Game On, Baby!

In his time as TCU's director of intercollegiate athletics, Chris Del Conte has led the way to some of the most remarkable moments in the university's athletics history.

A DAY IN THE LIFE
5:30 A.M.
Working out with Andrea Nordmann
7:15 A.M.
Selecting outfit for the day
8 A.M.
Heading into the office
9:50 A.M.
Catching up with TCU CFO Brian Gutierrez
10:15 A.M.
Meeting with Board of Trustees member Eddie Clark
11 A.M.
Calling the TCU Chancellor on the way to lunch
Noon
Lunching with Eddie Clark and O.S. Hawkins
1 P.M.
Meeting with student athletes
2 P.M.
Meeting with senior staff
4:30 P.M.
Meeting with recent graduate and former TCU women's tennis player Monika Sirilova
7 P.M.
Shaking hands with Coach Gary Patterson at Gary Patterson's Women's Football Clinic
7:30 P.M.
Going home for dinner with his daughters
Chris Del Conte with his wife, Robin, and his two daughters, Sienna and Sophia
VIDEO: The Many Looks of Del Conte
TCU Director of Collegiate Athletics, Chris Del Conte, is known for being a dapper dresser. He says he dresses nicely because he is representing not only himself, but his family and TCU.

Trying to interview Chris Del Conte is like trying to hit a moving target. This immaculately manicured man, who’s dressed like he walked out of a GQ magazine, cannot sit still. To quote Texas Christian University Chancellor Victor J. Boschini Jr.: “Chris is the smartest person you’ll ever know who always speaks in sentence fragments. For Chris, it’s game on all the time. He has more energy than anyone I’ve ever known.”  Del Conte began his journey as TCU’s director of intercollegiate athletics in October 2009. With passion, boundless energy, humor and genuine love of people, Del Conte remembers faces and names, assigns nicknames and has never met a stranger. Even in fragments, he is a master communicator and an unforgettable character. His mantra, he learned from his father, Robert Del Conte: “Be humble. Serve others. Be honest.” He lives those values.

Over the last five years, Del Conte has directed some of the most remarkable moments in TCU’s athletics history.
On July 1, 2012, the Horned Frogs became part of the prestigious Big 12 Conference. A new $164 million Amon G. Carter Stadium opened in September 2012. In a new era of Frog hoops, Daniel-Meyer Coliseum, TCU’s basketball stadium, is currently receiving a $60 million renovation to its interior design and exterior façade. Almost $6 million combined contributed to the August 2010 opening of the Jane Justin Fieldhouse at Garvey-Rosenthal Soccer Stadium and a new baseball performance center to be completed this fall.
Since Del Conte’s arrival, TCU athletics will have invested more than $230 million in facility upgrades by 2015.

Del Conte explains the importance of athletics to a small university.

“So think about it like this: If you have a house, the athletics department is the front porch, the university is the main house, and the alumni association is the back porch, and you’re always inviting people in,” he says. “What athletics has done for TCU is create an awareness of how great our university is. When you’re a small private school of 8,000 students, you become regional-based. What sports have done is open eyes to our great institution. Stories written about the Rose Bowl win, stories about our football program and the success of our student athletes, have created an awareness of TCU. Young kids then say, ‘Hey, TCU, let’s look into it.’ ” 

Under Boschini’s leadership, TCU is now ranked No. 82 out of 3,500 academic institutions on the U.S. News 2014 list of best universities. “I’m fortunate to work for the very best chancellor in the country,” Del Conte says. “We’ve skyrocketed through the rankings because the chancellor has hired an incredible faculty and hired great deans. His investment on this campus has been phenomenal on the academic side and the physical side, but if you’re not there and don’t hear it, does the tree make a noise? Sports has opened eyes nationally as to what we have cooking.”  

Del Conte spent more than five years on the athletic department staff at the University of Arizona. He served as an assistant athletics director for external operations at both Washington State and Cal Poly. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology from the University of California, Santa Barbara and a master’s degree in education administration from Washington State.

Del Conte was serving as athletics director at Rice University when he was interviewed by Chancellor Boschini and the TCU selection committee.
“We were sitting at this long table, and they were asking a thousand questions,” Del Conte recalls.

