Patterson had big ideas but couldn’t manage people

Alan Truex

AUSTIN – During the Longhorns’ game against Rice on Saturday night, a banner was flown overhead that said, “Patterson Must Go.”

UT’s president, Gregory L. Fenves, agreed with that message.  On Tuesday he fired  Steve Patterson, who probably envisioned a lengthy tenure as athletics director of the University of Texas.  After all, his predecessor, DeLoss Dodds, held the job for 32 years.

Patterson was terminated after 22 months in office.  He and his attorney, the ubiquitous Rusty Hardin, spent much of Tuesday working out the severance package with Fenves.  Patterson’s contract ran through 2009, and the university would owe him more than $5 million.  He will leave with something less than that, but there’s no doubt he will be in good financial health at 57.

Patterson brought major changes to UT.  He fired the football coach, the fading Mack Brown, and then the basketball coach, the almost-good Rick Barnes.  Patterson then hired the first two African-American coaches in the school’s history: Charlie Strong and Shaka Smart.

Patterson set up a basketball tournament to be played in China.  He negotiated for a Longhorns football game in Mexico City.  He introduced sales of alcohol at football and basketball games.  He thought big and he did big things.  But it was in little things where he did not do so well.

Patterson’s problem was lack of people skills.  Actually, having known the man for more than thirty years, I can tell you he has people skills.  He just chose not to use them. 

He wanted to execute his big ideas and leave his underlings to deal with the donors.  And in his relentless focus on the bottom line he offended hundreds and even thousands of people.  On Tuesday afternoon, employees in the athletics department were all but celebrating the dismissal of Patterson.

Bill Powers, UT president, hired Patterson because he was impressed with his knowledge of business finances, his creativity and his fearless style of management.  When Patterson was general manager of the Houston Rockets, he once publicly accused the team’s star player, Hakeem Olajuwon, of faking an injury.

Patterson cannot help but be confrontational.  When Fenves in June became UT’s president, he heard a deluge of complaints against the AD.  The most unpopular move was raising ticket prices for football and basketball games when the teams’ recent performances hardly suggested rising value.

There were other budgeting policies by Patterson that alienated the Longhorn community.  He cut the allotment of complimentary tickets to coaches and staff, and he limited the number of lunches assistant coaches could have in the athletes’ cafeteria.

He was running the richest athletics department in the country and he was penny-pinching.  And he was quick to fire staffers he suspected of disloyalty. 

Fenves disapproved of Patterson creating so many enemies for the university. A couple of times he demanded that Patterson make a better effort at reaching out to donors.

But the embarrassments continued.  Patterson’s latest controversy was charging the Texas Tech band for tickets to games in which they’re performing.

Because his tenure was so short and he offended so many, Patterson’s administration will be deemed a failure.  But of course, much of his legacy remains to be written.  And it depends in no small part on Charlie Strong, whose record at UT is 7-8 – and it’s 1-8 against ranked opponents.

Now Strong loses an ally in Patterson.

There’s popular sentiment among orangebloods to have former coach Mack Brown be the next director of athletics.  But that probably would be a step backward.  The AD position now requires a numbers-driven businessman, not a retired football coach.

Patterson had the education, the knowledge, the resume, the ideas, mostly good ones.  But arrogance and aloofness got the best of him.

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