Texas internal struggles hover over AD search

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Associated Press

Posted on October 8, 2013 at 1:32 PM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 9 at 5:32 AM

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The University of Texas' search for a new athletic director comes at a rocky time for the school, which has been embroiled in a tumultuous tug-of-war between President Bill Powers and the Board of Regents.

Powers has been fighting attempts by several regents to force him out for nearly two years and holds only a slim majority of support from a board that has shown a willingness to meddle in the school's football program.

Given that struggle, will the regents want to play a role in finding a leader for the richest athletic program in the country, with an annual budget of nearly $170 million? And will Powers' fight for his own job scare off top candidates?

Chuck Neinas, the former acting commissioner of the Big 12 Conference who has had a longtime association with Texas and outgoing athletic director DeLoss Dodds, predicted the money behind the Texas program will draw top candidates, regardless of the power struggle.

"Where's a better job?" Neinas said. "What's the biggest responsibility an athletic director has today? Money. That's not a worry at Texas... It's like going to the University of Heaven."

Powers has said he'll lead the search to replace Dodds, who will step in late 2014 after 32 years. But Powers also said he'll consult with board Chairman Paul Foster and the board's athletic liaisons, regents Steve Hicks and Robert Stillwell.

Foster, Hicks and Stillwell all said Powers should be allowed to make the hire and the board's only role should be ratifying the contract.

"It's exclusively in the campus with the president's office," Stillwell said. "President Powers can handle this on his own."

But even Powers suggested the regents could be involved at some level. Serious candidates will likely want to meet with school leaders, including regents, Powers said.

"I'd want their views," Powers said. "Any candidate would."

Powers planned to talk with Foster, Hicks and Stillwell this week about the job search and predicted there will be many candidates. Powers said there's no immediate deadline but said a "month or two" is a reasonable target to make a hire.

"We'll hire a great athletic director," Powers said.

Powers has been president of the 50,000-student campus since 2006 and is popular with alumni, students and faculty, but his relationship with the board has been tense. Powers has clashed with Gov. Rick Perry and several board members over tuition rates, the roles of teaching and research and graduation rates among other issues.

The clash has spilled into the state Legislature, which has supported Powers. The state House has begun an impeachment investigation of Regent Wallace Hall.

State senators pushed Foster and the two newest regents, Jeff Hildebrand and Ernest Aliseda, to commit they wouldn't initiate any move to fire Powers before their appointments were approved, warning them "all hell would break loose" if they did.

But even against that backdrop, regents "have to play a substantial role" in finding a new athletic director, said Thomas Lindsay, a higher education expert at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank influential with state Republicans and Powers' critics. The foundation includes Regent Brenda Pejovich as a board member.

"It's too important not to," Linsdsay said. "You're talking about a $170 million program, the Texas brand and the biggest public relations arm of the university."

Regents have shown a strong interest in getting involved in athletics.

Last month, The Associated Press reported that Hall and prominent former regent Tom Hicks, spoke by telephone in January with the agent for Alabama coach Nick Saban to gauge Saban's interest in replacing Texas coach Mack Brown. The call took place after Texas had a nine-win season and Alabama had won its third national championship in four years.

While the call with Saban's agent was set up through Hall, Tom Hicks had been asked to join by his brother, regent Steve Hicks, who is one of Powers' strongest allies on the board. Hall and Tom Hicks considered the call with Saban's agent promising enough that Brown was approached two days later about retiring. Brown refused.

The meeting with Saban's agent was done without Powers being notified. Lawyers for the board later issued a statement that Powers "should have been notified."

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