The two most intriguing questions, he says: “Can you get us into a BCS Conference? Can you raise the money for a new stadium?”

“I’m thinking to myself, ‘Why wouldn’t you want to be a part of that?’ ” Del Conte says. “All I could think of was I wanted to be on that guy’s team because he was thinking bold. I was thinking I would crawl to work for him. Of course I would’ve agreed to anything. Oh, yeah, I can do it all! I had no clue how we were going to do it, but I agreed because I knew they wanted it so bad, and when someone sets their sights on audacious goals, you want to be part of his team.”

Boschini says Del Conte has exceeded every expectation.

“Two things about Chris that most people wouldn’t know,” Boschini says. “He is deeper than most people think, and he is more sentimental than people ever think. His secret to success is he never forgets it’s all about people. It doesn’t matter about winning or losing or coaches or money or new facilities . . none of that matters if it’s not about the people first.”

Under Del Conte’s watch, TCU twice established a single-season school record with six conference championships. Nine sports have won league titles. Sixteen of 20 sports have represented in NCAA postseason play with 12 teams nationally ranked.

The rifle team won the 2010 and 2012 NCAA national championship. In 2009-2010, TCU was the only school in the nation to play in a BCS game and win at least one game at the CWS.

The TCU football program, under Coach Gary Patterson’s leadership, made two straight BCS appearances, including a 21-19 win over Wisconsin in the 2011 Rose Bowl.
“From a standpoint of our football success, it has been built squarely on the shoulders of Coach Patterson,” Del Conte says. ”We owe a great debt to him.”

Patterson describes Del Conte as an unbelievable fundraiser, tremendous friend and great boss. “He’s made a major impact on TCU and Fort Worth during his time here.”
The Horned Frog baseball team under Coach Jim Schlossnagle reached the College World Series in 2010 and 2014. “Jim is first class, a winner,” says Del Conte. “He simply does things the right way.”

Schlossnagle says Del Conte can relate to your everyday fan, your highest donor, coaches of every style and certainly he really endears himself to the student athletes. He has a unique leadership style that fits in very well at TCU.

“In 2007 he was the athletic director at Rice,” Schlossnagle begins a humorous—though not so humorous for TCU baseball at the time—story about Del Conte.

“We were playing a winner’s bracket game against Rice. We got a ton of rain, and there’s no way the field should’ve been played on. We had used one of our best pitchers the night before, and so it would’ve really been a distinct advantage for us not to play that game,” he continues. “Of course, the Rice coach knew that. We were trying to convince the NCAA representative that the game should be moved to the next day.”

“And here comes Del Conte, the first time I’d ever met him. It’s soaking wet. There’s water and mud everywhere, and he’s got on these designer shoes and nice shorts and a Tommy Bahama shirt, and I was like, ‘Who is this guy?’ He comes in and just starts laying the law down. We ended up playing and losing the game. The very next time I see him is when I’m the coach representative on the selection committee for the new athletic director. As soon as he walked in, he made eye contact with me, and immediately I said, ‘You know, you’ll be lucky to ever get this job. We should have never played that game.’ I forget what he said, but he’s pretty good at putting people at ease and making them feel comfortable. He does it in a variety of ways, but he does it a lot with his humor. He’s quite a character. The thing is he can have that humorous personality, but when he has to switch and be serious and play the athletic director role, he’s very good at that too,” Schlossnagle says.

Board of Trustees member Malcolm Louden, president of Walsh Holdings in Fort Worth, remembers that incident at Rice. “I’m still mad at him for that day,” Louden says. “He takes his shoes and socks off, sloshes around in the water and says, ‘No, it’s not too wet to play.’ So we didn’t go to the super regionals. I still give him hell for it. Chris is always on the phone,” Louden says. “He’ll call me and say, ‘How ya doing?’ I tell him I’m all right. ‘Well, I’m just checking in,’ he’ll say. It might be 7:30 in the morning or 8:30 at night. You never know.

“What a lot of people don’t know is he goes to every athletic event he can. He works the crowd, talking to everybody. Then he goes home and helps his daughters with their homework. He adores his wife and those girls, and he takes his time with his girls very seriously.”

