The Titan of Texas Athletics

In 30 years, he has built UT sports into a $136 million empire. There have been crystal trophies and gold rings, but also lost battles and calls for his head. Inside the unprecedented reign of men’s athletics director DeLoss Dodds.

Texas Memorial Stadium is a coliseum. Texas Athletics is an empire. In his 30th year, it would be easy to pronounce DeLoss Dodds an emperor. Or at least a king.

But there are physical contradictions to that imagining. The first would be his erstwhile throne room — his office, the power center from which millions could be counted out and fates decided. It isn’t grand. Except for its position alongside one of the country’s most colossal football stadiums, Dodds’ office could be that of a lawyer in some modest Midwestern town.

Soothing country songs, hand-selected by his granddaughters, hum from a shelf set frame-to-frame with portraits of the family that has grown out of a 53-year marriage. All this time and we’re still in love, one croons as Dodds pages through e-mail printouts. Somethin’ like this just don’t exiiist between a backwoods boy and a fairy tale princess… .

The Dodds home is certainly castle-like in its expansive views north, over Lady Bird Lake and across to the ever-taller, ever-denser Austin skyline. But a king would never landscape his own yard, planting flowers and trimming shrubs. Dodds grew up a Kansas farm kid outside a town of 600. Although he’s 73 now and well able to afford a team of groundskeepers, he still cuts his own grass.

Dodds does his own home landscaping.

Precedent for this blend of money, power, and the down-home congeniality of a Midwestern grandfather does exist in modern America: Warren Buffett. Like a Buffett of college athletics, Dodds happens to be one exceptionally shrewd businessman. Under his command, the department’s budget has tripled every 10 years, ascending to a heady $136 million this year. It was $4.2 million when Dodds arrived in 1981 — and that felt tremendous. As athletics director at Kansas State, he’d worked with half that.

The exponential growth is all the more remarkable given Dodds’ simple career path as a runner and track coach, then A.D. at just two schools, K-State and UT. He also put in a two-year stint as assistant commissioner of the Big 8 in the late ’70s. But his business acumen wasn’t sharpened through an MBA or clout-building years as corporate executive.

Dallas business tycoon and major Texas Athletics donor Mike Myers has been a Dodds supporter for decades, but even he is surprised how well his friend has performed. “As much confidence as I had in him, I could never have dreamed that he could be as successful as he has been,” Myers says. “He didn’t have any more experience in that arena to do what he’s doing today than the man in the moon, but he’s learned.”

Dodds frames his business skill simply: “I know a good deal when I see a good deal.”

But financial success was far from a given for this Texas import and business rookie. Neither was holding onto his job.

Leading Under Fire

From K-State to Texas was a 600-mile move south but a thousand-mile leap up, and Texans weren’t sure he could handle it. The Houston Touchdown Club threw a rowdy luncheon the week before the Texas-A&M game every year, and in 1981, it was Dodds’ coming-out party, Athletics department veteran Bill Little remembers. City news anchor Ron Stone, a Houston institution, emceed. With a barbed joke, he voiced right off what many were thinking. “De-LOSS Dodds,” he enunciated. “I’ve always wanted to meet the man who would transform UT Athletics to the standards of Kansas State University.” The laughter was less than kind.

The newly updated Darrel K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium and Red McCombs Red Zone

Dodds himself didn’t know how long he would hold on. On his first day, he remembers being led to the business office to talk about retirement options. There were two: the Teacher Retirement System of Texas offering and an Optional Retirement Plan. Parsing their differences, he quickly realized that to fully buy into Texas Teachers’, he’d need to hang onto his job for 10 years. Realistically, he doubted he could keep his wheels on the road in the politically-potholed A.D. position for more than five. He took the other option.

Straight off, the problems were legion. He was given to understand he needed to let two people go: the football coach and the basketball coach. Both were winning. But neither was pleasing the Longhorns in power. Following the championship-winning era of coach Darrell Royal, UT football was one unhappy family. One side of the warring clan supported coach Fred Akers; the other stayed hopping mad that Royal’s chosen successor, defensive coach Mike Campbell, had been passed over. And over in men’s basketball, colorful coach Abe Lemons was considered too mouthy for his own good.

In 1982, after basketball took a midseason nosedive, Dodds had the opportunity to fire Lemons. Which promptly got him fired upon. For starters, Lemons famously declared his desire for a glass-bottomed car so he could see Dodds’ face as he ran over it.

