RIO GRANDE VALLEY – As he reflected on his first 1,000 days as Vice President and Director of Athletics for The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, there was one thing Hunting Conch kept coming back to: people.
Conque has influenced many exciting changes, additions and milestones during his nearly three years at UTRGV. But he also had to help lead the university and athletic department through several rounds of obstacles. And for Conque, the key to clearing the hurdles and continuing the journey has been the people he serves and those with whom he serves.
“You go back to my first day on August 26, 2019 and we had about six months of normalcy, pre-pandemic, and then things changed dramatically,” Conque said. “We didn’t know what we were about to experience together. We’ve had a lot of highs and we had some really tough things we had to face. It all goes back to the unbelievable people that I get to work with every day and a great group of young people that we get to serve.
“Our administration, our staff, our coaches and of course our student-athletes, it’s because of all that working together, everybody growing in the same direction, that has made it a very rewarding 1,000 days.”
Conque moved to the Rio Grande Valley with his wife, Lisa, and their three daughters, Julianna, Sydney and Adeline, after serving as the Vice Chancellor and Director of Athletics at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock from 2015-19. Originally from south Louisiana, Conque said the culture in south Texas reminds him of home, both filled with people who care for each other and understand the importance of family.
Since Day 1, Conque’s mission has been to unite the RGV around the Vaqueros. His “Rally the Valley” phrase used during his introductory press conference has become the motto for the athletic department, and UTRGV has done just that despite the early hardships.
On Conque’s 200th day, March 12, 2020, the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic. Sports went on a hiatus, and no one knew when they would return. The summer of 2020 brought Hurricane Hanna, which wreaked havoc on the Rio Grande Valley, and a string of acts of social injustice that took an emotional toll on the nation.
During that difficult stretch, Conch set a standard for UTRGV. He took the Collegiate Coaching Diversity Pledge and took a stand against social injustice. In line with those actions, UTRGV Athletics unveiled the Vaqueros United initiative in collaboration with the UTRGV Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), committing to help make a change in regards to peace, equality, social justice and human rights.
“The summer of 2020 was difficult from the pandemic standpoint and to watch the social injustice that was so prevalent,” Conque said. “We told ourselves and we told our student-athletes, while that summer underscored the importance of being very clear on our stance and our support and how we feel as an athletic department, we also didn’t only want it to be reactive because of what we were experiencing that summer.
“I do end-of-year meetings with our student-athletes, about 15 to 20 a year, and they’re wonderful because you get the good, bad and the ugly. Those meetings are the time to hear the things they want us to explore or maybe do differently,” he added. “One thing that was brought up was a diversity council off of the Vaqueros United initiative, so this summer we will spend time working with SAAC and coming up with a plan so we can do just that, which is a perfect way to continue engaging our student-athletes on how we want to make effective change.”
Sports returned for the Vaqueros on November 25, 2020, 258 days after the hiatus began. The men’s and women’s basketball teams swept rival Texas A&M-Corpus Christi at Bert Ogden Arena a week later, the first games there during Conque’s tenure. The women’s team hosted the inaugural UTRGV South Padre Island Classic, taking a big step in the pledge to bring Vaqueros athletics to Cameron County.
Just as things started looking up, new challenges arose. UTRGV was shocked and heartbroken by the sudden death of men’s basketball coach Lew Hill, a hardship that Conque said was the most unique and difficult he’s ever had to endure. Eight days later, the state of Texas took a blow from Winter Storm Yuri.
With a passionate and hard-working team around him, Conque knew the Vaqueros would overcome all the obstacles, and they learned a lot of lessons going through it all together.
“There’s a whole lot of nights that I’d lay in bed and just count my blessings that we’re at a place like UTRGV with people that we have,” Conque said. “I benefitted from being welcomed and accepted and supported by our team in athletics very early on. When you’re thrown adversity early, you learn really quick if you’ve been able to grow that relationship, that rapport. Very often we were reminded that, yes, the situation may be tough, but I couldn’t imagine going through it with anybody better than the people we were going through it with.”
Before the string of obstacles that started on his 200th day, Conque’s first 199 brought immediate progress to UTRGV.
He got to celebrate Day 100 with the grand opening of the Vaquero Village, commemorating $1.5 million of renovations to the UTRGV Fieldhouse to enhance the student-athlete and fan experience. Fan engagement was on the rise at UTRGV Baseball Stadium, too, with the opening of the corrals and a 30-year best attendance average of 1,087 fans per game before the 2020 season was cut short due to the pandemic.
As challenging and unprecedented as the next several months would get, UTRGV has reclaimed and built on the momentum created in Conque’s first 200 days to make the past 200 unprecedented in their own positive way.
UTRGV broke the all-time basketball season ticket sales record in Nov. 2021 and the all-time baseball ticket packages record in Feb. 2022. Vaqueros baseball drew a program record crowd of 6,418 while hosting Texas for the first time in 51 years and averaged 1,551 fans per game this season.
The student body passed a referendum in favor of sport expansion, putting the Vaqueros on track to begin women’s swimming & diving in 2024 and football in 2025. The UTRGV Foundation allocated a $1 million gift to fund sport expansion. The athletic department announced capital projects worth $30 million to enhance facilities, benefitting all 16 current sports programs.
Additionally, the Vaqueros have thrived academically and in community service during Conque’s tenure. Team GPAs continue to rise every year, with the department cumulative GPA currently at 3.29. UTRGV ranks among the best in the country in community service hours.
All the Conque milestones helped reach are reasons why just 816 days (just over two years) into a five-year contract, he received a two-year contract extension, guaranteeing his place with UTRGV through 2026.
“After evaluating his first two years at UTRGV, there was no doubt in my mind that Chasse deserved an extension,” UTRGV President Dr. Guy Bailey said in the contract extension press release. “I have worked with many athletic directors in my career, and Chasse is one of the best I’ve worked with and one of the best in the country. Under his leadership, our athletics department has flourished in competition and in the classroom.”
Looking ahead to his next 1,000 days and beyond, Conque knows a lot of exciting things are on the horizon. The Vaqueros are very hopeful to be hosting the Western Athletic Conference Swimming & Diving Championships soon at the brand new, state-of-the-art City of Pharr and UTRGV Aquatic Center, as well as other WAC Championship-level events. And of course, the start of UTRGV football is something the entire Valley and beyond is anxiously awaiting.
While Conque said it’s natural to be waiting for those big moments to arrive, his first 1,000 days taught him the lesson of enjoying the process and those involved with it. He’ll be soaking up the little moments as much as the big ones as he continues to lead UTRGV Athletics’ mission to #RISEup.
“#RISEup is perfect for us for a lot of reasons. It’s our core values that we all stand for of respect, integrity, success and engagement and a great acronym that I think we can all relate to,” Conque said. “We’re rising up by coming out of a tough time through the pandemic. We’re rising up competitively. We’re rising up to better serve and support the Rio Grande Valley. And our capital projects are rising up buildings for our programs It’s the perfect way to sum up who we are and where we’re headed.
“One thing that the pandemic and the nearly 3 years here at UTRGV taught me is to enjoy those little moments,” he continued. “We certainly had our challenges, but we also had some real highlights and wonderful moments to celebrate together. The journey that we get to go on and the people that we get to go on it with, that’s really special. We can’t lose sight of the journey that we’re going to be on to get there and all the great work and the wonderful things we’ll do and the lives that we get to impact along the way.”
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