Louden says they give Del Conte a hard time about his dapper attire. “I went out and bought him some boots so he would look like he lived in Fort Worth, not California,” he said laughing.

Raegan Pebley was at Fresno State when she interviewed for the position of TCU’s new women’s basketball coach. She says she made some phone calls to check up on Del Conte before she had her interview. “People were saying ‘Del Conte. That guy is crazy!’ ” Pebley says. “They also were saying he was an amazing fundraiser and has amazing amounts of energy. Everybody spoke in extremes when talking about him, so I was prepared to just be blown away by his presence. I met him for the first time in the interview, and he was very professional and serious about the direction of basketball at TCU. It wasn’t a show; it wasn’t about him. I just think there’s a fine line between being insane and being a genius,” she says laughing. “From the outside, I think people would characterize him as borderline insane, but when you work with him, there’s a genius about him. It’s all passion and enthusiasm, and he believes in TCU. It’s contagious.”

Home on the Ranch Del Conte enjoyed an unusual but happy and carefree childhood. In the mid-1960s, his parents, Michele and Robert Del Conte, bought a 147-acre ranch outside of Taos, N.M., and started a home for foster children. They had met in Mexico when both were aid workers taking care of children.
Chris, now 46, his younger siblings, sister Belisa and brother David, grew up with dozens of foster children, including three who were adopted. Many of the children just took the family name. 

In July, Del Conte took his 13-year-old daughter to the ranch for a family reunion. “It was surreal looking at this through her eyes. She met my brothers and sisters and learned about their lives. We all call each other brother or sister,” he says. 

Del Conte was born into his parents’ lifestyle. “It was a phenomenal childhood. I just didn’t know anything different,” he says. “The country was changing, and my parents were trying to change the world to make America better. I’m amazed at the kids today who are doing things to make a difference. I think this generation is the ‘we’ generation.”
Del Conte said that the only thing his parents required of him was to serve society. All the kids played sports, which helped them to be accepted at school.

“My mother made a lot of sacrifices to raise us,” Del Conte says. “Having 75 or 85 kids to care for when you’re 22 years old is tough. My father taught us to be humble, serve others and be honest. That was his mantra. He was a good man, always helping other people.”

Tragedy struck the family on a rainy night, Oct. 25, 2000. Del Conte’s father stopped his car and offered a cyclist a ride home. The man murdered Robert Del Conte and stole his car.

“It’s something you never get over,” Del Conte says. “I think about him every day. All his life he had helped people.”  

Del Conte first met Rick Dickson, athletic director of Tulane University, in 1994. Dickson had left his position as athletic director of Tulsa to become the athletic director of Washington State. Del Conte was a graduate assistant at Washington State.

Over the course of the summer, Dickson was traveling and only in his office on Fridays. “I’d always see a young man outside the secretary’s office,” Dickson says. “After about six or seven weeks, the secretary asked if I knew Chris Del Conte. She said he really wanted to get in to see me. I thought he was her son.”

There was a fundraising job that Washington State was about to advertise. Del Conte wanted to get in and sell himself. Dickson told him if he could win a game of tennis, he’d talk to him about a job. He couldn’t play tennis. After six games he hadn’t won a point.

“I told him I thought the best thing he needed was a fresh start,” Dickson says. “I called Cal Poly and got him an assistant athletic director marketing job, and told him if he generated a million dollars, I’d hire him at Washington State.”

Del Conte did it. Thus began his journey at Washington State.

The Dickson family dubbed him Chris ”Frank” Del Conte.

“There’s no one in this profession that I love more than Frank,” Dickson says. “He’s a very committed, passionate, genuine, sincere man that cares about his kids. For me, that says it all.”

Del Conte uses humor as his primary leadership tool. “It defuses angst,” he says. “I make light of a situation to tamper down so we can have constructive conversation. When you’re dealing with high-energy, highly emotional people, they say things they don’t mean to say. There’s times you have to be demanding, but I try to be really consistent.”

Del Conte includes his father, Boschini and Jim Livengood as mentors.

