Gary Patterson feels he’s done an “unbelievable job” in less than a year.
His predecessor, Chris Del Conte, has no doubt that TCU athletics is “in great hands.”
And a former boss, super agent Leigh Steinberg, says the university is going to be “happy for years and years to come.”
Jeremiah Donati has made a quick and favorable impression in his first months as TCU’s athletics director. It’s easy to see why, too, as Donati enters his first full school year as the man students and alums already refer to as “ADJD.”
Donati has the east side premium seating project fully funded and scheduled to be ready for the 2019 football season at Amon G. Carter Stadium. He’s created a 16-member executive committee to better position TCU going forward.
He’s prioritized retaining coaches such as Patterson, Jamie Dixon and Jim Schlossnagle. And he’s created a new promotion in which every fan at every home football game receives a free Pepsi product.
Saturday’s season opener couldn’t have been more special for Donati.
“I’ve always dreamt about the day that I would be fortunate, or hopefully fortunate enough, to be the AD in that stadium,” Donati said. “In my seven years working at TCU, it was one of the best first games we’ve had. With regard to the team, I was really excited about our speed and toughness and think we have the potential to be pretty good this year.”
As far as himself being more recognizable in his relatively new role, Donati said: “Yeah, since I’ve been AD, a lot more people recognize me and are pointing me out. One kid asked for my autograph, which I thought was funny. But I don’t look at it differently. I’m here to work on game days. I was troubleshooting and problem solving during the game, but a lot of familiar faces congratulated me on the first home win. It was fun and it’s something I’ll never forget.”
Donati only sees brighter days ahead for the Frogs. He is a young, energetic leader who has visions of how to best position TCU for future success.
From TV contracts to conference alignment to game-day promotions, Donati understands the future demands in college sports and what must happen for TCU to remain relevant.
It starts with the product on the field. Donati couldn’t have walked into a better situation with established veteran coaches in the main three sports — football, men’s basketball and baseball.
“If you compare those three to any other three in the country, I’d say unquestionable we’ve got the three best,” Donati said. “I wouldn’t trade them for anybody. All three sports were ranked in the Top 10 at some point last year — only school in the country. Little ol’ TCU.
“Look at teams like the Ohio State’s, USC’s, Texas’, Clemson’s, Alabama’s … we’re the only school that did that. It says a lot about the quality of coaches and student-athletes we have here.
“Our secret sauce, if you will, has been hiring coaches and retaining coaches.”
In other words, Donati is not going to fall into a trap some new ADs do — firing a high-profile coach and bringing in their own just to “leave a mark.”
Instead, Donati appreciates what he has at the school and went on to praise the lesser-known coaches on board. He mentioned women’s basketball coach Raegan Pebley, women’s soccer coach Eric Bell, volleyball coach Jill Kramer, tennis coach David Roditi, swimming and diving coach James Winchester and rifle coach Karen Monez as some of the top coaches in their respective sports.
That’s not to say Donati isn’t prepared to make a high-profile hire. Schlossnagle flirted with Mississippi State after last season before opting to stay at TCU.
Patterson has been rumored as a potential candidate for different jobs over the years, and Dixon should be on schools’ radars as a consistent winner.
But Donati views his job as making TCU so attractive and enjoyable that those coaches won’t want to bolt anytime soon.
“I don’t feel pressure to make some huge hire to make some kind of statement about my tenure here,” Donati said. “I don’t get too caught up in how it’ll look for me. If and when that opportunity comes, it’ll be exciting, but hopefully it doesn’t come too soon because that’d mean we’re losing one of them. I don’t see that happening any time real soon.
“But I understand it is a business and I understand our coaches have families and they’ve got to look out for themselves. I tell them, ‘If an opportunity arises that is better for you and better for your family, I’ll be the first to shake your hand and give you a hug and put in a good word.’ But it’s my job to make this place a place you don’t want to leave. Hopefully we never have that conversation.”
Groomed to be AD
Donati has always been around sports. He spent his childhood walking the halls of Washington State’s athletics department where his late father, Richard, served as a team physician.
He went on to play college basketball at the University of Puget Sound. He earned a law degree from Whittier College in Southern California, a school best known as President Richard Nixon’s alma mater.
His jobs before becoming “ADJD” included fundraising positions with the TCU Frog Club, the University of Arizona Wildcat Club, Washington State University Cougar Athletic Fund and the Cal Poly University Mustang Club.
He spent time working for Leigh Steinberg Sports and Entertainment, representing NFL players and ADs such as — you guessed it — Del Conte.
In fact, Del Conte is a big brother-like figure for Donati. Del Conte lived in a children’s home where Donati’s father, Richard, served as a house parent.
The bond between the two families goes back decades.
“Outside of me getting married and my kids being born, the greatest day for me was when I was named the AD at Texas and Jeremiah was named the AD at TCU a couple hours later,” Del Conte said. “When his father was passing, he told me, ‘Take care of my boy, Jeremiah.’ I said, ‘I got it chief.’ That day, when we both became ADs, was a surreal moment for me just because of all the things we’ve been through.
“TCU is in great hands. He’s a great leader. He’s an unbelievable person.”
Del Conte went on to say that Donati inherited the best of his parents’ genes.
“He gets his fashion and panache from his mom,” Del Conte said, “And his critical mind from his dad. He’s the perfect blend.”
Steinberg echoed similar thoughts from his time working with Donati. Steinberg, who inspired the movie Jerry Maguire, runs his practice with an eye toward creating and developing new ideas for the ever-changing sports world.
“If there’s a solution no one else is trying in college sports, it won’t matter to Jeremiah,” Steinberg said. “He was ahead in understanding sports medicine. He’s the sort of person I could sit and talk about concussion solutions, whether it’s helmets or changing the way people block and tackle. He will not be rigid in his response. If it makes sense to him, he may come up with a new way to address that at TCU.
