The Steve Patterson era at Texas: 'He just put us through hell'

Souring relationship prompted Texas' firing of Patterson (1:42)

ESPN Big 12 reporter Max Olson explains how Longhorns athletic director Steve Patterson's management style created tension and mistrust, leading to Patterson being fired after 22 months. (1:42)

AUSTIN, TEXAS -- On Sept. 11, one day before Texas defeated Rice 42-28 to win its first football game of the 2015 season, many of the Longhorns' biggest financial donors gathered in a club area of Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.

During a meeting of the Longhorn Foundation Advisory Council, Texas president Greg Fenves, who had been in charge of one of the country's largest state universities for about three months, made a short opening address, then took questions from UT boosters.

The first question from the audience: "Why didn't Texas give football tickets to the Rice marching band?"

Fenves turned to athletic director Steve Patterson for an answer.

Patterson explained to the crowd that Texas had provided Rice with 300 complimentary tickets to the game, as per the schools' agreement. It was Rice's discretion as to how to distribute the free tickets.

When the man who asked the question wasn't satisfied with his answer, Patterson became agitated and started waving his arms, according to a person in attendance.

"I'm telling you, I talked to the Rice AD," Patterson said. "I'll show you the contract!"

The band question was the result of the latest in a string of social media-fueled controversies that surrounded Patterson. A few days earlier, an erroneous report indicated he had changed UT's policy and was now charging visiting teams for tickets for their marching bands. In fact, six of the 10 schools in the Big 12 had historically charged visiting teams the full price of tickets for their fans and their marching bands. Until the recent construction of smaller stadiums at Baylor and TCU, the four Texas-based schools in the Big 12 had a gentleman's agreement to provide complimentary tickets for band members.

"The story about the Rice band wasn't even true," said the person who attended the meeting. "But people hated [Patterson] so much they wanted it to be true."

The very public confrontation with a booster -- in front of Fenves, who had already told Patterson in July to "change an approach that some see as impersonal or even arrogant," according to The Dallas Morning News -- might have been the final blow for Patterson. If nothing else, it was a microcosm of the negative perception that plagued his rocky tenure and the inability to adequately communicate his message.

Patterson didn't know that, four days before the meeting, on Labor Day, Fenves had contacted Mike Perrin, a former Longhorns linebacker and Houston-based attorney, about becoming UT's interim athletic director if a change was made.

The change came on Tuesday -- three days after a "Patterson Must Go" banner flew over Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium during the Rice game -- when Patterson was relieved of his duties as UT's athletic director.

Fenves called it a mutually agreed-upon separation, ending a stormy 22-month relationship that began when Patterson replaced longtime Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds in November 2013.

"It was the right decision at the right time made by the right people," said San Antonio billionaire Red McCombs, a longtime UT supporter. "I think the Longhorn Nation will eat it up. It wasn't working. It was building up from a loud holler to a shouting match that this guy is killing us. When it isn't working, you've got to do something about it."

ESPN INTERVIEWED SEVERAL UT athletic department employees, current and former coaches and longtime boosters to see where Texas' marriage with Patterson, a Texas alum, went so wrong. Attempts to reach Patterson for this article were unsuccessful.

Houston attorney Joe Jamail, who has donated so much money to the University of Texas that two statues of his likeness have been erected on campus, has known Patterson for more than decade. When Patterson was the general manager of the Houston Rockets in the early 1990s, he contacted Jamail about a dispute the NBA team was having concerning its lease at The Summit. Jamail told Patterson to tell the arena's management that he was representing the Rockets.

"They left him alone after that," Jamail said.

Jamail, 89, whose net worth was estimated to be worth $1.5 billion by Forbes in 2011, undeniably wields considerable clout in Austin. The Longhorns' football field is named for him, and his and his wife's names are on the UT swimming facility.

For the past several years, Jamail leased one of the luxury suites at Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, and legendary country singers George Strait and Willie Nelson were among his regular guests. Jamail isn't using the suite this season, causing some UT fans to speculate that he was boycotting games as a sign of protest. However, Jamail said his trial calendar is preventing him from traveling to Austin to see his beloved Longhorns play. UT is using the suite to host visiting schools' athletic directors, and he said there's even a plaque in his suite saying as much.

"If I get free, I think I can get tickets," Jamail said. "I told them to just hold my suite in reserve. I didn't cancel my box out of vengeance."

Jamail said that Patterson's firing wasn't a case of a powerful booster flexing his pocketbook and that he wasn't involved in the decision to fire him. He denied speculation that he helped the Longhorns buy out the remaining four years left on Patterson's contract, worth at least $5.6 million.

"I didn't have anything to do with hiring Steve, and I didn't have anything to do with firing him," said Jamail, who ended an interview with ESPN.com on Thursday to take a telephone call from Longhorns football coach Charlie Strong.

The rift was bigger than with just one mega-booster. In fact, Patterson's antiseptic, micromanaging style alienated many of the Longhorns' most ardent supporters, prompting the urgency on Fenves' part.

