Patterson stumbles, but will leave a big legacy

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AUSTIN – Until recently, Steve Patterson was enjoying popularity as director of athletics at Longhorn U.  To most eyes of Texas, he’d done a smooth enough job of replacing declining coaches in football and basketball with rising stars.  But now, after 18 months as AD, Patterson’s own star is falling.  Honeymoon over.

While praised for the hires of Charlie Strong and Shaka Smart, he angered some of the university’s inner core when he recently fired longtime football publicist John Bianco, who successfully engineered the Ricky Williams Heisman campaign in 1998.

Perhaps Patterson was unaware that Bianco had developed a trusted relationship with Strong.  Chip Brown, in Horns writes that Patterson fired Bianco without consulting Strong, who also was not asked how he’d feel about reducing from eight to four his personal season-ticket allotment.

Of more concern to the head coach is Patterson’s tight-fisted approach with support staff.  Strong’s eight quality-control coaches, according to Brown, earned an average salary last year of $24,000, compared to $45,000 for their peers at barely competitive Kansas.

More generosity might be expected from an athletics department that amassed $161 million in 2013-2014.  Only Oregon, at $196,000, has a more productive sports factory than Texas.  But Patterson cannot hang his hat on that.  

My state brags about everything except being No 2 in something.  I know a few Texans still bitter at Alaska for joining the union. 

Runaway revenue is not the only measure of a Texas AD.  DeLoss Dodds survived for 32 years not only because he made megabucks for the school.  He made us proud of the brand.   Yes he stood too long with Mack Brown and Rick Barnes, but he also stood for principles, one of which is that you’re not a skinflint.

Brown says Patterson has alienated Longhorn supporters because he “can’t or won’t relate to people” and he “puts making money and saving money above everything.”

Patterson bumped prices on season tickets an average of 21 percent after Strong’s less than stirring 6-7 inaugural run.  Some 10,000 season-ticket holders declined to renew.

A major setback for Patterson, but he can find revs almost anywhere.  I knew him in the 1980s when he was a staffer for his father, Ray, CEO of the Houston Rockets.  Young Steve was always generating ideas about how to make more money or save some.  I would not be surprised if he digs through dumpsters at night to search for treasure.

It was utterly Patterson-like to charge former players $25 to appear on the field to be honored, which provoked Chip Brown to complain: “He has turned the Horns brand into a commodity to be sold.”

Patterson can be petty, but his hellbent capitalism is not scorned by everybody on the Forty Acres.  And I, for one, have long admired him for his unconventional boldness.    

I covered the Rockets, for the Houston Chronicle, when he was general manager and accused Hakeem Olajuwon of faking an injury.  I can’t imagine any other sports executive that brave.  Of course, it cost Patterson his job, albeit months later.  He won the battle, even if the war was impossible to win.  At least he was willing to fight.

Which is not to say he picks all his fights wisely.  Perhaps he’s taking the bean-counting too far.  But as a Texas alum (as is Patterson), I’m glad he’s questioning the entitlements of coaches.  He apparently told them they could have a free lunch with their players in the athletes’ dining hall 30 times a year, but after that they’d have to pay for meals.

Sounds reasonable to me.  There is such a thing as too much fraternizing with the troops.

In former posts with the Portland Trail Blazers and Arizona State University, Patterson fired people and burned bridges.  It’s his nature.  But he has vision.  And his legacy is solid everywhere, even if his methods were sometimes shady.

Someone who knows Patterson better than I told me, “Steve is a much warmer person than most people think.  He has as many truly close friendships as anyone you’d meet.  But he’s guarded, even with friends.  He’s not the schmoozer his dad was.  And if you’re ever disloyal to him, betray a confidence, he can be ruthless.”

Patterson’s outside-the-box thinking puts him at odds with traditionalists.

On one of his infrequent occasions of speaking to news media, he said there was a better chance of Texas playing a football game in Mexico City than in College Station.

He recently approved sales of beer and wine at football games (hey, revs are revs).  To which John Sharp, chancellor of Texas A&M, responded:  “Our athletic program has not reached the point where we require the numbing effects of alcohol.”

Without approval of the coaches, Patterson negotiated to have the ’Horns basketball team open next season in China, on Nov. 13.  So now he’s getting blasted for taking student-athletes out of class to spend time in China.

As if that expedition will be of little educational value.

As if the game in China will be of little value to the Longhorn brand.  I see a future Yao Ming coming this way.

The bottom line here is the bottom line, but there’s more on it than dollars.  There’s the stature of the football and basketball programs.  Texas has never had much of the latter, and if there’s one thing I believe Patterson knows, it’s the basketball business.

Strong’s record suggests he starts slowly but in two or three years will have an elite program.  Smart hasn’t coached his first game for Texas.  Strong and Smart need time to show if Patterson is.

Whatever he lacks in people skills, I say give Patterson another year or two before sending the posse after him.  He needs more time to implement his big ideas.  It’s the little ones that get him in trouble.

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