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Sports can ‘change your life’

SANTA FE, N.M. — When the University of Texas introduced Chris Del Conte as its new vice president and athletic director last week, it placed one of northern New Mexico’s own at the top of one the NCAA’s highest profile sports departments.

Del Conte, born and raised in Taos and who lived a number of years in the tiny village of San Cristobal, assumes control of a department that spent $171 million on its 20 sports team in 2016, while generating $188 million in revenue during the year.

“This is the University of Texas. The standard of collegiate athletics starts here,” Del Conte said last week in his introductory news conference. “That’s why you come here. Because when you’re at the University of Texas, your opportunity to win a championship is no greater than here. That’s why I’m here.”

Naturally, Del Conte grew up playing sports and eventually attended first Oregon State then UC Santa Barbara on track scholarships, earning a bachelor’s degree in sociology, then a master’s in education, administration and supervision from Washington State.

“I did football, basketball, track,” he said of his high school days. “That was back in the day when you played every sport.”

A fond memory he recalled was when the Tigers basketball team in 1983 beat the loaded St. Pius squad that included Joe Harge and his brother, Ira Hodge Jr., now the head boys basketball coach of defending 3A state champion Pecos.

“In northern New Mexico, basketball in a lot of small towns is important,” Del Conte said in a phone interview. “Small town sports means something big to them. PeƱasco, Questa. In the little, small towns in the middle of nowhere, basketball is key. Basketball in northern New Mexico has a special place in the heart of the local community.”

Del Conte grew up on a small ranch his parents had converted into a children’s foster home, mingling with 85 kids of disparate backgrounds. Sports was a way everybody was able to connect.

“Growing up on the ranch, there were many different kids from many different walks of life,” Del Conte said. “And to be socially outgoing and what gives you acceptance was to do something on the playing fields. Sports was able to provide me the ability to meet friends in town, become socially accepted. It’s just a big part of my life.”

The Longhorns gig is the culmination of a steady rise through the ranks of college athletic administration posts. Del Conte served as assistant athletics director for external operations at both Cal Poly (1994-98) and Washington State (1998-99) before landing the position of associate athletic director at Arizona. From there, Del Conte was the athletic director of Rice before moving on to TCU, which he helped transform into an athletic and academic powerhouse.

“My philosophy is simple,” Del Conte said in his opening remarks on getting the Texas gig. “My job is to support coaches and student-athletes in their endeavors to win championships, period. That is it. I have a reverse pyramid. I am a servant leader. My father taught me three things. My father passed away, but he was a servant leader. Started a children’s home. I was very fortunate to grow up in that environment. Be humble, be honest and serve others.”

And sports can have an incredible bearing on life, he said.

“Sports to me can have a greater impact for a social movement,” Del Conte said. “Think back to Jesse Owens in 1936, Wilma Rudolph, Billie Jean King, all these things. Integration of football at Alabama. Sports has played a big part.”

And playing sports in college is something to be cherished, he added.

“Competition is phenomenal and, on a bigger scale, it’s part of so many things that infuse your social being,” Del Conte said. “That’s why I got involved. Outside of the GI bill, a college scholarship provides more opportunities to students to go to college for free. Through sports, you can change your life. One or two percent become pro. And 98 percent get a college degree.”

It’s quite heady stuff for a kid from northern New Mexico.

“I grew up in a children’s home with 85 kids on a ranch,” Del Conte said. “From where I grew up, I never thought I would be here. I was just trying to get myself to (New Mexico) Highlands. I wasn’t even thinking about University of Texas. I never would have thought about this.”