"Athletics is the front door to the university, and we want to make sure it remains a welcoming front door," Fenves said after announcing Patterson's resignation.

BESIDES A TENURE of about 20 months as Arizona State's athletic director, nearly all of Patterson's experience in sports came at the professional level, including stints as president and general manager of the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers, senior vice president and chief development officer of the NFL's Houston Texans, and general manager of the Rockets. That experience is reportedly what gave Patterson the edge over the presumed front-runner, former West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck, in the eyes of former Texas president Bill Powers.

But Patterson's attempt to transform the UT athletic department through his idea of a pro sports model was his ultimate undoing. According to his critics, he turned longtime Longhorns fans, season-ticket holders and boosters into faceless customers, and fired or forced out many veteran athletic department employees, many of whom were proud Texas alumni.

"He just put us through hell," said one person familiar with the situation. "I've had the worst year of my life. Some of the happiest people in town are the spouses of employees. He made a lot of good people miserable."

During his tenure, Patterson raised ticket prices in men's basketball and football, moved the stadium seats of faculty members and former lettermen, and eliminated complimentary meals in dining halls and other perks for coaches and athletic department employees, among other cost-cutting reductions.

Some of the moves were necessary, even for a department that had operating revenues of $161 million in 2013-14. But Patterson and his executive committee often did an inadequate job of explaining why the changes were being made.

"I think it's a tragedy," former Texas Rangers owner and UT regent Tom Hicks told the Morning News. "I haven't changed my mind about Steve Patterson. I think he's one of the smartest athletic executives in the country. I think he has the fatal flaw of not being a good communicator."

In March, Texas announced its new pricing structure for football tickets, which the school said increased the price of tickets by an average of 6 percent. However, a HornsDigest.com analysis indicated the increases were closer to 20 percent, and new season-ticket holders were required to make a higher minimum donation to purchase tickets. Ticket holders also were charged separately for parking for the first time, and fans had to pay to use prime tailgating spots around campus.

The ticket increases and game-day changes were announced only a few months after the Longhorns finished 6-7 in Strong's first season.

"In theory and in principle, it's in the best interest of the University of Texas to maximize the market value of its season tickets," said Patrick Ryan, co-owner of The Ticket Experience, a Houston-based ticket reseller and a 2003 UT graduate. "It just needed to be rolled out a little more strategically and softly. Texas sells itself when it's good, but there's nothing you can do to sell it when it's bad."

Texas decided to continue grandfathering in longtime season-ticket holders at their original donation levels but made those donors agree not to sell their tickets on secondary markets. Texas even sent a list of the grandfathered tickets to StubHub, one of its corporate partners, to ensure that the tickets wouldn't be resold. The perceived distrust didn't sit well with many loyal ticket holders.

"In Texas, how you sell the story is just as important as the story," Ryan said. "You've got to know how to communicate to good ol' boys, and you need to have allies and you need to get friends in place, especially at a time when people are looking at their oil wells being worth half of what they were worth eight months ago. Don't throw water on an already aggravated cat."

After the ticket price increase, about 10,000 tickets weren't renewed for Texas football games this season. More than 7,000 of the Longhorns' allotted tickets for the Oct. 10 Red River Showdown against Oklahoma at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas also remain unsold.

Perrin, during an introductory news conference at the UT Tower on Wednesday, said he was concerned about declining attendance at home games. Attendance for last week's Rice game was announced at 86,458; capacity at Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium is 100,119. About 11,000 tickets remain unsold for Saturday night's game against California.

"I've been concerned," Perrin said. "I sat in the stands last week and saw empty seats. It concerns me that fans last week voted with their feet."

Texas Women's Athletics Director Chris Plonsky admits the athletic department could have done a better job of communicating the changes to its fans.

"You've got to make sure that you're accountable to your constituencies and your fans," Plonsky said. "We're going to work harder and better at that. I would tell you that some of the decisions we made I think were made with those two best interests at heart. I think sometimes our communication has been very poor. I've got to own that, and we have to own it."

Much of the problem, according to current and former UT employees, is that the athletic department is a shell of its former self because of dramatic staff reductions. Several of the Longhorn Foundation's top development officers, including two-time Olympic swimming gold medalist Ricky Berens and top fundraiser David Onion, left for other jobs. The department's communications office went from 10 employees to five under Patterson's watch.

"You don't want your AD to be a jock-sniffer, but what AD doesn't come down to the locker room and talk to a coach? I think he thought he was a pro sports owner." Former University of Texas employee, on Steve Patterson

UT SEASON-TICKET HOLDERS and athletic department employees weren't the only ones who felt alienated by Patterson. According to people familiar with the situation, Patterson left Strong and newly hired men's basketball coach Shaka Smart out of important decisions regarding their programs. Although Patterson is credited with hiring the first African-American head coaches in either sport in Texas history, he had very little interaction with either man. In fact, Strong and Smart reported directly to Arthur Johnson, executive senior associate athletic director, who relayed their concerns to Patterson.

Patterson, according to current and former UT employees, rarely met with Smart or Strong in face-to-face meetings and seldom had interaction with Strong at practices or games.

