record that included Akers’s final seasons and the two predecessors to Brown, but neither of those records is acceptable at a place with as many resources as Texas. This is why Herman continues to temper any talk of optimism following last year’s Texas Bowl win with a reminder that a season such as 2017 should be the floor. “I get that the bare minimum—or needs to be around here—is winning a bowl game,” Herman said.

Looking at the records over the years, two conclusions spring to mind:

• Maybe we don’t give Brown enough credit for winning so consistently. While it was happening, the immense resources at Texas got a healthy chunk of the credit.

• Maybe the place has as much to do with the lack of consistent winning as the coaches.

But if Del Conte can change the place, will that make it easier for Herman to win in the manner that has become expected? This isn’t to say that Nick Saban has gotten everything he’s wanted immediately at Alabama, but generally, if he brings a sensible idea to the administration, the administration makes it happen relatively quickly. Everyone in Tuscaloosa is pulling in the same direction, and that direction leads toward national titles. Texas has had four different athletic directors and two different presidents since 2014. Closer to home for Texas, Oklahoma won a national title and won or shared 10 Big 12 titles in the 18-year period in which the Sooners had the same coach (Bob Stoops), athletic director (Joe Castiglione) and president (David Boren) working in near-perfect alignment. It probably isn’t a coincidence that Brown’s best years came with then Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds at the height of his powers.

The University of Texas is a behemoth of an organization that is routinely the focus of the legislators who work in the state capitol a mile away, and its athletic department suffers from much of the same paralysis by bureaucracy. Steve Patterson, the second of those four athletic directors, attempted to cut through that bureaucracy and take decisive action, but he acted like a slash-and-burn turnaround specialist instead of the steward of an iconic brand that has plenty of money but needs to be pointed in the proper direction. “A lot of it when you're this big is that you become silo-driven not because you want to but because of the size,” Del Conte said. “It’s like the federal government.”

The stagnation also may have some of its roots in arrogance. Texas won so much in the first decade of this century that the people in charge stopped evolving because they didn’t think it would ever end. The Joneses, as Dodds once famously called the Longhorns, stopped keeping up with everyone else in just about every category except ticket prices. Del Conte intends to change that, and one of his first priorities is the Moncrief-Neuhaus Athletic Center, which houses the football team. The Longhorns got a new locker room last year, but the rest of the building is showing its age compared to the palaces in Norman, College Station and Manhattan. (That’s Manhattan, Kans., by the way.) Strong wanted them improved but couldn’t make much progress. By the time Herman arrived last year, it had begun to dawn on Texas officials that they had fallen behind. The locker room was a start, but Del Conte wants to ensure facilities don’t cost the Longhorns when they’re trying to recruit against Texas A&M or Oklahoma or Alabama.

“Our facilities used to be the greatest facilities in the ’90s and early 2000s,” Del Conte said. “If you go down Rodeo Drive or you go around Beverly Hills, it’s that one house. Everyone said, ‘That was my dream house.’ Then everyone built around it. And that used to be some kind of house. We’ve got to fix our facilities.”

Del Conte’s specialty is raising money and building. At TCU, he rebuilt Amon G. Carter Stadium from scratch using cash during one of the worst economic downturns in U.S. history. He rebuilt the football facilities and the basketball arena. He renovated the baseball stadium. And then one day he looked around and there was nothing left to build. Del Conte jokes that TCU football coach Gary Patterson grows weeds to pull them, but Del Conte had entered that mode as well. “I was manufacturing projects just to keep myself busy,” he said.

So when Texas president Greg Fenves offered Del Conte the job, Del Conte saw a place that needed more fundraising and more building. He also saw a place that needed to serve its customers better. While Del Conte spends much of his time trying to wrangle $10 million donation checks, he’ll also answer a question from someone wondering if they can bring a diaper bag into the spring game.

Later this month, Del Conte will interview every employee in the Texas athletic department to conduct a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis to determine how he can make the department run more efficiently. He also wants to ensure that everyone in the department is pulling in the same direction so that when Herman or men’s basketball coach Shaka Smart or women’s basketball coach Karen Aston comes in with a problem, they get a solution instead of more red tape. “My job is to train every one of our employees so that when Tom Herman or any other coach comes in and says, ‘I need this,’ they say, ‘Yes sir,’” Del Conte said. “As long as we’re in the rules and regulations, they have the freedom to do it.”

Herman, who also worked with Del Conte when Del Conte was the athletic director at Rice and Herman was Rice coach David Bailiff’s offensive coordinator, believes Fenves had started trying to realign the athletic department before hiring Del Conte. Herman felt more comfortable about taking the job because Fenves and then athletic director Mike Perrin were the only people Herman dealt with when interviewing for the job. “I’d heard about all the cooks that were in the kitchen or had hands in the cookie jar—whatever phrase you want to use,” Herman said. “But there were two people who showed up to talk to me. That kind of showed me that maybe this place has it figured out. They’ve done a lot of soul-searching and self-evaluating and they realize what needs to be done.”

One of the things that needed to be done was hire an experienced athletic director who can make the Longhorns the Joneses again. Texas has done that. Now Del Conte has to work to give Herman everything he needs to win. If he does, we’ll have a much better idea in the next few years whether the Longhorns’ recent problems stemmed from the coaches or from the place itself.

A Random Ranking

The newest trailer for Solo: A Star Wars Story dropped Sunday night. Before we get Han Solo’s origin story, let’s rank his top 10 quotes from Episodes IV–VIII.

