Unique upbringing and ‘larger than life’ dad helped shape TCU’s Chris Del Conte

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Whenever he’s needed it, TCU athletic director Chris Del Conte has leaned on the values he learned from his parents, especially his father, Robert Del Conte.

In less than four years at TCU, he has helped usher in a $164 million renovation to Amon G. Carter Stadium, added a world-class weight room and new football locker rooms and announced a $45 million renovation plan for Daniel-Meyer Coliseum.

He has done it all with a panache that has often overshadowed his genuine connection with the TCU community. He responds to emails and calls from fans worried about seating, parking and concessions. No problem is too small; no person is insignificant.

Chris Del Conte’s father taught him this.

And it has served him well.

From Big East to Big 12

It was September 2011 and the fate of TCU athletics was hanging in the balance.

Syracuse and Pittsburgh had just announced they were leaving the Big East, the conference TCU was set to join the following summer. Del Conte, who had helped set the wheels in motion to get TCU into the Big East the previous year, was in the biggest crisis of his professional career. Meanwhile, Texas A&M had bolted from the Big 12, creating a swirl of anxious fretting among Big 12 schools about the future of the league.

Del Conte and TCU Chancellor Victor Boschini were in a bind: They wanted to honor the school’s commitment to the Big East, but they also were trying to make sure TCU wasn’t entering a conference teetering on collapse.

“It just started unraveling upon us,” Del Conte said. “My responsibility was to TCU, so we set out to really make sure we got ourselves in position.”

Position for what? That wasn’t clear as late September turned into early October. In case the Big 12 was interested in expansion, Del Conte and his staff went on the offensive, reaching out to TCU connections — big-time donors, graduates and friends — who might have the chance to whisper TCU’s bona fides in the ears of league presidents.

After a couple of weeks of rumors, threats and posturing, it became clear that Texas and Oklahoma, the pillars of the Big 12, were committed to staying with the league. Oklahoma President David Boren, his son a graduate of TCU, touted the Horned Frogs as a good fit. Texas coach Mack Brown publicly said that regional rivalries were important.

But TCU’s eventual move to the Big 12 was anything but a sure thing when Del Conte and Jeremiah Donati, a newcomer to the staff, decided to drive to Austin on Tuesday, Oct. 4.

Del Conte wanted a chance to speak with longtime Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds, a national power broker. Armed with a stack of binders touting TCU’s athletics, academics and location, Del Conte wanted to lay out to Dodds all the reasons the Big 12 should consider his school.

But three things were working against him.

• The TCU football team had just lost to SMU at home three days before and was 3-2.

• Del Conte barely knew Dodds.

• Del Conte arrived at Dodds’ office around 1 p.m. without a scheduled meeting.

Dodds was finally free to meet around 3 p.m. and he quickly whisked Del Conte away to the Headliners Club, a private club located on the 21st floor of the NNN Chase Tower in downtown Austin.

While Del Conte pushed TCU’s story, Dodds wanted to know more about Del Conte.

“Talk about you,” Dodds said. So that’s what Del Conte did.

“We talked about everything you could imagine,” Del Conte said. “I started talking about growing up and how we lived.”

The two talked for four hours. When the dinner was over, Del Conte had no idea where TCU stood. Donati arrived to pick him up and asked how the meeting went.

“Either that was the best meeting ever or that guy’s full of it,” Del Conte said.

On the drive back to Fort Worth, Del Conte continued to work the phones, calling every athletic director in the conference — some were longtime friends, others, like Dodds, he hardly knew.

The next day, the league’s athletic directors held a conference call about expansion. During the meeting, Oklahoma AD Joe Castiglione, texted Del Conte, “I don’t know what you did, but it worked.”

Early on Thursday, Oct. 6, Del Conte received a call from interim Big 12 commissioner Chuck Neinas.

“Welcome home,” Neinas said.

A father’s legacy

Communicating comes naturally to Del Conte.

His ability to connect with just about anyone, to remembering names, faces and details of strangers, is becoming legendary since he arrived on TCU’s campus from Rice in November 2009.

To understand where he learned those skills, look no further than his upbringing and the enduring legacy of his father.

His father, Robert, whose parents were Italian immigrants, and his mother, Michele, met in 1965 while they were aid workers helping children in Mexico.

“They wondered, ‘Why are we doing this in Mexico? Let’s go do this in the United States,’” Del Conte said.

So, with little money, they started their own home for foster children on a 147-acre ranch — San Felipe del Rio — near Taos, N.M. That’s where Chris, now 45, and his two younger siblings, sister Belisa and brother David, grew up — with hundreds of foster children they called “brothers and sisters,” including three who were adopted.

Kids of all ages, races and religions came to live there. Each child’s culture and religion were celebrated — and the Del Conte kids were part of the celebration.

“It was a very multicultural kind of upbringing,” said Michele, Del Conte’s mother. “We didn’t have any guidelines or somebody who had done this before to say, ‘Oh, don’t worry, this is all going to turn out fine.’ So we wondered along the way if it was going to turn out fine. We decided, well, maybe they’ll all get to be 21 or 22 and say, ‘Thanks a lot. That was the worst ride we ever had!’”

But the children, including Chris, all look back on the experience as a wonderful foundation for living life. Belisa, 40, who lives with her Navy SEAL husband and their four kids near her mother in Southern California, said being socially awkward wasn’t an option.

