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McCombs Alum Assumes Helm of UT Athletics: A Conversation With Steve Patterson

Steve Patterson, Texas Athletics Director, at press conference

Business and law school alumnus Steve Patterson, BBA '80, JD '84 is taking over the most prominent hot seat in the Longhorn Nation.

McCombs TODAY interviewed The University of Texas at Austin's incoming athletics director on the afternoon of Dec. 6, 2013, just hours before the UT Women's volleyball team defeated the Aggies 3-1 in the second round of the NCAA Championships, and one day before Texas' Big 12 football championship hopes for 2013 slammed into a green and gold iceberg in 24-degree Waco, Texas. Coach Mack Brown's status at the university was still an unsettled question.

Patterson looked every bit the new Texas AD, confident and energetic as he strode briskly into his new office located above the north end zone at DKR-Texas Memorial Stadium.

He arrives with a resume designed to inspire Longhorn confidence, including his most recent position as Arizona State University's vice president for university athletics and athletics director. Patterson has two decades of experience as a senior executive in the NFL (Houston Texans), the NBA (Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers), and professional hockey (Houston Aeros). Championship teams, and massive sports complexes, are his bailiwick.

Returning to his alma mater, Patterson surely understands that this particular job will test his leadership capacity beyond any other position in college sports.

How did your education at UT Austin influence the course of your career?  

I learned the level of work required to be successful. Recognizing that if you got up every morning and made that 7 a.m. accounting class you probably were ahead of 50 percent of the folks in the room, and if you did the work you could wind up with an A — and that was a good thing. The real world of business is not a whole lot different than that.  

Marketing was my field of concentration at the school. I joined the Houston Rockets as general manager in 1989, and that franchise was changing — going from sort of a mom-and-pop operation to being more professionally run. We put in the first computer network in any professional sports team, we led the league in season ticket sales through the depression in Houston, and we were able to do it with a very small staff.

What are the marketing opportunities ahead for UT Athletics?   

I think we can ramp up our sales efforts. We've got the opportunity to extend the brand, particularly with the Longhorn Network, and this department has a great tradition over the last three decades of delivering the newest, the best, and the most advanced, and I look for a continuation of that.

I think there's tremendous headroom. We're not anywhere near capacity in terms of being able to carry the brand nationally and internationally. You see the benefits of that time and time again across the U.S. as universities have athletic successes that allow the university to tell its story to different niche markets.

Are the principles that drive success in sports the same ones that drive success in business?

That's right — and a lot of people don't understand that. They look at athletes as solely having a God-given talent, and while most of them do have some level of acumen better than others, the ones that really succeed are the ones that operate like successful business people.

When evaluating talent … take into account attributes that others overlook

I think back to when we were doing the 1989 NBA All-Star Game in the Astrodome and there were weeks of preparations to put on that kind of an event. The baseball team operated out of the bowels of the building, and so I got to know their business rhythm.

The most amazing guy was Nolan Ryan because every day at 7:30 a.m. he was practicing. There was a day that he worked out; there was a day when he pitched. Each day he was working on something. I would watch him go through that ritual, being very business-like about it, and I recognized why that guy could operate at his level of success for so long.

So when you're evaluating talent and evaluating whom you want to add on your team, trying to figure out the probabilities of success, you really want to take into account those attributes that people often overlook.

There are a lot of expectations about your arrival. How would you characterize those expectations? And how do you begin to prioritize where to apply your leadership attention?

I think the expectations are fair, and you have to be ready when you step in here. In terms of prioritizing how I spend my time, I'm just absorbing right now, and then it really is about effectively communicating the vision, making sure that we have the proper brand communication inside the organization, getting cultural buy-in, and continuing the growth this organization has been [experiencing] for so many years under DeLoss [Dodd's] direction.

The reality is not the same as some other businesses I've taken over — it's not a turn-around. There are always things that everybody can do better, but this isn't an organization that's in the ditch.

As someone with a business background, would you characterize UT Athletics as a business?

I'm reluctant to characterize it as a business. There's plenty of marketing, sales, accounting, brand building management, and all of the elements that go into running any enterprise that you learn in business school. But at its core, I don't believe we're a business.

When you think of a business, your overriding objective is driving shareholder value, and our outcomes are more complicated than that. Because of the financial success that the department has had in the past, we can lose sight of the successes we've had with our student athletes — and that's at the core. Our job is to graduate our student athletes, operate ethically, have success on the field, and honor our traditions.

When I was at Arizona State, I would listen to former student athletes come back and talk about their lives and the impact their university experience had on their lives. You start to get a sense of the good work that athletic departments create, not just for those individuals, but for the whole arc of their family's existence.

Other than the GI Bill, college athletics is probably the largest scholarship program sending kids through college in the United States. There's a significant number of student athletes who are the first person in the family ever to attend college, and then you couple that with the fact that, for the most part, student athletes are graduating at a rate somewhere in the 75-to-80 percent range versus the normal of about 15 percent for first-time college attendees.

Their college experience allows them to have a better life when they're out of here, and that's really the story of college athletics, and that's why I'm hesitant to use the word business even though we have to exercise sound business principles.

Side profile of Steve Patterson, Texas Athletics Director

What do you want student athletes to hear from you?

I want them to know that we're here to help them succeed while they're at UT and to help them drive successful outcomes after they leave. Those successful outcomes should have a horizon that is as high as it possibly can be, and one that continues 50 years beyond any potential professional athletic experience.

One of the areas where UT Athletics has a huge influence is in terms of charitable giving to the university; success on the field drives enthusiasm among the alums. How does that factor into your leadership plan?

Athletics is the front porch of the university. It's often the way people come to the university. It's a way many young students make a decision about where they want to go to school. People could argue about whether that's good, bad, or indifferent, but it just happens to be how 17-year-olds make decisions.

You look at the success of schools like Oregon or Auburn when their football teams have played well. You can see dramatic jumps in applications that enable them, in certain instances, to drive up the GPAs of their admitted classes. Most people in development will tell you that for every dollar somebody gives to athletics, they give three dollars to the rest of the university. So it plays an important role in fundraising, and plays an important role in engagement as a whole, and it helps build the brand of the university.

What would you like alumni from the school of business to know about you?

I certainly enjoyed my time there as a student. I think all of us want to feel great about having been a part of the school. I would hope alumni would continue to send their children to a great school, and I look forward to working with all the folks over there at McCombs. I'll certainly do my part to help grow its profile and successes for hopefully a lot of years to come.

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