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Steve Patterson's fall shows college ADs can't be all business

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Uneasy relationships partial cause of Texas AD's ouster (6:05)

The dismissal of Texas AD Steve Patterson had been in the works for some time according to ESPN.com Big 12 reporter Max Olson. Courtesy - Longhorn Network (6:05)

Parsing through the University of Texas athletics budget, Steve Patterson spied $250,000 dedicated to the school's band. A quarter of a million dollars for a band seemed rather excessive, so as part of a budget fat-trimming spree, Patterson slashed the money dedicated to the Longhorn Band.

From a purely business standpoint, it wasn't a bad decision.

And that, in effect, was Patterson's undoing. College athletics may be a big business, but they still can't be treated that way.

The whole notion of "be true to your school" is as outdated as a letterman's sweater, but the roots of those feelings are still strong enough among fans and, more critically, among coaches that they need to be respected and massaged.

Patterson alienated fans by raising ticket prices and courting football games in Mexico City instead of College Station -- and worse, alienated his own department by treating staff members as corporate drones instead of coaches.

Asked to describe the mood within the athletic department on Tuesday, one staff member texted back, 'Words can't describe ... ecstatic.'

But Patterson's dismissal is merely emblematic of a bigger problem in college athletics: namely, what exactly is an athletic director's priority? Is he or she supposed to print money or wave a pompom?

The answer would seem to be both; winding up the money press with the right while leading cheers with the left.

"A lot has changed about being an athletic director, but one thing hasn't and that's you have be able to check your ego at the door," Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis said. "You've got coaches who are paid a lot of money these days, a board of directors, faculty, a president, media, student-athletes, parents, and they all have a voice and they all have an extremely important voice. But you also have to understand the perspective they are coming from and then figure out how to take those voice and point them in the same direction."

If it's not impossible, it would often seem to be mutually exclusive. You can't make money if every decision comes with a tug of the heartstrings, a longing for yesteryear and an ardent wish to never change how things are done.

Yet you can't succeed in modern college athletics if every choice is dictated by the stagnant pull of tradition.

In the good ol' days, an athletic director was an ex-coach who was kicked upstairs to a cushy office gig upon retirement. He or she (though more often than not he) was beloved and trusted, an institution as much as the institution that he served. He had a handy Rolodex of contacts, most of them ex-coaches like himself, if and when he needed to find a new hire, and was on good terms with the old-boy network of boosters. Things hummed along smoothly, even if they didn't change so much.

That, frankly, was Patterson's predecessor. DeLoss Dodds graduated from Kansas State University and was a former quarter-miler. His first job was as track coach at his alma mater; his second, the school's athletic director. In 1981, he moved on to Texas and for 32 years did what was, by all accounts, an admirable job running the department.

But when he retired, the school wanted a new vibe.

That didn't make Texas unique. Recognizing the ever-expanding role for an AD, one that includes reaching into growing markets; developing unique licensing agreements; and, above all else, managing and hopefully making millions of dollars for the department and thereby the school, plenty of universities have moved away from the old-guard regime.

In a world that seemingly changes by the minute and communicates even more quickly, an old coach-turned-AD seems about as relevant as a rotary phone.

So in came Patterson, whose college administrative experience consisted of just 18 months at Arizona State. Most of his background was in the pro ranks, as a general manager and consultant.

He's the new guard, a businessman first, a college guy second. He's "innovative" and "forward-thinking," and very good at running a business.

The new guard doesn't have the Rolodex, but relies instead on disinterested third-party search firms to hire folks (Texas used a search firm to hire Patterson, it should be noted), using data analysis and computer-generated information rather than intuition and the telephone to seek out new staff members.

"If you come into this as a successful businessperson or an attorney, that doesn't always play to the coaches, to the donors," Hollis said. "That's not to say those are bad people or that they've made bad decisions but intercollegiate athletics is unlike anything else out there. ... Every day I will talk to a coach, a board member, a booster, a fan, a donor, a student-athlete. Every day. If I'm the CEO of Plante Moran I don't necessarily have that sort of interaction, nor do I need to. But as an athletic director, it's imperative to understand that you have to talk to those people every day."

The new guard thinks outside the box. Why worry about playing a game in College Station against an old rival when the Texas "brand" can be delivered worldwide? Because branding makes money; playing in College Station doesn't.

And that -- making money -- is really the mission, either indirectly inferred or directly spelled out from the higher-ups. Without the decades-old ties, the new guard can look at the books with a fresh eye. The Rice band shouldn't get free tickets to play at Texas. Free tickets equates to lost revenue. Coaches shouldn't be able to eat for free at the training table all season long. Meals cost money.

So Patterson made those changes. He slashed the band budget, charged Rice for its musicians' tickets, told coaches there was no such thing as a free meal (or at least not an endless supply of them) ... and now he's unemployed, his polished oxfords walking the same path as Dave Brandon, another innovative businessman took at the University of Michigan.

Namely, out the door.

And now 22 months after hiring Patterson, Texas has another "Help wanted" sign on its athletic director's door, and perhaps a more critical hire than it did when replacing Dodds.

There are plenty of places to look for examples of people who get it right on both sides. Hollis, for example, hasn't been afraid to take risks. He created a basketball game on a battleship and an ice hockey game in a football stadium. Yet as both an alum and athletic-administration lifer, he understands the importance of human relations, tradition and heritage as well as anyone.

Joe Castiglione has kept Oklahoma churning, becoming an important voice in college athletics, but the Sooners really haven't changed their identity. Ohio State is bigger and better under Gene Smith, yet unchanged in its philosophy.

And Jack Swarbrick is as steeped in tradition as anyone in college athletics, but anyone who thinks Notre Dame is stodgy and stagnant hasn't been paying attention.

The common denominator among them all?

Each is in charge of multimillion-dollar businesses.

They just don't act like businessmen.