Steve Patterson’s tenure as Athletic Director of the University of Texas has been a weird one. It’s been a test balloon for a lot of ideas that have been deeply unpopular, an opportunity for the school to engage in house-cleanings both expected (Mack Brown) and bizarre (assistant athletic director John Bianco), and potentially profitable. It’s also been short—the Austin American-Statesman reported Tuesday that Patterson is done at UT.
University of Texas President Gregory L. Fenves has fired embattled athletic director Steve Patterson, a Houston-based source with knowledge of the situation told the American-Statesman.
Fenves and Patterson met Tuesday morning, the Statesman learned.
It brings to an end to a tumultuous 22-month journey for the athletic department during which fans grew outraged over higher ticket prices and Patterson battled the perception that his cool demeanor simply does not fit UT’s style.
Patterson’s Texas ties run deep. He was an executive with the Texans and, like his father before him, the general manager of the Houston Rockets in the early nineties. Unfortunately, he left the Rockets before the team won its first championship with the roster he helped build. He also ascended to the role he took with UT very quickly—he became the frontrunner for the position after his first interview, and was hired in two days. He arrived to great fanfare (watch Texas Monthly editor-in-chief Brian Sweany sit down with the AD in September 2014).
But his tenure at UT wasn’t exactly a happy one. He was only at the school for 22 months, but his legacy is fairly outsized for that time. Let’s take a look at some of the high- (and low-) lights below:
Any discussion of Patterson’s legacy should begin with the fact that he managed to finally push beer and wine sales through at the football stadium. That’s been a longtime priority at the University of Texas—former President Bill Powers supported the idea, as did current President Greg Fenves—but it only happened under Patterson. It’s something that’ll obviously have a lasting impact on both the culture of the game at UT and the school’s bottom line.
FIRING MACK BROWN
Outside of the alcohol sales, Patterson will probably be best known as the guy who canned longtime Longhorns football coach Mack Brown. Brown’s fifteen-year tenure as the head coach of the team was capped by such highs—the 2005 National Championship, twelve straight winning seasons, nine Bowl game wins—that firing him was a tall order, even after his recruiting classes fell off (passing on Johnny Manziel, Robert Griffin III, and Andrew Luck in favor of Case McCoy will forever be a part of Brown’s legacy, too) and the team started losing. Patterson was the right guy for that job, though, dumping Brown and leading to a coaching search that culminated, ultimately, with Charlie Strong.
HIRING CHARLIE STRONG AND SHAKA SMART
Charlie Strong hasn’t yet been able to right the ship that Mack Brown steered toward the iceberg at UT, but Patterson did make a progressive choice in hiring the first African-American head coach of the Longhorns football team—a move that was met with all of the weirdness and controversy that one might expect when a storied football program hiring a black man as its twenty-ninth head coach. And Patterson didn’t stop with Strong—in April, he hired Shaka Smart to coach UT’s men’s basketball team, the first black man to occupy that role, as well. The fact that a college sports powerhouse like the University of Texas hadn’t had a single African-American head coach at either of its marquee men’s programs until Patterson came along is an important part of his legacy.
PISSING OFF ALUMNI AND FANS
Someone needed to fire Mack Brown, and Steve Patterson was the guy for that job. But if part of his role was to be the bad guy to those fans still loyal to Brown, he managed to take that villainous persona to new heights after the coach was gone. Perhaps most famously, Patterson charged members of the University of Texas class of 1964 $25 each just to stand on the Darrell K. Royal Stadium football field at their fiftieth reunion last year. Sally Lehr, who was back on campus for the reunion, was peeved:
“He said it was expensive to allow people on the field. They had to turn on the lights. They had to have people leading the tour and a groundskeeper,” Lehr recalled. “He said if athletics had to pay for all of that, they might have to cut the donation they made to the UT library.
“I was stunned by his arrogance and avarice,” added Lehr, whose stepfather was Jones Ramsey, Texas’ sports information director from 1961-83.
“I was raised in a household where you did everything you could to promote the Longhorns any way that you could. I was dumbfounded he thought that was a good public relations move – to charge $25 for people to step on the football field.
“He has turned the Horns ‘brand’ into a commodity to be sold.”
The alumni never made it onto the field that night, and it wasn’t the only time UT fans found themselves furious with Patterson. He proceeded to raise ticket prices by a whopping 21.5 percent average following the 2014 season and instituted a no-resale policy on “grandfathered” season tickets, meaning that fans could lose the right to purchase those tickets if they ever sold them on sites like StubHub.
Patterson also made headlines last week when it was announced that members of the Texas Tech marching band would have to pay $100 each just to enter the stadium when the two teams played. That was part of an agreement between the two schools, but it reflected an important perception about Patterson: That he was way more concerned with making a buck than with the school’s traditions.
ALIENATING PLAYERS AND COACHES
Alienating alumni and fans is bad; alienating players and coaches may be worse. He angered players by stripping amenities for athletes in the men’s basketball and women’s volleyball programs like chartered flights—a big deal when you’re talking about athletes with frames large enough to play those sports—and replacing them with commercial flights and long bus rides.
“He made them fly commercial” might not be the sort of epithet that gets expressed with cursing and spitting on the ground, but Patterson also struggled to maintain the support of the coaches he hired himself—Sports Illustrated reports that Charlie Strong, Shaka Smart, and longtime Longhorns baseball coach Augie Garrido all reported directly to associate athletic director Arthur Johnson, not to Patterson himself.
PRIMING FANS FOR A MACK BROWN REDUX?
With Patterson’s tenure at UT over, the next big question is obviously, “Who will replace him?” In the very short term, the answer to that question is Mike Perrin, who’ll serve as the interim AD. Perrin, the Statesman notes, played linebacker on the 1968 Longhorns team, and is a member of the UT Men’s Hall of Honor. In the long term, his replacement is a bigger question—but one popular name that surfaced almost immediately is Mack Brown himself.
Brown would be a fascinating choice. He’s well respected and carries deep ties to the UT community, and in an athletic director role, the weaknesses he developed over his final years as head coach wouldn’t be a factor. Fox Sports’ Bruce Feldman reports that there’ll be “a big push” for Brown to take over the role. (A source cited by the Statesman, meanwhile, says that Brown won’t be considered for the permanent role.)
There are other potential names besides Brown, obviously. One intriguing prospect might be Oliver Luck, former West Virginia AD, current NCAA executive, and father of one of Brown’s most prominent recruiting blunders, Andrew Luck. The elder Luck is a UT Law graduate who was considered the frontrunner for the UT job before Patterson emerged in 2013, so going groveling back to him might be the school’s best option—if he wants to leave the NCAA. If not, Louisville AD Tom Jurich is a potentially hot candidate; Arthur Johnson ascending into the role he’s been filling by default might make sense; and Arkansas AD Jeff Long’s name has been tossed around, as well.
— SN College Football (@sn_ncaaf) September 15, 2015
Whatever happens next at UT, the end of Patterson’s tenure at the school is big news. He alienated almost everybody he needed to succeed in his role, and that’ll be a big part of how we talk about his time at UT. But he also pushed some major culture changes through at a school that had been resistant to even much-needed change, and that’s a part of his legacy, as well.