Livengood retired after 28 years as an athletic director. Del Conte worked for him at Washington State and at Arizona. He knew Del Conte’s parents.

“Mr. Livengood has the same values and character as my father,” Del Conte says. “He’s a good man; he gave me an opportunity, and I will always be indebted to him.”
Chancellor Boschini called Livengood about Del Conte when he was being considered for the position at TCU. “His first question was, ‘Is this guy for real? I just spent two hours with him, and I can’t believe he’s real.’ I told the chancellor that he was real and he would be more real the longer he was around him. We had a donor at Arizona who called me one day and said he liked Chris, and if I would just call him off, he’d give us anything we wanted,” Livengood says.

“That’s probably the nicest thing a donor can say. Now, that donor and Chris are dear friends. Chris is infectious. He’s genuine and generous. Almost every attribute he has is a direct reflection of his dad and his mom. He’s the prototype, and I mean this, of what the next generation of power athletic directors should be. By that I mean he can make tough decisions with power coaches, with very tough financial limitations to some degree. The Chris Del Contes of the world are going to make sure that intercollegiate athletics last. I love him. I could talk for days about him. He’s like a son.”

Chris met his future wife, Dr. Robin Ward (he calls her Dr. Ward), in the spring of 1997. She was finishing up her dissertation at the University of Virginia and was asked to come out and interview for a mathematics position at Cal Poly. “During that time, one of the professors took me out to show me the nightlife,” she says. “Word spread that there was this single woman on campus interviewing for a job. I got the position and moved to California in August 1997. I kept bumping into Chris, and he was always having a very good time. I kept putting him off. One night he talked and talked and tried to charm my phone number out of me,” she says. She refused to give it to him, but as he walked away, he scribbled a fake phone number on his hand and showed his friends, saying “I got her digits.”

One day he showed up in her calculus class. There was a lot of mumbling because the students knew him. She kicked him out. He came by later to apologize, and that’s how they began to talk. “He said when he saw me, he knew I was the one,” she says.

They married in August 1999. “I’ve been laughing for a decade and a half and scratching my head. I’m very introverted and cerebral, academic and scholarly, never stepped outside the lines. Chris could not be more opposite,” she says.

They are proud parents to two girls. Sienna is 13 and Sophia is 12. Robin says Daddy is the silly guy. When the girls were little, he would let them paint his nails and put makeup on him. Robin loves to tell a story about Chris’ closet and a moving company. When they moved to Fort Worth, the movers started unpacking her clothes to put in the big bedroom closet. She told them it was her husband’s closet. “They said, ‘But this is the big closet.’ I told them when they saw my husband’s boxes, they’d know why he needed the big closet,” she said laughing. “The girls counted his ties one day. He had 470. He loves his clothes.”

His father loved clothes and taught his children to dress sharp, Del Conte says. “We all got five sets of new clothes before the school year started. My dad said our appearance was important and that we should always look our best. You know, I dress nicely because I’m representing myself, my family and TCU.” click on pic to see the video

“She’s smart and a great mom,” Chris said of Robin. “When you get into this profession, it’s hard to find a balance, so you need someone who’ll be supportive. I’m lucky.”
Eddie Clark, owner of Professional Turf Products and TCU Board of Trustees member, played the position of quarterback at TCU from 1978-1982.

Clark says that most likely Del Conte had a difficult decision as to which suit and handkerchief to wear for the magazine’s photo shoot. “I guarantee you, though, he had it all planned out and laid out the night before. His closet is better than walking into Neiman Marcus. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one stitch of clothing the same on him,” he says.
Clark adds laughing that Del Conte has made Attention Deficit Disorder cool. “He’s wide-open and full-throttle. He wanders a little bit, but then a few of us can pull him back in line. He has a repertoire about him, but his heart is ginormous,” Clark says.

“Chris will go anywhere, to any length, to help someone, and it doesn’t matter who that person is or isn’t. He has blinders on. I think a lot of that comes from his father. This story putting him in the spotlight will be a little difficult for him. He doesn’t carry any pretentiousness.”