Akers, meanwhile, was winning some 75 percent of his games. But his teams weren’t beating Oklahoma. They weren’t beating A&M. They weren’t winning bowl games. Boosters grew ever more disenchanted. “If you’ll remember,” one snarled publicly, “a 70 in school will get you a D or an F.” Still, the right moment to put a divisive period behind the football program didn’t come until 1986, when the Longhorns recorded their first losing season since 1956. Akers became the first football coach Texas had ever fired. He went quietly. Dodds remained.

Agony and Defeat

But there were times Dodds nearly left. In some ways, it was a surprise he had come to Texas from Kansas at all.

When the Texas A.D. job had first come up, Dodds and his wife, Mary Ann, decided against moving. They shared everything, having known each other since she was 5 and he 6. What they had was a hand-stitched quilt of family and friends around little Riley, Kan., where her father was a banker and his mother a teacher. Just 20 minutes from Riley, K-State’s hometown of Manhattan (where champion runner DeLoss became a big man on campus and beautiful Mary Ann was chosen Royal Purple Queen) had for years been an extension of home.

Only after Dodds got a call from Jim Ayres, the celebrated UT English professor who founded Shakespeare at Winedale, did he reconsider. During their hourlong chat, Ayres didn’t cast the position in grand Shakespearean terms as a chance to rule. They hardly even talked athletics, Dodds says. But Ayres certainly sparked Dodds’ imagination regarding the state of Texas, the possibilities to do big things there. By the time he called Mary Ann and said, “Well, what do you think?” she knew her husband had changed his mind.

And so they uprooted the family from Kansas for the only time, leaving their aging parents far away. Within that first year, the unthinkable happened. Mary Ann’s father was diagnosed with cancer and was being cared for at MD Anderson in Houston when he passed away. That was Jan. 22, 1982. The very same day, Dodds’ mother suffered a stroke and died too. “That was a pretty difficult time in our lives,” Mary Ann says.

It wasn’t just the first year on the job that was rough. “No, no — it was the first 10,” Dodds deadpans. Several years into his time at Texas, he and Mike Myers were playing golf out at Beaver Creek in Colorado, where Myers had a second home. The job was a hard one, and tough on his family, Dodds told his friend as they played from hole to hole. He wasn’t sure how much longer he could stay.

Myers stopped the cart. He looked levelly at Dodds. “I’d be very disappointed,” he said, “if you don’t fix this before you leave.”

By “this,” Myers says now, he meant everything. He saw a department in bad need of order.

In the next few years, Dodds made important coaching hires, but success in the big-money sports eluded him. Football coaches David McWilliams and John Mackovic exhilarated, then disappointed. Men’s basketball coach Bob Weltlich was described as Bobby Knight without the success.

By 1997, public opinion of DeLoss Dodds bottomed out in the eyes of Texas. And in those nascent days of e-mail, the Longhorn faithful found new means to tell him that directly. Messages bombed in calling him “far from shrewd” and an “incompetent manager.” Native Texans swore that their ancestors were rolling in their graves. Others said Kansans were surely glad to be rid of him, because he had proved himself “basically worthless.”

Nothing like a national championship in football to change hearts and minds. By the time the 1998 season started, Dodds had made a corner-turning hire in coach Mack Brown, who would steadily march the team to the very top. Since 2005, the year the Longhorns achieved what Dodds has described as “the ultimate” for an athletic director, there have been no more demands that he be deposed. The once-furious mob has returned to being peaceful residents of the kingdom.

Dodds makes a career-turning hire with Coach Mack Brown in 1997.

Building It Like a Business

In the past two decades, college sports have amped up from the good ol’ days of playing parochially into the slick new days of operating like national corporations. And at Texas, an old track coach became a full-on executive. Dodds’ foresight on unified fundraising, muscular conferences, beefed-up TV contracts, and showplace facilities got UT Athletics running like a Fortune 500 company in the business of winning.

Longhorn Foundation. He started with the money. When Dodds arrived, various boosters — an attorney here, an executive there — were running their own little fiefdoms to raise money for different sports. They got together for picnics and called the shots, right down to how big each coach’s bonus would be.

When Dodds said he wanted to pull all fundraising under the department, the donors naturally resisted. They wrote to legendary UT law professor Charles Alan Wright, Dodds remembers, to argue their case. “DeLoss is right,” he wrote on the letter, and sent it back.

