Man of the Fans

Mike Perrin’s first gameday as interim athletics director.

When Mike Perrin arrives at the student section just after halftime at the Cal game, the area smells like stale Coors Light, fried food, and Millennial sweat. Nevertheless, Perrin thrusts himself into the fray, seemingly unafraid to mar his burnt-orange polo and pleated khakis with the Hellraisers’ body paint.

Four days earlier, University of Texas at Austin president Greg Fenves introduced Perrin as interim men’s athletics director, replacing embattled AD Steve Patterson. When Perrin was asked about his concerns for the larger program, he mentioned waning attendance at football games, saying that “fans voted with their feet.”

Despite the Longhorns’ struggle in the third quarter against the Golden Bears, Perrin’s feet are firmly planted next to the hungriest, most ferocious Longhorn fans in the stadium — one of the last places you’d expect to see an executive who will make $750,000 this year to oversee the department. But there’s nowhere he’d rather be.

“I feel like I’ve come home,” Perrin says. “It’s just part of me.”

Perrin, BA ’69, JD ’71, Life Member, doesn’t look slick, like the last athletics director. He’s bespectacled, with a gray horseshoe of hair wrapping around the back of his head. He looks like one of the thousands of multigenerational Longhorns kicking around campus. He looks like a member of the Longhorn faithful who knew who Freddie Steinmark was before he got the Hollywood treatment. He looks like an ordinary man for whom Saturdays in Austin are sacred. That’s because he is.

Perrin, 68, was a linebacker when Darrell K Royal and Mike Campbell stalked the sidelines. He was a volunteer during DeLoss Dodds’ 32-year reign as athletics director, and most importantly, he’s always been a diehard fan. Back in April, before he was on the athletics payroll, he and his wife Melinda, BS ’69, Life Member, Distinguished Alumna, were driving home to Houston. Melinda received a call that Shaka Smart had been hired as the men’s basketball coach and would be introduced that afternoon at the Frank Erwin Center. Perrin turned off at the next exit and zoomed back to Austin. In his inauguration speech, Fenves described athletics as the “front door” to the university for many. If that’s true, then Perrin is trying to be the valet, concierge, and friendly doorman rolled into one.

On his fourth day on the job, he’s already dropped in on the alumni band’s rehearsal (“Loved them when I was here, still love them to this day”) and a tailgate for players’ parents, a forgotten sector of the Longhorn family that Perrin has said he intends to engage.

He also met coach Charlie Strong at the Stadium Stampede, sat with David Thomas and Ricky Williams on the Texas GameDay set, hung out at the Texas Law tailgate, swung by the Alumni Center, introduced himself to members of the press, and served as honorary captain during the coin toss — all before kickoff.

The people who pay attention to these sorts of things are taking notice. Small gestures, like Perrin’s five minutes in the press box, make quite the impression. The Statesman’s Kirk Bohls tweeted that “Patterson never did that once.” Fox Sports 1’s Greg Toohey added, “Mike Perrin has done more for Texas athletics in one day than Steve Patterson did in 2 years.”

After reaching an agreement with Fenves, Patterson resigned after only 22 months on the job. His controversial term saw the raising of football and men’s basketball ticket prices, the firing of beloved athletics personnel like longtime head football media relations staffer John Bianco, and scathing headlines like ESPN’s “The Steve Patterson Era at Texas: ‘He just put us through hell.’”

Perrin arrived on the Forty Acres in the fall of 1965 as part of a highly touted recruiting class. The defensive end and linebacker started his college career on a couple of Royal’s middling ’60s teams before tying the University of Houston and losing to Texas Tech to open the 1968 season. Stretching back to 1967, Texas was 0–3–1. Texas would win its next 30 games, including the 1969 National Championship. Perrin had a hand in shifting that momentum. Against Oklahoma State, he intercepted a pass and took it to the house for a touchdown.

“One book I read said I ‘lumbered it into the end zone.’ Another said I ‘sped into the end zone.’ I choose to go with the latter,” Perrin says, smiling.


Perrin’s first real test will invoke his legal expertise. His firm, Bailey Perrin Bailey, won multiple lawsuits against Johnson & Johnson, most recently for the state of South Carolina to the tune of $136 million. At presstime, Texas is in negotiations for a new apparel contract, one that could be the largest in history. In July, the University of Michigan broke the record with its $169-million, 15-year deal with Nike, one Perrin will look to match or exceed.

In the wake of Patterson’s bullish brand expansion plans, Perrin is more cautious. He says he’ll analyze data and budgets, citing the cost-benefit of the upcoming men’s basketball game in Shanghai as an example. An old-school type, it’s hard to imagine Perrin booking the football team a game in Mexico, as his predecessor wanted. But he says he truly understands the value of the horns on the helmet.

“Let me make it clear,” Perrin says. “I want the brand to grow.”

For Perrin, it’s been a whirlwind start from the day Fenves first called him.

It was 5:45 p.m. in Houston on Labor Day when Perrin’s phone rang. He didn’t recognize the 512 number and was about to fire up the grill to cook some salmon, but he answered anyway.

“Mike, this is Greg … Greg Fenves,” the voice on the other end said. “I was wondering if you could find some time in the next little bit to visit with me about the situation in the athletics department.”

It became apparent that the UT president was looking for more than advice or a task force member, so Perrin committed to traveling to Austin the following weekend to help Fenves and the athletics department in any way he could. Two days later, he was introduced as interim AD.

Fenves’ decision to choose Perrin is, if not offbeat, a bit of a surprise. Perrin’s appointment appears to have generated some renewed enthusiasm in Texas athletics, even in the midst of a losing football season. And despite Fenves’ tumultuous first 100 or so days in office, the Patterson and Perrin decisions have been viewed largely as wins. “Mike Perrin ushers in new life as Texas athletic director,” gushed the Austin-American Statesman.

“He’s a different pick than people would have thought, but a really good pick,” says Pam Willeford, BA ’72, Life Member, Distinguished Alumna. “Mike’s a very smart man and a very good lawyer; that will be advantageous.”

Fenves is going to have to decide if the “interim” in Perrin’s title disappears before his contract is up next August. Perrin is not the conventional choice to take over in the long-term. For now, Fenves has given Perrin full authority in his new title, and Perrin doesn’t view his position as ceremonial.

“He didn’t tell me to go in and keep things the way they are, and he didn’t give me specific directives to change,” Perrin says. “He made it clear that I’m more than a mere custodian.”

Perrin says his new initiative, which he’s calling The Homecoming, is to spread the “electric feeling” he got in December 1964 as he watched his first Darrell K Royal practice as a high school senior. He wants every Longhorn to feel that way, from current and former student-athletes and their families to faculty, and especially the fans.

Photos by Jeff Wilson.


Tags: ,