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Texas’ athletics department did something no one saw coming. It tried to emulate Texas A&M

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The University of Texas athletics department delivered a curious message to employees on Sept. 1, 2020.

Even though everything is said to be bigger in Texas, the Longhorns made the case that they needed to get smaller by emulating a school they’ve long looked down upon – Texas A&M.

The UT athletics department called it a “comparative staffing analysis” – a series of numbers showing how Texas A&M appeared to be doing more with less. The Aggies served more student athletes (638) than Texas (556) but had fewer athletics department employees — 330 employees at A&M vs. 390 at UT, according to the analysis.

Texas presented this to employees that day before laying off 35 of them and eliminating 35 other vacant positions to help get expenses down amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The staff reduction was “required to stabilize the financial health of the department,” UT athletics director Chris Del Conte said in a message to supporters then.

Texas A&M fans celebrate beating Alabama on Saturday.
Texas A&M fans celebrate beating Alabama on Saturday.

The staffing analysis document was obtained by USA TODAY Sports recently as part of its examination into how athletics departments spoke of painful budget cuts during the pandemic but still continued to commit to raising football coaches’ pay.

In this case, the internal message addressed a topic that had been discussed in certain college sports circles for years – that Texas had an outsized staff. By contrast, Michigan also has about 400 employees but supports far more student athletes – more than 900.

The comparison also seemed out of character for Texas in at least three ways:

Since when did UT want to be like Texas A&M, its longtime “lesser” rival?

The Longhorns’ perceived arrogance has been a long-running theme in their feud. Texas leads the all-time series in football 76-37-5, though they haven’t played each other since 2011. Historically, Texas had a much larger enrollment than A&M throughout the 20th century, in part because A&M didn’t allow women to enroll until 1963. Now Texas A&M’s enrollment of about 65,000 at College Station is among the biggest in the nation, bigger than Texas with about 52,000 in Austin.

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See salaries for college football coaches through the years

“For years, there’s no question that because of the size of the schools, Texas was looked upon as the bigger school and the big brother,” former Aggies football coach Jackie Sherrill told USA TODAY Sports. “That’s no longer the case.”

If the Longhorns really wanted to imitate A&M, was this how they were going to do it – by shrinking staff size in a state where being bigger in everything is a point of pride?

An employee who saw the staffing comparison that day told USA TODAY Sports the message behind it was that Texas was similar to A&M as an athletics department — so then why does it need more staff? The person requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

In this regard, Del Conte could have deemed his staff to be too big and then used the budget situation as an opportunity to reallocate resources to align with future priorities. He declined an interview request through a spokesman.

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Unlike Texas, A&M did not have layoffs or pay cuts last year in athletics despite shortened seasons and limited tickets sales during the pandemic.

“We are trying to be the best athletics department we can be for Texas A&M,” A&M athletics director Ross Bjork said of the comparison via a spokesman. “No need to compare to others.”

Was oil-rich Texas really playing the poverty card?

Texas ranked as the richest public-school athletics department in the nation with $224 million in revenue in 2018-19. A&M ranked second at $213 million.

On the day of department layoffs last year, Del Conte said that the layoffs, job reductions and other pay cuts would save the department $13.1 million.

Then he fired football coach Tom Herman and his staff four months later – a move projected to cost nearly $25 million in contract buyout costs after they posted a 7-3 record last year, including a 55-23 win in the Alamo Bowl. To replace him, Texas gave new coach Steve Sarkisian a $34.2 million contract over six years.

A UT spokesman said he didn’t have any data to share on whether any employment positions were restored.

Sarkisian’s record so far is 4-2. A&M also is 4-2 under coach Jimbo Fisher.

After playing each other in football every year from 1915 to 2011, the two programs parted ways when the Aggies left the Longhorns and the Big 12 Conference to join the Southeastern Conference.

But the rivalry soon will resume after the Longhorns decided they wanted to be like the Aggies in another important way – by announcing they were leaving the Big 12 to join A&M in the SEC no later than 2025.

Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: bschrotenb@usatoday.com

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Texas Longhorns athletics wanted to be more like rival Texas A&M

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