The results have vindicated the man. The boosters had been raising $400,000 a year. In the new Longhorn Foundation’s first year, 1984, it pulled in more than $1 million. Today it garners more than $37 million annually from 14,000 donors, for a total exceeding $340 million to date.

Conferences and contracts. Despite the shots of money, Texas under the doddering Southwest Conference was losing recruits from its home state to schools where they could get more national exposure, Dodds recalls. He and close friend Donnie Duncan, Oklahoma’s A.D., had been shooting the breeze for years about consolidating conferences. Both, Duncan says, were aware of the numbers: the SWC hit just 8 percent of television-owning American households. Ditto the Big 8. They needed more reach.

When the TV-deal-negotiating College Football Association started to collapse in the mid-’90s, the men had an opportunity, and they were ready. But UT had a standing offer from the Pac-10, as Duncan remembers, and he had to trust that Dodds would follow through on a new Big 12, even as skittish Texas politicians threatened the whole thing.

“I counted on DeLoss to do exactly what he said,” says Duncan, who will soon retire as the Big 12’s football championship director. “Even this last time, while there were a lot of unknowns in the process, there was one known that I was sure of: whatever DeLoss Dodds tells you is 100 percent true. When things are really, really tight, that is gold.”

As bullish as Dodds felt about the Big 12 at its 1996 start, the conference boosted Texas even higher than he expected. Athletes from around the state stopped systematically choosing UCLA, Florida State, Miami, and Notre Dame over UT. The ticket base went up. Longhorn Foundation giving went up. And TV revenues went up. “Those were things you might’ve thought about,” he says, “but in reality, they turned out to be huge.”

Facilities. When Dodds first arrived and saw UT’s basement locker rooms and other facilities, one word came to his mind: subpar. The football stadium, for starters, had been built in 1924. Its painted wood had been battered over the years. Sports like golf and track lacked their own facilities. “Everything was bad. Everything the kids saw,” he says, referring to the locker rooms and other behind-the-scenes athlete spaces.

Inside the men’s basketball locker room.

But upgrading became a classic chicken-and-egg — win first, or get knockout facilities that would lure the recruits who could help get wins? In the mid-’80s, the department made a play, for instance, to redo the stadium. It had drawings done and finances figured, but administrators and regents halted plans real quick. “We didn’t have the clout,” Dodds says. “We weren’t winning on the field — it was easy to tell us no.”

When the Longhorns were winning and donors were happy, Athletics became unstoppable. The building binge under Dodds has included the Mike A. Myers Track and Soccer Stadium, the UT Golf Academy, a renovation for baseball’s UFCU Disch-Falk Field, the Frank Denius Fields and indoor practice facility for football, the Denton A. Cooley Pavilion for basketball practice, the Moncrief-Neuhaus Athletics Center for football (and beyond) — and, on the north end of the stadium, the Red McCombs Red Zone for thousands of fans.

“You get the dollars, you get the facilities, you get in the right conference,” Dodds says, “and it becomes choosing what you want.”

Or whom you want. Dodds wanted Brown for football, Rick Barnes for basketball, and Augie Garrido for baseball. He got ’em, along with top coaches Mike Center, Bubba Thornton, and John Fields in men’s tennis, track, and golf. Not to mention retaining Eddie Reese, who is responsible for 10 of the 13 national championships and 31 of the 101 conference titles the Longhorns have won during Dodds’ tenure.

Dividing the Spoils of Victory

For every sport it sponsors, the Athletics Department aims to fund it so fully that it can contend for a championship every year. Which is to say that all the winning has been made possible by doing smart business, from maximizing charitable contributions to cutting commercial deals for stadium advertising (which Dodds says he doesn’t love aesthetically but appreciates financially). Kevin Hegarty, UT’s chief financial officer, calls Dodds “absolutely the best business guy on campus — and that’s coming from one of the business guys.”

Hegarty admires the way Dodds years ago took on funding women’s athletics, which previously had been subsidized by the University, in exchange for licensing rights. Dodds then made UT’s Athletics Department one of fewer than 20 in the country that makes more money than it spends each year.

“He took a business that depended on some subsidies from the University, made it stand-alone, and built an operation that stands in the black and maintains a cushion that recognizes some of the volatility in the revenues,” Hegarty says. “Now that is very sound business practice.”