“But he won’t push a losing idea just out of pride to the end. He’s got flexibility in his personality. If he could see something is not working, even if he helped set it up, he would put being effective before pride of authorship.”
Donati is already showing signs of his forward-thinking mindset with the restructuring of the athletics department to create an executive committee. Social media ranked as the No. 1 reason behind it.
To Donati, content is king these days and he understands TCU has to generate its own given today’s media landscape. The restructure largely focused on providing a digital creative services team that does everything from graphics to videos to branded content.
“It helps in recruiting, it helps attract new fans and really paints our programs in a positive light,” Donati said. “Every day, whether it’s football all the way down to rifle or track, they’ve all got creative needs. That was a strategic move to really arm every sport with things that are going to help their programs.
“In today’s age, nobody has time to watch a 4.5-minute video. It has to be a 15-second clip or quick graphic with a lot of high points. You have people’s attention for 15 seconds, so you can’t miss.”
Count Patterson among those on board with Donati’s vision for the athletics department. Patterson knows the importance of adapting to today’s society.
Patterson is among the more active football coaches on social media, constantly updating his Twitter and Instagram feeds.
“If you want to have longevity and you want the program to move, you have to envision what those next generations are going to be like,” Patterson said. “Jeremiah has a younger perspective. From what I can see right now, he’s done an unbelievable job up to this point.”
Future of sports
A hot-button topic that Donati gets asked about frequently: How’s the Big 12 going to survive when the conference’s TV deals with ESPN and FOX come up in 2024-25?
Some believe that an online giant with streaming services such as Amazon, Google or Netflix could become players for live sports rights; others believe it’ll be a more traditional TV deal as we’ve seen in the past with the highest-bidding network winning them.
Donati is aware of all the possibilities, but is keeping an eye on one major development in the business world.
“This AT&T/Time Warner merger, I’ve got my eyes on that,” Donati said. “If that does go through, that paves the way for potentially a lot of other big multimedia deals that could be significant players going forward.
“I don’t think ESPN is going anywhere. I don’t think FOX is going anywhere. But can you imagine if there was another huge ... who is to say AT&T couldn’t be a player? So we’ll just kind of see in the next few years.”
Donati pointed to the Big Ten and Pac-12 TV contracts being up before the Big 12’s, as well as MLB and NBA. How those contracts shake out should give an indication as to what’s in store for the Big 12.
“The value is not going to go backwards because there’s only so much content,” Donati said. “Live sports really are king in this country, so I certainly don’t anticipate there being major hiccups in selling the rights to Big 12, really talking football and basketball, but we’ll see.”
One thing Donati doesn’t expect is another conference realignment frenzy when the current TV deals run up. He believes the Big 12 is as strong and united as it’s been in at least a decade.
Donati and the rest of the athletics directors feel the conference is in better shape by having a round-robin schedule in football, and a home-and-home series in basketball.
So the only way the conference would expand is if the right school became available.
“If there was a partner that made sense, we would’ve expanded, but those partner or partners didn’t seem like an ideal fit,” Donati said. “I think we’re totally content with 10. Selfishly that means TCU and every other member institution gets a bigger piece of the distribution.”
Donati went back to the importance of the east side project for TCU. This is a school that has to continue to show its commitment to football and facilities in order to justify being in a Power Five conference.
“My predecessor [Del Conte] liked to say when we were in the Mountain West, we were the New York Yankees,” Donati said. “We moved to the Big 12 and we were the Oakland A’s, so we’ve done a lot of things the past three, four years to raise our overall budget.
“We don’t have a huge margin for error because we don’t have a 100,000-seat stadium. So we have to find creative ways to increase our revenue. The east side project is not just for football.
“The money from that project, the revenue it generates, will support all of our programs. It’s not just a football project. You know, Gary can’t sit in those suites during the game. The players aren’t sitting in those suites. They’re on the sidelines and playing. So it’s really about ways to invite people back to the university and to send a statement that we’re serious about our commitment to football, our commitment to facilities.”
There’s no mistaken Donati’s passion for college sports when he’s talking about these sorts of projects and how it’ll impact the future of TCU for the better. He believes TCU is building a brand that will draw interest from around the area and country.
But he isn’t taking anything for granted. You have to be proactive in this competitive of a market and industry.
“You still have to convince a lot of your fans and a lot of people that it’s a good value to come and make their Saturday at a TCU football game,” Donati said. “It’s not lost on us — you’ve got to fight for those fans.
“I still believe that you can’t replicate live sports whether you’re sitting at a TV or a sports bar or wherever, there are very few things in life short of maybe the birth of a child or your own wedding day, that gives you that natural feeling, exhilaration of being at a live sports event and having your team winning.
“I’ve never been around anything that competes with that, so I’m a big believer in that.”
Donati is also a big believer in TCU and Fort Worth. He’s told his confidants nothing but good things since coming to town in 2011, and very well could have a lengthy tenure as the eighth AD in school history.
“He loves Fort Worth and takes pride in it,” Steinberg said. “Fort Worth is one of those places, like Oakland or Long Beach, that traditionally sits in the shadow of Dallas, but Jeremiah is a very vocal proponent of the lifestyle in Fort Worth.
“It’s not like TCU found someone who is going to be a hired henchman, jumping from job to job. If he likes it, he could be in for a long run.”
History of TCU athletics directors
Howard Grubbs (1938-50)
Dutch Meyer (1950-63)
Abe Martin (1963-75)
Frank Windegger (1975-97)
Eric Hyman (1998-05)
Danny Morrison (2005-09)
Chris Del Conte (2009-17)
Jeremiah Donati (2017-present)