Ricky Stuart, co-founder and owner of Texas-based Chicken Express, and a member of the younger generation of donors, says Del Conte blew into town like a whirlwind that fall of 2009. “I set up a meeting with him, and he was like, ‘Who IS this kid?’ Sure enough, we hit it off, and he nicknamed me ‘Ricky Chicken,’ ” Stuart said laughing.

Stuart says Del Conte is an accomplished chameleon: “He sits there and tells jokes like we’re fraternity brothers, and then if somebody walks in the room, he can immediately turn all polished and perfect like he’s at a press conference.”

What really threw Stuart off, he says, was how Del Conte was dressed. “He came in with matching everything, and he sure didn’t look like he was from New Mexico. He looked more New York Italian, all tanned and dressed to kill. So I’m like, ‘Who IS this guy?’ ”

“The more you talk to him, the more you realize not much gets by Chris. As a fundraiser, it’s hard to say ‘no’ to him. You kinda just sit there and say, ‘OK, yeah, how much do you need? Where do I sign?’ As Chris says, ‘That’s how easy it is, boys.’ He loves to call everybody ‘boy.’ ”

Joe Castiglione, vice president/director of athletics at the University of Oklahoma, says when he thinks of a word for Del Conte, authentic comes to mind. “I say that because what you see is what you get with Chris. In fact, when most people are first around Chris, they ask ‘Is he for real?’ Of course, the answer is: ‘Without a doubt.’ He’s a terrific person and built for fun. He’s on all the time. He is to any setting what a light fixture is to a dark room. When he walks into a setting, a flip is switched on. He’s a light like no other. He can make boots and jeans like a fashion statement,” Castiglione says. 

The Big 12 In September 2011, TCU athletics had a dilemma. Del Conte had set everything in motion to get the university into the Big East Conference. Syracuse and Pittsburgh had announced they were leaving the Big East. Del Conte and Chancellor Boschini wanted to make sure TCU wasn’t joining a conference that was on a downward spiral.
They decided to go for the Big 12 Conference, a goal that wouldn’t be easy.

Del Conte and staff newcomer Jeremiah Donati drove to Austin on Tuesday, Oct. 4. Del Conte planned to meet with University of Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds and convince him that TCU should be in the Big 12. Del Conte had no appointment. He didn’t know Dodds well, and TCU had just lost a home game.

Del Conte waited in Dodds’ office for two hours. The two finally met and talked for four hours. Del Conte said he left with no clue as to how the meeting went. 
He turned to every athletic director in the Big 12 Conference for help. He also turned to TCU power booster Dick Lowe, former TCU football player and partner in Four Sevens Oil Co. in Fort Worth. 

Lowe remembers the call he got from Del Conte. “He said that the Big East was going to fold, and we needed to get in the Big 12,” Lowe begins the story. “I said, ‘Well great, what do you want me to do?’ Chris said, ‘Who do you know that’s influential in other schools in the existing Big 12?’ I said, ‘Well, I’m a pretty good friend of Boone Pickens at Oklahoma State.’ He said I needed to call him and try to convince him that we need to be in the Big 12. ‘Who else you got?’ he says. I told him I had O.S. Hawkins, one of the most renowned Baptist preachers in the world. Then I said Dee Kelly, that he had a lot of influence in various places. So I called O.S. and I called Dee, and they called some guys and got them onboard. I called Boone up and he said, ‘Well, Dick, I’m all for TCU. That’s the logical choice; they’ve played their way in; they need to be in, and we’ll support ’em full bore, and you can tell your athletic director that we’re on it. By the way, I think you’re gonna get in.’”

Interim Big 12 commissioner Chuck Neinas called Del Conte on Thursday morning, Oct. 6, and said, “Welcome home.”

“The morning we got that fateful call, I went in my room; oh boy, I broke down emotionally because I couldn’t believe it,” Del Conte says. “I’m breaking down thinking about it now. I was so happy for the university. Now we’re intertwined with these people. I laid on my bed, bawled, collected myself, came to school and I was jacked for like a month. The people in this institution worked so hard for this,” he said. “I didn’t live their trials and tribulations. I was just a conduit. But when you’re able to make a connection and see it happen, whew, big! Yeah, baby!” 