“From a young age, we all had to be good at speaking with adults as well as whoever came in the house,” she said. “It was sort of our job to be there to make their stay more comfortable. Like, ‘You’re going to be my new best friend.’ That’s something Christopher is very good at because he has done it his whole life.”

Patrick Del Conte, who was adopted by the family, said his parents’ influence of helping those less fortunate carried into the kids’ professional lives. He is the director of a UCLA program that helps people suffering from mental illness live on their own.

The Del Contes’ father “had a huge impact on who Chris is, who all of us are, for that matter,” Patrick said. “That’s who [Robert Del Conte] was. The ability to care about other people across the board. He brought the best out of everybody. Chris has that innate ability to relate to many, many people, just like my dad. Chris is open to everyone, just like my dad. His door was open to everybody, and he accepted people for who they were and loved everybody. Whoever he was around, his spirit was infectious.”

Sharp-dressed man

Chris Del Conte’s charm and friendliness are not the only things he’s famous for around TCU.

It’s also his style.

Since he arrived on campus, Del Conte has showcased an impressive collection of tailor-made, one-of-a-kind, three-piece suits that suggest Wall Street more than Stadium Drive. While working as an associate AD at Arizona from 2000-06, Del Conte became an investor in Franklin’s Men’s Clothing. The name has changed to George’s, but Del Conte still has clothes shipped periodically to Fort Worth.

“My wife says I never got a dime out of my investment,” Del Conte jokes. “But I wear my investment.”

Even when Del Conte is not in a three-piece suit, his leisure attire, with matching shirts, shorts and socks, would put most men — and some women — to shame.

“His father loved clothes; he always looked immaculate,” his mother, Michele, said. “Christopher likes to blame the whole thing on his father, but he has been a clothes horse since the day he was born.”

While growing up on the ranch, the foster kids and the Del Conte kids would get five sets of new outfits before the school year started.

“They already had strikes against them,” Michele said. “You don’t walk into a new school looking shabby, because then you’re going to be picked on even more because of the fact that they were ‘ranchers.’ We wanted them to blend in and look as good as any other kids.”

Robert Del Conte was big on appearances and being well-manicured went along with dressing nicely.

“The first thing people are going to see is your appearance,” said Del Conte, echoing his dad’s advice. “Always look your best. Always, always. You represent something more than yourself.”

A family tragedy

The last time Chris Del Conte saw his father alive was Sept. 30, 2000.

Arizona, where he was an associate AD, was playing at Stanford and his parents drove up from their home in San Luis Obispo, Calif., about three hours south.

It was a lucky break that Robert Del Conte was even in the country at the time. He had had been working with refugees around the world since he and Michele created the San Felipe Humanitarian Alliance in the late ’80s. He had recently returned home after helping organize relief efforts for Kosovo refugees in Albania.

But three weeks later, on a rainy evening, he offered a bicyclist a ride home. It was a habit of his to help those in need, despite pleas from Michele about safety.

He had helped all his life, whether it was neglected children, refugees, the homeless, a hitchhiker or a man on a bike in the rain. But on Oct. 25, 2000, the man Robert Del Conte tried to help, murdered him and stole his car. Robert Watson, a former foster kid himself, was arrested two days later and is still in prison.

Belisa had just seen her dad four days earlier when he met her two eventual stepchildren. She and her husband also have two daughters now.

“I totally saw how it was going to be like,” she said. “All he ever wanted was to be a grandpa. He used to say, ‘When I’m a grandpa, I’m going to spoil your kids rotten and send them back to you.’ I try to keep him alive for them so they understand who he was and what he did and how he lived his life.

“The one thing he taught all of us is we need to care about things that don’t concern us. That we’re supposed to care when somebody is starving on the other side of the world. We’re supposed to care about the women in the abuse shelter. That’s our job. It’s our duty. It’s our responsibility.”

Watson’s DNA matched with a cold case more than a decade old, and he eventually confessed to raping and killing a young mother acting as his foster parent.

“I know if my dad had the choice, he’d do it all over again,” Belisa said. “They waited 20 years for it, and that family finally got closure. No matter how much it destroyed us inside, because he got to give somebody else something they wouldn’t have gotten.”

More than 350 people attended Robert Del Conte’s funeral at Morro Bay, Calif., including more than 25 former foster kids from the ranch in New Mexico.

“It’s something I live with every day,” Chris Del Conte said. “You don’t expect in life for that to happen.”

The kids keep his memory alive in their own way. David Del Conte, the family’s youngest son, does humanitarian work with the United Nations. Wherever they find themselves in the world, he and Chris try to build a house, clinic or school in their father’s memory.

“I cherish the fact that he gave to me all the tools necessary to embrace life and be helpful and try to serve humanity the best I can,” said Chris Del Conte, who’s been married to Robin for 14 years and has two daughters, ages 10 and 12.

“If there was an interest, he would make it happen,” Belisa said of Robert Del Conte. “We didn’t always have the money to do something, but he would find another way for us to do whatever it was we wanted to do. That’s why he was larger than life. Because no matter what, it was like, ‘Oh, I can do that for you.’ If we didn’t think it was possible, he would make it possible. That’s Christopher today. He’s like, ‘Sure we can!’ When you say, ‘No,’ he responds, ‘Really? Watch me.’”

Stefan Stevenson, 817-390-7760 Twitter: @FollowtheFrogs

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