While the naming of Jeremiah Donati to TCU athletics came as a surprise to some, he’s been learning about college athletics under former athletic director Chris Del Conte for more than 20 years. In fact, their longtime friendship was what first brought Donati to Fort Worth in 2011.
After Del Conte was named athletic director at the University of Texas at Austin in December, TCU quickly tapped Donati to take over the job.
Donati said he’s thankful for Del Conte’s mentorship and making him go beyond what his job entailed.
“Chris always put more on my plate than what my job responsibilities suggested,” Donati said. “I was always doing more than what the HR department would tell you I’m here to do, and I’m forever indebted to him for that.”
The friendship between Donati and Del Conte extends well beyond their professional lives– their families have been tied for decades.
“When Jeremiah’s father was passing away a few years ago, his last conversation with me was to say make sure you take care of my boy,” Del Conte said. “I was happy to do that, but I haven’t taken care of Jeremiah– he’s taken care of me my whole life… He’s one of the greatest individuals I personally know. I love him dearly.”
TCU Chancellor Victor Boschini said Donati’s work at TCU speaks for itself.
“[Donati was the] first and only choice just because I’ve watched him over the past five or six years,” Boschini said. “I’ve seen him grow and develop the skills necessary to do the jobs. He’s a great people-person. He knows athletics. He’s a good fundraiser and friend-raiser.”
Donati’s first conversation with Del Conte came at age 12 when Donati’s father took him to watch his friend Robert Del Conte’s son, Chris, do high jump at a track meet at Washington State.
“He was this ball of energy coming at me,” Donati said. “I didn’t know this guy, but he knew my dad from his time on the ranch. He puts me in a headlock– first interaction– and immediately develops a nickname for me, ‘J-Man,’ which to this day he still calls me.”
Del Conte’s family ran a children’s home on a 147-acre ranch in Taos, New Mexico. Robert Del Conte met Donati’s father, Dr. Richard Donati, when he was just out of medical school and looking for a place to stay. Robert Del Conte invited Richard Donati to live at the ranch in exchange for providing basic medical care for the foster children.
“My dad jumped at the chance,” Donati said.
Donati’s father would later become team doctor for Washington State and the University of Idaho.
When Chris Del Conte was looking into graduate school programs, he contacted Dr. Donati.
Dr. Donati helped Del Conte get a graduate assistant position in Washington State’s athletic department.
That’s when “J-Man,” who was in high school, and Chris grew close.
“Chris is nine years older than me,” Donati said. “He’s always been like an older brother– at least when we were that age.”
As Del Conte moved up in his career, he always made a way for Donati.
“He goes off and gets his first job at Cal Poly,” Donati said. “He hired me for summers where I would come down and work in the development and marketing office.”
When Del Conte moved on to the University of Arizona with Livengood, Donati followed.
“Chris was there for seven or eight years, and I went to work for Chris during the summers when I was in law school down there and really started cutting my teeth in the business of college athletics,” Donati said.
They parted when Donati graduated from law school and became an NFL agent under Leigh Steinberg, but the family ties remained.
“I would see Chris every so often,” Donati said. “Our families remained close. His family lived in Southern California, so he would come to visit them… I lived in Southern California so I would go visit them every once in a while.”
When Del Conte wanted to leave Rice to become the athletic director at TCU, Donati helped him work out his contract.
“Ironically, I became his agent,” Donati said.
Once Del Conte was settled at TCU, he started wooing Donati. The first time Donati turned him down was in 2010.
“I was a member of the California Bar Association,” Donati said. “I had all the juices in the world. It’s not going to work.”
Del Conte didn’t give up.
“Chris called me and said, ‘Look, I need someone here who understands me and gets me, would you consider coming down here?’” Donati said.
The last time Del Conte called was in 2011 and the NFL was facing a lockout with the Player’s Association.
“Finally he goes, ‘Look, I’m not going to ask you again, just get your butt down here and check it out. If you don’t like it, I won’t bother you anymore,’” Donati said.
Donati arrived in Fort Worth shortly after the Horned Frogs beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl.
Even though Amon G. Carter Stadium had just been imploded and the Horned Frogs were still in the Mountain West, Donati said he was hopeful for TCU’s future.
“I thought to myself, this would be the perfect place to start over,” Donati said. “To speak and to work with a guy like Chris– and just the basic interactions I had with the chancellor and Coach Patterson– [I thought] this would be the ideal place to start.”
Although Del Conte and Donati are now rivals, neither expects their relationship to change.
“I’ll rely on his advice because he sat in that chair for nine years,” Donati said. “But he and I are very competitive with each other and that’s not going to go anywhere. Now that he’s at Texas and I’m at TCU, we’ll take that to another level; but we’ll always have a love and bond that goes beyond an employer-employee type of relationship.”