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Happy Trails, CDC

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I had dinner last Friday night with Chris Del Conte, a handful of donors, and several members of the Rice support staff at an Italian restaurant in Greenville, N.C., and CDC carried on as usual. He probably told outrageous anecdotes while engaging his end of the table with his typically humorous banter. At one point he paid a visit to our end just to get our opinion of the cuisine. CDC did the same thing in Stillwater, visiting our table of four despite the fact he was dining elsewhere in the same restaurant. CDC has an innate desire to connect with people.

Our group of 15 took a charter bus to that restaurant in Greenville, but we needed a cab for the return trip to the hotel. A dozen of us squeezed into a minivan, with CDC immediately to my right. He rambled on with sincere enthusiasm about the recruits volleyball coach Genny Volpe is poised to sign, flailing his arms about like a rabid fan of Rice athletics. He knew every detail on those recruits, and expressed pride over the bright future of his volleyball program.

Hours earlier I received a phone call from a trusted friend who informed me that CDC was being targeted by TCU to fill its athletics director vacancy. I walked down what was the Rice sideline of Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium to get a little privacy and debated the rationale of CDC leaving Rice for TCU. From the moment I realized his impressive fundraising ability, I publicly acknowledged that CDC would not be at Rice long. However, I believed that he wouldn't leave South Main for another institution locked out of the BCS picture, and I made that very point to my good friend. He replied that TCU annually had a Top 25 football program and I agreed. I even chimed in that their facilities were vastly superior, and their commitment to athletics far exceeded Rice's. But CDC had work left to do here. In my mind, his legacy was incomplete.
Hours later, as he boasted over Volpe's handiwork, I felt validated in my belief that he'd stay.

I was wrong. On Wednesday, CDC accepted the same position at TCU that he held at Rice, closing the curtain on his three-year run as Rice AD. It was a fabulous ride, one where CDC flexed his considerable fundraising might in renovating Rice Stadium, Autry Court (now Tudor Fieldhouse) and Reckling Park. He orchestrated the construction of the Gibbs Recreation Center, and has projects at the Soccer/Track Stadium and Jake Hess Stadium well underway. CDC got things done at Rice that few thought possible because he is brash and fearless, undeterred and irrepressible. Yes his hyperactivity rubbed some the wrong way, but he lived by his 'get 'er done' mantra, and his indefatigable nature served a desperate department well.

But knowing CDC like I've gotten to know him, I didn't think he would leave just yet. The much-discussed end zone facility remains on the drawing board, and that project stoked the fire within CDC. The 2011 Final Four is just around the bend, and CDC worked his rear end off to get Rice into the picture so that it could co-host the event with UH. He is genuinely excited over what Ben Braun is accomplishing on the recruiting trail, and was confident that the Owls would knock on the door of an NCAA Tournament berth in the very near future. Those three tasks - the end zone facility, the Final Four, and an NCAA Tournament bid - remain unfinished, and I was positive that CDC would see them to completion. Then, come April 2011, he would have his pick of BCS schools clamoring for a leader with his dynamic ability to raise funds and tab the perfect coach for a program in need. His legacy at Rice would have been without blemish, and no one could have questioned his commitment to the university or his move to greener pastures. He would have served nearly five years on the job, five incredible years.

Fairy tales don't always come true. TCU offered CDC a significant pay raise, an expansive operating budget, and the freedom to run an athletic department without unnecessary headaches. As far as Rice had come under CDC, it still lags well behind its peer institutions regarding its commitment to athletics. That is an irrefutable fact. It's why Todd Graham left for Tulsa, and why Tom Herman, Yancy McKnight and Blake Miller departed for fruitful situations. Until Rice fully delves into the competition that is Division I athletics, it will remain lukewarm. Visionaries like CDC will come to South Main, work their magic, and depart when an institution with greater resources and the desire to advance up the ladder come calling. Few will admit that Rice is the Triple-A to TCU's major leagues, but one look at the Horned Frogs' facilities will silence that discussion. TCU wants to run with the big boys. It has made the commitment.