1. “I know.” — The Empire Strikes Back

2.Never tell me the odds!” — The Empire Strikes Back

3. “Look, your worshipfulness, let’s get one thing straight. I take orders from just one person: me.” — A New Hope

4. That’s because a droid don’t pull people’s arms out of their sockets when they lose. Wookiees are known to do that.” — A New Hope

5. “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.” — A New Hope

6. “You’ve never heard of the Millennium Falcon? It’s the ship that made the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs.” — A New Hope

7.Don’t everyone thank me at once.” — A New Hope

8. “Luke? Luke’s crazy! He can’t even take care of himself, much less rescue anybody. A Jedi Knight? I’m out of it for a little while, and everyone gets delusions of grandeur!” — Return of the Jedi

9. “You like me because I’m a scoundrel. There aren’t enough scoundrels in your life.” — The Empire Strikes Back

10. “I used to wonder about that myself. Thought it was a bunch of mumbo-jumbo. A magical power holding together good and evil, the dark side and the light. Crazy thing is… it’s true. The Force. The Jedi… All of it… It’s all true.” — The Force Awakens

Three And Out

1. Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray did double duty on Friday, practicing with the football team in the morning and then traveling with the baseball team to TCU, where the centerfielder hit two home runs to help the Sooners to an 8–5 win.

Murray then traveled back to Norman for Saturday morning football practice. He is locked in a competition with Austin Kendall to see who will replace Baker Mayfield as Oklahoma’s starter. After football practice, Murray headed back to Fort Worth. He could have taken his time, though. Saturday’s game was pushed to Sunday because of weather. In Sunday’s double-header, Murray went 2-for-5 in a 6–3 Oklahoma win and 0-for-3 in a 6–2 Oklahoma loss. He’s currently hitting .298 for the season and leads the Sooners with five home runs.

2. As the NCAA keeps moving toward an overhaul of its transfer rules, the Division I Committee on Academics chimed in last week and recommended establishing an academic benchmark (a minimum grade point average between 3.0 and 3.3) that would allow an undergraduate to transfer and be eligible and play immediately. Someone likely will argue that this will push athletes toward the easiest classes, but since coaches and academic advisors have been pushing them toward easy classes for years, what difference will that make?

This one should help suss out the hypocrites, because anyone who has used the they’re-students-not-employees argument when it comes to compensation is going to have an awfully tough time arguing against a proposal that provides a positive incentive for being a good student. But someone will be dumb enough to argue against this anyway. Just watch.

3. The jokes came easy when former Florida coach Jim McElwain took a $400,000 loss on his house near Gainesville. On Friday, Matt Baker of the Tampa Bay Times revealed the story behind the financial loss. McElwain and his wife Karen accepted a below-market-value offer because the house happened to be perfectly designed for a family with two disabled children and that was all the family could afford to offer.

What’s Eating Andy?

I still don’t understand why some downtrodden college football team hasn’t adopted—or at least adapted—Kevin Kelley’s philosophy of rarely punting and always onside kicking, but I’m glad some folks in the fictional business world are paying attention. On Sunday night’s episode of Billions on Showtime, hedge fund traders discussed the philosophy of Kelley, who coaches at Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, Ark. Kelley only had one small request in return for inspiring a page of dialogue.

What’s Andy Eating?

After a lunch in Austin last week, I’m going to have to retire a piece of stock advice. I’ve always counseled skipping baby back ribs on any barbecue menu because they inevitably arrive dry and tough. The lower fat content in baby backs makes them a high degree-of-difficulty meat compared to fattier spare ribs, so it’s typically best to avoid them unless you know the pitmaster is diligent enough to ensure they’re removed from the heat at exactly the proper moment.

Ladies and gentleman, Jerome Faulkner is that pitmaster. Faulkner, whose partner in J. Leonardi’s Barbeque is former Texas cornerback Cedric Griffin, cooked the best baby backs I’ve ever eaten, and he may have changed my entire outlook on that part of the pig.

We didn’t originally intend to visit the J. Leonardi’s trailer on 11th Street in east Austin. The plan had been to have lunch at Micklethwait Craft Meats, a different trailer less than a mile away. But when we arrived at Micklethwait at about 1:30 p.m.—sometimes the day job of covering college football interferes with my barbecue-eating schedule—about 75% of the menu was unavailable and the line stretched far enough to see a possibility that we’d be waiting for nothing. So we called an audible and wound up at J. Leonardi’s. I’m glad we did, because I might have spent the rest of my life incorrectly believing that baby backs should stay in the land of direct heat and out of the barbecue sphere.

Why was I so anti–baby back before? Contrary to popular belief, it was not because of this song. 

The animus might have stemmed from the reaction to that song. Suddenly, everyone wanted baby backs. And they were a perfectly fine meat option when grilled as they were in that Chili’s commercial, but then barbecue joints started trying to cook them the same way they cooked spare ribs. That was never going to work, yet cooks kept trying and kept serving desiccated ribs. But it is possible to cook them beautifully using a wood-burning pit, and the J. Leonardi’s ribs proved that to me.


J. Leonardi’s did not appear to serve any sauce, so there would have been no way to hide poorly cooked ribs. But these needed nothing. They were thick and juicy and smoky and spicy. The meat didn’t fall off the bone. That’s what meat cooked in a Crock Pot is supposed to do. The meat from ribs cooked in a pit should come clean off the bone with a slight tug. That’s exactly what happened at J. Leonardi’s. Within minutes, only a pile of tiny, clean bones remained where two pounds of ribs had stood before.

The brisket at J. Leonardi’s was O.K. but not spectacular. The chicken was quite good. I’d like to come back on a weekend and try the beef rib, but I’m not sure I need to. I could be perfectly happy with a giant tub of one spectacular side (smoked cabbage) and a tower of baby backs.

Until I can be convinced further, this may be the only barbecue joint in the country where I feel safe ordering baby backs. But that probably means I’ll be back as often as I can.