At a recent Big 12 meeting, conference officials got together for a final dinner to say goodbye to the great DeLoss Dodds.
Over his 32 years on the job, Texas' outgoing AD had set the bar. He was in charge of the most affluent athletic department in the country. Most of the men in the room had come to him at one time or another for advice from a sage.
Dodds hired Mack Brown. He hired Rick Barnes, rejuvenating both programs in the process. He oversaw a department that kept pumping out Olympians as well as winning a combined 14 national championships and 108 conference titles. And with the conference at the brink of dissolving in conference realignment in 2010, Dodds helped significantly to keep the Big 12 together.
The men in the room quite literally owed their jobs to a wise, 74-year old former track coach.
But when TCU AD Chris del Conte entered the room, Dodds deferred.
“All right, Del,” Dodds said referring to how he come to know the Horned Frogs' AD, “let them have the story, my man.”
It is the story of why TCU is in the Big 12, in the big time, able to recruit at the highest level as Wednesday's national signing day approaches.
The story begins 2 ½ years ago during the latest round of conference realignment. Pittsburgh and Syracuse had just announced they were leaving the Big East for the ACC. The Big East, at that point, was hanging by a thread. It was a Big East that TCU was also scheduled to join.
But a Big East without powerhouses Syracuse and Pittsburgh was not worth joining. As we found out, the league not only split into basketball and football factions but the FBS remainders of the Big East – the American Athletic Conference – lost its BCS conference designation. Next season the AAC is not contracted to a major bowl in the College Football Playoff era.
“Syracuse and Pitt announced they were leaving and shocked everybody ...", Del Conte said. “Mack Brown and DeLoss Dodds came out and said, ‘We're going to stay [in the Big 12].'
“Once I heard that I said, ‘OK, boy, let's go.' We had two weeks to make this work.”
Del Conte admitted, “the pressure of the entire institution was on my shoulders” to join the Big 12. He worked the phones, calling every Big 12 contact he knew. Support within the Big 12 was growing, including at Oklahoma where good friend Joe Castiglione had been encouraging. But Del Conte knew if he didn't have Texas, he didn't have a chance.
“I've got one shot,” he recounted, “to go see DeLoss.”
It was a quite a visit. Del Conte grabbed a car, a driver and a bunch of reference material, binders, extolling the advantages of TCU and Fort Worth.
“I get up at 8 o'clock in the morning and drive to Darrell K. Royal Stadium. I get to [Dodds'] office. Nine comes around, 10 comes around. I've got a GA [graduate assistant] outside waiting for me, by the way. I tell him, ‘Just wait 10 minutes I'll be back.' Pretty soon it's 3:30.
“[DeLoss] comes out and says, ‘Who are you?' Chris Del Conte, Texas Christian U. He doesn't hear ‘Chris.' he hears ‘Del'. ‘Del, let's go get ourselves a drink and discuss it.'
“We went to a restaurant and had a little libation at 3:30. By the time 8:30 rolls around, we were [into it] pretty good but we got ourselves in a situation. I kept trying to give him my [binders]. He said, ‘I've heard enough, Del' and just walked away.”
The Big 12 ADs had a conference call the next day.
“The next morning I got up. Joe [Castiglione] goes, ‘I don't know what you did but it worked.' We got the vote. The Frogs are in,' Del Conte said.
That kind of refreshing candor reminds us how close we were to mutually assured destruction in conference realignment. The Big 12 came dangerously close to going away. The Big East – as a fully-rounded conference – did go away. The ACC teetered on the brink until conference officials agreed to a grant of rights last year.
TCU made it under the velvet rope to enter a BCS conference. It had waited 18 years to get back up to the top since the old Southwest Conference dissolved. Since 1994, the Horned Frogs had belonged to five conferences – Southwest, WAC, Conference USA, Mountain West and Big East (if only for a few months).
Gary Patterson's coaching kept the Frogs in the conversation. At the time, they were hot off a Fiesta Bowl and Rose Bowl as well as three consecutive Mountain West titles.
The first two years in the Big 12 have been somewhat rocky for the Frogs – combined 11-14. But it beats recruiting in a conference (Big East) that no longer exits in football.
“Four hours of cocktailing I never got a chance to crack one binder,” Del Conte recalled recently. “The greatest thing I got from [Dodds] was interpersonal relationship. All he wanted to know was my personal struggles growing up and his personal struggles growing up, how they mirror each other.”
Del Conte's parents met as aid workers in Mexico, eventually starting a foster home in New Mexico. His father Robert was murdered in 2000.
Chris Del Conte remains perhaps the most outgoing person on the planet. He and his school remain forever indebted to perhaps the most powerful (former) AD on the planet.