I, for one, am sad to see CDC go. He truly cared about Rice student-athletes, and his relationships with David Bailiff and Wayne Graham broached levels beyond the boss-subordinate dynamic. He is engaging and passionate, and the Rice experience had taken a hold of him. He wanted this athletic department to succeed not simply to advance his career, but because he fantisized about how wonderful Rice would be if it committed to athletic excellence with the same vigor it does to academic achievement. Rice has few peers academically, and no one can question its desire to annually challenge the elite academic institutions of this nation. Can you imagine what Rice would be if it exhausted itself athletically as well? If it pushed to remove the hurdles that have slowed football and basketball for years?

Those obstacles don't exist in Fort Worth, so after pouring every ounce of his being into Rice, CDC departed prematurely. His legacy here is, in some ways, unfulfilled, and that's a shame. I remember sitting in his office in the weeks leading up to the grand opening of the Gibbs Rec Center taken aback at how exhausted he looked. CDC was burning the candle at both ends, working frantically to oversee the final delicate touches at the Gibbs Rec Center while barreling ahead on the end zone facility. He wasn't going to accept failure and he didn't like hearing 'no' come from the other end of his Blackberry. CDC wanted things done, and even if he had to run himself ragged to get multiple tasks complete, he had a bottom line to adhere to.

Now I wonder what will come of those architectural renderings sitting in the corner of his office. Who will pick up the ball and run with the same reckless abandon as CDC? Who will continue the momentum CDC established, and will they do it with his unmistakable zeal? The next athletic director need not possess CDC's quirky charm, but he should believe that Rice athletics can be extraordinary. Chris Del Conte most certainly believed in that vision, and TCU will be better served for making the decision to put him in control of its athletic depatrment.

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4 Comments

I don't understand why the BoD and Leebron are so averse to paying these people. It's not like the sums are really significant in the grand scheme and it would save them the headache/search costs/potential losses (in many forms and domains) associated with having people leave and having to find replacements.

I don't think an academic like Leebron and the well to dos of the BoD enjoy having to dive into the athletics world every 6 months. So why don't they just throw money at it and save themselves the trouble and at the same time give the athletics department the initial base investment it needs to really move up?

The minute I heard this news, i almost started to cry. Since I've been at Rice I've only seen CDC here, and I could see how much he cared about making Rice the best it could be in terms of athletics, and making students actually care about athletics (not just academics).
The things he has done for us were tremendous, and I was excited for the next few years under his guidance. I'm not sure how we will replace him, but I can only hope we do.
Any word on possible replacements besides the interim AD?

Poor analogy on "major leagues." That would be the likes of UT and Florida. TCU has done very well on the gridiron the past few years, but as an overall athletic department they are nowhere close to that level.

I am tired of hearing that we lack commitment when that is clearly not true. Fundraising is a two-way street. I give CDC full credit for having a vision and communicating it effectively. But all of the projects he is taking credit for would not have happened if our supporters had not actually supplied the cash. We are not uncommitted, we are just currently behind. And we are catching up. 2005 was only four years ago.

Gothic R: Wasn't referring to on-field success but rather comparing the two school's facilities, so it wasn't a poor analogy at all. And commitment also comes in providing competitive salaries for coaches and staff and expanding budgets so the athletic department doesn't have to market with pennies every stinking year. If you honestly believe that Rice is fully committed like TCU or its so-called 'like-minded' institutions, I'll present a staff full of coaches who would vehemently disagree. - MK

Fair point on salaries. I don't mind some turnover, but this offseason was ridiculous. At some point we'll need to do something to slow that down. We need to use good judgement, though, about when to throw money around. In the past we've paid some too little, others too much.

Our marketing has certainly been disastrous, but I'm not sure that throwing more money at billboards is the solution. What we really need is a strategy.

I understand the facilities issue. They are certainly a step ahead of us. But when somebody says major league I envision something like this.

Incidentally, someone who looks at our facilities web page won't see anything about Fox Gym, the Youngkin Center, or the Gibbs Center. I know html. I'll do it for free.

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