Athletics has given $6.6 million to the academic side of the University since the 2005-06 fiscal year, and in February, the department announced it would commit another $5 million to help cover UT’s $29 million budget gap. Dodds is now appreciated by alumni, receiving next month the fifth Distinguished Service Award the Texas Exes has ever given. “Our relationship with Athletics has never been better,” Texas Exes executive director and CEO Jim Boon says. “We have the kind of Athletics program that is envied by my peers around the country.”

The renovated UFCU Disch Falk Field

Still, critics on the faculty and beyond have charged that the giving should be more, particularly in light of the comparatively ample coaching salaries. (Brown’s alone approaches $5 million.)

When he talks about the amounts Athletics has given back, Dodds leans back in his chair, thinks about it. He isn’t defensive. He’s made the decisions, and comfortably enough that he is willing to explain his reasoning — that his department needs to keep enough reserve on hand. He must balance that with how much to give back to UT. “It could be more,” Dodds says. “It’s a fine line there.”

And one that seems to satisfy the administration. As a negotiator, Dodds has a fierce reputation. As a hammer? Some who have pounded out deals with him say he comes back and back and back on the sticking points. But UT folks would characterize him more subtly, as a diamond cutter.

“He knows what he wants out of that negotiation, but he’s got a style to win it without ticking off everybody in the room,” Hegarty says. “One might say he really extracted a pound of flesh, but they’re smiling, they’re laughing, they’re shaking his hand. That is a real skill, a real art.”

Women’s athletics director Chris Plonsky, whom Dodds hired in 1993, has been with him during key negotiations. “You don’t realize ’til you get out of the room,” she says, “that you’ve done a backbend.”

The Conference Missile Crisis … and Beyond

For a man now in his 70s, nothing has tested whether Dodds has still got it like the 10 days in June when the Big 12 almost publicly detonated.

As Nebraska and Colorado left, and the conference he helped build 14 years before threatened to implode, nobody was under more pressure than Dodds. Plonsky describes the man she sometimes calls Double D as intense then, yet preternaturally calm. “There was no demeanor change, honestly,” she says. He still took his daily 4-mile walk — his mind was just preoccupied with the politics, the logistics, and the dollars of a conference change.

Dodds and Plonsky maintain that their concern for the players — for the long trips to California they would make in the Pac-10 — was foremost. But the Longhorn TV network Athletics has talked about developing for several years also loomed large among their concerns about walking away, they concede. UT’s leading suitor, the Pac-10, didn’t want any of its individual schools to have their own networks.

Reports put Texas two days from entering the Pac-10 before a Big 12 deal came through, but officials insist it was truly moment-by-moment. Dodds, Plonsky, and UT president Bill Powers were in constant touch. Other Athletics staffers conducted research and analysis, all while staying reasonably mum.

By the time Texas A&M started edging toward the SEC, the geographic, cultural, and political implications were blowing up. Dodds consistently downplays the involvement of politicians in college athletics (although he says he doesn’t think UT and A&M will ever separate). Plonsky, for her part, concedes that politics were “huge.”

Championship rings

Facing potentially explosive scenarios, good financials allowed Texas to give the Big 12 another look. Dodds says it was nice not to have to leave athletics counterparts he considered friends behind, or to start a domino effect for which the college sports world wasn’t ready.

And so, under Dodds’ rule, the Texas Athletics empire will keep its alliances.

But what of the future? Dodds’ contract, which includes bonuses that boost his annual pay up to $750,000, runs until 2011. Beyond that, he says he’ll serve at the pleasure of the president. The longest-serving Division 1 A.D. has no plans to retire. Powers, for his part, says: “I’ll have him as long as he’ll have me. Most college presidents wake up at 4 in the morning fretting about athletics. I wake up at 4 fretting about budgets, but not about athletics. DeLoss Dodds is there.”

In an industry that regularly surrounds him with people more than 50 years his junior, Dodds seems to draw energy from their youth, just as he did as a track coach. “I see a lot of old coach in him,” Plonsky says. “It’s always about the people — how to treat them, how to build them, how to motivate them, how to get them to buy in for the common good.”

The athletics director who would be king claims — and convincingly — that he doesn’t want his legacy to be magnificent facilities or memorable wins. Rather, DeLoss Dodds wants it to be the people who’ve come through the program. His desire: that they be educated, productive, happy, and above all, “good moms and dads.” He feels like a grandfather, not a CEO. “We’re not a corporation,” he says. “We’re family, and a pretty functional family.”

 

 

 
 
 

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