Gregory L. Fenves is still settling into his new job as the University of Texas president. But he’s well aware that some fans and alumni are angry with men’s athletic director Steve Patterson.
A high-ranking university source told the American-Statesman on Tuesday that Fenves has met at least twice with Patterson to discuss various issues within the athletic department. A third meeting is tentatively scheduled for Friday.
The source did not want to speculate on whether Fenves was close to firing Patterson. But when asked if Patterson was in trouble, the source said, “Yes.”
A second well-placed source said Fenves has “a hard decision” to make, noting that Patterson has made two highly regarded hires in football coach Charlie Strong and men’s basketball coach Shaka Smart, but has alienated some with his management style and failure to communicate.
“It’s a major issue for Greg,” the source said, referring to the UT president.
The sources spoke to the Statesman on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. Fenves declined to be interviewed Tuesday but issued a statement that acknowledged the meetings with Patterson.
“I meet regularly with leadership team members, including Steve Patterson,” Fenves said in the statement. “We are working through budget issues in athletics, as we are across the university, and I am aware of the frustrations of some of our Longhorn fans. Our athletic teams are the front door of the university and our fans are essential to their success.”
Patterson, who on Tuesday declined to comment through an athletic department spokesman, did address his perception problem in an interview with the Statesman on Monday. He said the issue stems from poor communication about issues like higher football ticket prices and how parking would become an added cost instead of folded into an annual donation, like in previous years.
Does Patterson believe he’s alienated some key boosters along the way? “I don’t know. Perhaps,” he said.
Does he worry about that perception? “No. Because the reality is if you spend all day worrying about what people are thinking of you, you’re probably not going to make the right decision for the organization,” he said.
“I’m concerned about making the best decisions for our students who participate in athletics, for our coaches, staff, our fans, the community as a whole to make sure we can have the most amount of success possible. That may mean you have to make some unpopular, tough decisions. I’m not afraid to do that.
“Could we have done a better job of communicating those at certain points and times? Yeah, probably,” he added. “Could we have delayed some of those decisions? Perhaps. But ultimately, I think it would have put us in a worse position.”
The athletic department is currently conducting a national search for a chief communications officer as well as a new sports information director for the football program.
Patterson came to Texas from Arizona State in November 2013. At that time, he signed a contract that runs through August 2019 with a starting base salary of $1.4 million and includes a minimum 2.5 percent raise each full fiscal year. The contract includes no specific buyout clause, and any decision to terminate a multiyear deal would require approval from the UT System Board of Regents.
Two members of the search committee that hired Patterson told the Statesman that he was chosen over West Virginia’s Oliver Luck because the school wanted “a business mentality.” That’s exactly what Texas got.
In the 17-plus months since being hired, Patterson made groundbreaking hires of Strong and Smart that were praised nationally. It’s the first time in school history that Texas has hired black coaches for its two high-profile sports.
But Patterson also quickly developed a reputation as someone solely focused on money. And for good reason. An audited report showed the athletic department lost $2.8 million during the 2013-14 fiscal year. The real number is closer to $8.1 million, Patterson said, when you factor in debt service payments and facility projects.
So Patterson set out to raise football ticket prices an average of 5.8 percent across the board, which includes both tickets from the seating bowl and suites inside Royal-Memorial Stadium.
Some have been skeptical about the overall price increase reported by the athletic department. However, the Statesman obtained a detailed spreadsheet from the athletic department on Tuesday outlining the correct math.
What has fans so angry is how the ticket price increase was handled.
The department sent out a slick 18-page brochure featuring the phrase, “For Texas, I Will.” On Page 13 was the information about parking passes, which now cost from $100 to $195. That’s an added cost that previously was a perk for donors at various levels.
Faculty members are also furious that their ticket prices skyrocketed as part of the changes. Now, anyone who attempts to resell tickets without paying the full Longhorn Foundation donation could lose ticket buying privileges altogether.
Additional material from staff Writer Ralph K.M. Haurwitz.