"You don't want your AD to be a jock-sniffer, but what AD doesn't come down to the locker room and talk to a coach?" a former UT employee said. "I think he thought he was a pro sports owner."

Strong also struggled to get support from Patterson. After his first season at UT, Strong asked for increased salaries for his eight analysts, who were among the lowest-paid in the Big 12. Strong wanted to increase their salaries from $24,000 to $50,000, which is $5,000 more than what Kansas is paying its analysts, who are support staff members whose duties include scouting opponents and breaking down film of practices and games. Patterson turned down Strong's request. Six of the eight analysts left for other jobs.

Before last season's game against UCLA, Strong requested a van to transport coaches' wives and children to AT&T Stadium in Arlington. Patterson turned down his request. In another controversial decision, Patterson ended the policy of offering coaches and other athletic department employees free meals at the team's dining hall. Coaches liked to eat at the training table to socialize with their players, but Patterson instituted a new policy that offered coaches 30 free meals per year and charged them $10 for each additional meal.

Strong also was left in the dark in mid-June when Patterson fired John Bianco, UT's associate athletic director for football media relations. Bianco, who had worked at UT for 23 years, was among Strong's most trusted confidants. After Bianco was fired, he was given five minutes to clean out his desk and retrieve personal files from his computer. Strong wasn't told of the decision until after Bianco was fired.

"[Bianco] was a total professional," Strong told the San Antonio Express-News. "He did a great job. I really miss him, because he was my guy. We meshed. Think about it, we were always together."

At least one UT employee believes Patterson didn't want his highest-profile coaches being stars or outshining the brand. In many ways, Patterson considered his coaches secondary employees in an industry in which most football and basketball coaches are the faces of their athletic departments and even their universities.

In May, about a month after Smart left Virginia Commonwealth University to become the Longhorns' new coach, employees from UT's marketing, communications and other creative departments coined a slogan they wanted plastered on billboards across the state. The message: "Be Strong. Be Smart. Be Texas."

But the climate of intimidation that Patterson had created, particularly around the idea of branding the athletic department, kept the campaign from happening. Without Patterson's knowledge, a couple of UT employees arranged for Smart and Strong to be secretly photographed in a studio in the north end zone of Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. The photographer, according to people familiar with the incident, feared Patterson would fire him for taking the photos.

Smaller incidents had previously sparked his wrath.

Before the Longhorns' 2014 season opener against North Texas, Strong's first game as UT's coach, a cameraman from the Longhorn Network was standing on a ladder near the north gate of Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. The cameraman was in position to film the "stadium stampede," the team's traditional entrance into the stadium before games.

After "Smokey the Cannon" is fired about two-and-a-half hours before kickoff, hundreds of fans gather to greet UT players and coaches when they arrive at the stadium on buses. On this particular day, Patterson noticed the Longhorn Network's cable lying on the ground and ordered it to be moved. A UT facilities employee moved the cable to the side.

After noticing the cable again, Patterson became angry, came back and yanked the cameraman off the ladder.

"That cable can't be here," Patterson told him, according to a university source who witnessed the incident. "You disobeyed my orders!"

Then he walked behind the cameraman, pushing him up the tunnel.

PERRIN SIGNED A one-year contact and said he will serve as interim AD for as long as needed. He told reporters on Wednesday that he "stands firmly behind our coaches." Perrin said he considered Strong a friend and met with Smart on Wednesday morning.

Perrin also knows that he has to mend some damaged relationships with top donors and other alumni.

"I do think it is important for me to be proactive with donors, fan bases and our student-athletes and their families," Perrin said. "It concerns me because if you get that kind of erosion it feeds on itself."

Of course, winning might be the best way for the Longhorns' wounds to heal. Since losing to Alabama 37-21 in the BCS National Championship at the Rose Bowl at the end of the 2009 season, UT has gone a mediocre 37-29. Each of former coach Mack Brown's last four teams lost at least four games, and Strong's program is already showing signs of distress in his second season.

After the Longhorns were blasted 38-3 at Notre Dame in their opener, Strong demoted co-offensive coordinators Shawn Watson and Joe Wickline and replaced them with wide receivers coach Jay Norvell. UT's offense showed signs of progress against the Owls last week but still has a long way to go.

"Texas will be Texas again," Dodds said. "It's all cyclical and it will be fixed, and Texas will be Texas. Football carries everything. When football wins, it solves a lot of problems."

When Brown resigned as football coach in December 2013, he talked of the factions behind Longhorns athletics.

"Since it's a diverse group that follows this team, you have to pull it all together," he said after meeting with Powers and Patterson and deciding to step aside. "It's like a box of BBs. The BBs are dropped all over the room, what you have to do is get the BBs back in the box."

Perrin's task now is to start gathering those BBs.

"It shows you that something that took years to build up can be torn down immediately," said a person familiar with the situation. "It's going to take a lot of work to build it back up. The good news is this has happened now. There are a lot of people here who are dedicated and hardworking. I have no doubt it can be rebuilt. It's going to take time, but it can be rebuilt."