Clarence Scharbauer III, chairman of TCU’s Board of Trustees, was vice-chairman during the search for a new athletic director. “I think the most important thing Chris has done is he was extremely instrumental in getting us into the Big 12 Conference, which is an amazing feat. I just think he’s the right guy at the right time for TCU.”

Hunter Enis, former TCU football player, professional player, and member of the board of trustees, is in partnership with Lowe at Four Sevens Oil Co.

Enis says the best thing about Del Conte is he’s at TCU. “Chris is one of the best we’ve had, for several reasons,” he says. “He’s real bright and enthusiastic and on top of everything in our conference and all over the country. He loves TCU and he’s entertaining, but he can be hard-nosed when he needs to be,” Enis continues. “I don’t know if we could’ve gotten into the Big 12 without him. A lot of people were involved with that, but he helped tremendously because he knows so many people all over the country. He can get his staff all going in the same direction so they can get things done. We like him. He’s good for TCU, and we hope he’s here for a long time because we’ve got a lot to do. I should have said that the best part of Chris is Robin,” Enis adds. “We’re keeping her. We don’t care what happens to him. She’s the best.”

Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby says that Del Conte has been an integral part of the re-shaping and re-branding of the Big 12 Conference. “He is a fun guy to be around, but he also generates very high-quality ideas and prepares strategy to achieve the desired outcomes,” he said. “Chris has had a transformative impact on the TCU athletics program, and his vision of the physical plant, coaching staff and the student-athlete experience will provide a legacy for decades to come.”

The most difficult part of his job, Del Conte says: “Meeting fans’ expectations. Sometimes, we lose sight that they are 18-to 22-year-old kids. They’re going to make mistakes. And when they make mistakes, we’re on the front page of a newspaper. Those things are hard because you know the child, and then, when you tell them they can no longer be at TCU because they’ve blown that opportunity, that’s a sad day. Athletics is just a microcosm of society. But you know, there’s a page in the newspaper that’s dedicated to it. It’s an honor and a privilege to wear that jersey. I constantly pound it every day. That thing never comes off—for me, for you, for the chancellor. They have to remember that, but you have to remember that they’re 18-to 22-year-old kids. So, managing expectations—whether it be a student, a fan, faculty, everybody. That’s the hardest part. But as long as you stay humble, you serve others and you’re honest, you have no problems.”

The most enjoyable part of Del Conte’s job is graduation day, Del Conte says.

“It’s my favorite day of the year because these kids come in as freshmen, 18 years old, wily, and they have all these ambitions and dreams, and throughout the four or five years, they’re going to have pitfalls and excitement and celebrations. You form bonds with them. I sit outside, I hug the kids, we talk, and you get to watch them as they leave, knowing they have accomplished something big.”

When asked about his own accomplishments, Chris Del Conte will give credit to someone else, every single time. With him, it’s never “I.” He doesn’t need to take credit because he is perfectly comfortable in his own skin. He makes everyone around him comfortable in theirs.

Del Conte is a consummate visionary. TCU and the City of Fort Worth are the grateful beneficiaries.


Career by the Numbers

2009 – present
Texas Christian University, director of Intercollegiate Athletics

2010
recipient of Bobby Dodd Division 1-A Athletic Director’s Award and one of five finalists for the SportsBusiness Journal’s Athletic Director of the Year

$164 million
renovation (completely funded through donor support) to Amon G. Carter Stadium opened in 2012

Big 12
Del Conte's tenacity was instrumental in getting TCU into the Big 12 Conference.

$60 million
renovation to the interior design and exterior façade of Daniel-Meyer Coliseum, TCU’s basketball stadium

$6 million
combined contributed to the August 2010 opening of the Jane Justin Fieldhouse at Garvey-Rosenthal Soccer Stadium and a new baseball performance center to be completed fall 2014

$230 million
in facility upgrades by 2015 to the TCU athletic program

9
number of sports that have won league titles under Del Conte’s watch

2006-09
Del Conte was athletics director for Rice University

2000-06
he was at the University of Arizona as the senior associate athletics director, external operations

1998-99
Washington State, assistant athletics director, External Operations

1994-98
Cal Poly, assistant athletics director, External Operations