Texas athletics is too big to fail. It’s a fiscal gold mine, a competitive juggernaut and a traditional icon.
Yet the school somehow managed to fail with the hiring of Steve Patterson as its athletic director. The failure was so complete that Texas corrected its error Tuesday, firing him after just 22 months on the job. When the guy in charge has alienated almost everyone in less than two years – big-money donors, common fans, coaches who work for him, those above him in university administration – that’s a disastrous hire.
As a result, Texas is on the hook for nearly four full years of a guaranteed contract that pays Patterson $1.4 million annually. Fortunately for the school, as noted above, it sits on a pile of athletic cash.
But being rich shouldn’t excuse being dumb, and Texas can’t say it wasn’t warned about Steve Patterson. Certainly in the process of vetting Patterson, someone at the school came across the many scorching columns John Canzano of the Oregonian wrote about his interactions with Patterson when he was general manager of the Portland Trail Blazers. They have Yahoo and Google search engines there, right?
For whatever reason, Texas skipped past a number of capable athletic administrators who would have brought the right mix of fresh ideas and collegiate know-how to the job. Whether it was former West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck (now high up the NCAA totem pole), Louisville AD Tom Jurich, Arizona’s Greg Byrne, TCU’s Chris Del Conte, in-house director of women's athletics Chris Plonsky or others, Texas certainly had great options. Instead it opted for a bad fit that blew up quickly.
Patterson came in with primarily a pro sports background, and his time in college was spent mostly working on the financial side at Arizona State. He was the AD at ASU for less than two years before Texas called him to freshen a department grown stale.
Predecessor DeLoss Dodds was a Texas institution, a 33-year athletic director at a time when Longhorn athletics printed money and piled up trophies. Dodds may have made a lot of enemies within the Big 12 – helping lead to the exodus of Nebraska, Colorado, Texas A&M and Missouri to other conferences – but he had a lot of currency at home. He was a savvy businessman with national clout and connections who also saw the value in personal relationships with his staff.
By all reports, Patterson failed on the relationship side. He fired some popular and loyal staffers, and others chose to leave on their own. Current and former staffers say Tuesday was almost like Bastille Day at Texas, a mixture of joy and relief that a guy described as arrogant and aloof was being forced out.
Patterson infuriated fans with a major football season-ticket price hike, rather poorly timed coming off a 6-7 season. He also raised ticket prices for basketball at a time when the program is far from its peak years earlier this century.
So his tenure was a remarkable mess, yet it’s possible Patterson will get credit for a couple of coaching hires that work out well. Even if the truth is that those hires were possible because Texas is Texas, not because anyone dreamed of working for Steve Patterson.
The hires are Charlie Strong in football and Shaka Smart in basketball. Smart seems like a can’t-miss heading into his first season. Strong’s situation is a little more complicated.
Some talking heads Tuesday were warbling about Patterson’s firing being a warning shot at Strong, who is a mere 15 games into his Texas tenure. His 7-8 record, including a brutal loss to Notre Dame on Sept. 5, and subsequent change in offensive coordinators show that the honeymoon is almost over.
But Strong certainly was not aligned with his boss in any substantive way – he’s hardly tied to the hip with Patterson. Strong has support elsewhere in the UT hierarchy, and it likely would take a shocking unraveling for his job to be in serious jeopardy in just two years.
The move Tuesday to fire Steve Patterson was far less a reflection on Charlie Strong than a reflection on Steve Patterson. He was a bad fit and a notable failure at an athletic program that is too big to fail.