In just their fifth season of playing football, the University of Texas-San Antonio Roadrunners are already one of the most successful start-up football programs in the NCAA. They’ve gone from not having a team at all to playing some of the top teams in the country. UTSA has put itself on the map nationally and has brought together a university and a city craving a football team to call its own.
The long road started well before the Roadrunners ran on the Alamodome field in front of a crowd of 56,743 in their inaugural game against Northeastern State in 2011. In fact, two years before that, all the program had was one helmet and one jersey.
Back in 2001, athletic director Lynn Hickey, along with senior associate athletic director Brad Parrott, started talking about a football program’s potential at the school. At that time, it was just, what if?
Creation of a Program
One of the first steps toward being able to add football at UTSA involved adding more women’s sports, due to Title IX regulations. Title IX is a law that prohibits gender discrimination in a federally-funded activity, which is what paved the way for the inclusion of women’s soccer and golf at the university. Also, UTSA had to figure out ways to pay for the football program. That led to an athletics fee for students that was separate from the student service fee.
In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, the NFL’s Saints were faced with relocation. San Antonio had long wanted a professional football team, and a group of about 100 city business leaders wrote a public document that stated, “San Antonio will have NFL and Division I football.” Sure enough, the Saints played three home games in the Alamodome — but then returned to New Orleans.
“In the [document], it was very visible that the city would support pro football,” says Hickey. “When the Saints didn’t stay, that opened the door for us. The Alamodome needed a tenant, and we needed a place to play.”
Hickey and UTSA president Dr. Ricardo Romo presented a plan to the Board of Regents. It was only a five-minute presentation, as the decision was unanimous. On December 18, 2008, the regents voted to approve a football team.
The question then became: Who would be the face of the program?
Without a search firm, the athletic department relied on knowing enough people and on the notion that everyone wanted to be a head football coach, especially in San Antonio.
The school invited three coaches to campus, all of whom met with Red McCombs. McCombs, former owner of the San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets, and Minnesota Vikings, had been an adviser to Hickey, and it was important to her that she get input from him.
“There was only one coach that Mr. McCombs escorted out of his office, and that was Larry Coker. I knew that he was the right guy to get,” says Hickey.
Coker had pretty much already done it all in college football at that point. He won the national championship at the University of Miami in 2001, was the AFCA Coach of the Year in ’01, and was working at ESPN at the time UTSA began its coaching search. Coker recommended the job to a friend, but that friend told Coker that he should interview for the job himself.
“He called us. I would have never thought of calling him,” says Hickey. “He was actually vacuuming his house when he called, but we had a great conversation. We had to put him in a trailer because we had no office space. We had one football, one helmet we used for press conferences, and no practice field. We gave him three assistant coaches and told him, ‘Go find a team.’”
Finding a Home
UTSA’s other athletic programs had competed in the Southland Conference, and the plan was for the football team to join the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) and remain there until it could transition to the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) to play at the same level as teams such as Alabama and Florida State.
Coker thought that if the Roadrunners wanted to be an FBS program, they might as well start out as one. Hickey then told the Southland that UTSA would play football as an independent school while keeping the rest of their sports in the conference.
At the 2009 Southland Conference spring meetings, members voted on a new rule stating that unless a school’s basketball and football teams played in conference, a school couldn’t remain in the Southland.
“I was devastated,” says Hickey. “My concern was, playing in the Alamodome, people in San Antonio had only seen big games like Final Fours and bowl games, and playing FCS football would just not attract a huge crowd in this market.”
By the summer of 2010, major conference realignment had begun in earnest. With so many schools switching to new conferences, the door opened for UTSA. In November of that year, the Roadrunners accepted an invitation to join the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) after first playing one year of FCS football as an independent school.
“We hadn’t played a down of football, but we were in an FBS conference in the WAC,” says Hickey. “It all happened that quick.”
In their first year in the WAC, in 2012, UTSA won the Commissioner's Cup, awarded to the team that performs the best in each of the conference’s 19 sports. The Roadrunners broke the attendance record for a new football program while in the WAC with an average attendance of 35,521.
Conference USA noticed the success the school had in just one year in the WAC. For C-USA, the school would provide an anchor in a major city in South Texas. For UTSA, it was an ideal conference, with many member schools in close proximity. All the dominoes had fallen into place.
Results and Future
“Teams haven’t been in the Alamodome with 30,000 orange people in there,” says Hickey. “They will be surprised at how loud it gets in there.”
For this year’s home opener against Kansas State, 29,424 fans painted the Alamodome orange. On the first third down of the game, the rowdy sea of orange collectively rose to its feet with a roar to cheer on the Roadrunners defense, causing a Kansas State false start. Later on that same possession, the Wildcats were forced to take a timeout, as they were flustered early by the crowd noise.
Having a football team has added an element of school spirit that hadn’t existed before. It has brought the university together, from alumni coming back to see their new team to future generations of students attending games, all creating an exciting game day experience in downtown San Antonio.
“Kids want to go where there is campus life, where you feel cool,” says Hickey. “We want to have an experience where you’re proud of your colors. It’s going to take time to build that culture, but we have taken a giant step forward with that.”
Having a football team definitely affected freshman Riley Hornsby’s decision to attend UTSA. “I wouldn’t have come if there wasn’t a football team,” says Hornsby, a Fort Worth native. “This is the best part about school.”
Eric Bolido, a senior from Edinburg, Texas, shares a similar opinion. “I really wanted the full student experience,” he says. “Having academics along with now an amazing sports life like this is great.”
By jumping into the FBS so quickly, UTSA has faced some obvious struggles. The team has a grueling schedule this year and started 0-4 after facing four teams that played in bowl games last year. UTSA traveled to Arizona and Oklahoma State, who have both been ranked in the Top 25, and the Roadrunners hosted the Big 12’s Kansas State, losing 30–3.
UTSA was aware of the difficulties the program would face against those teams, but playing tough schedules is what Hickey, Coker and others hope will make the Roadrunners better.
“People want to see us win,” says Roadrunners tight end David Morgan when asked about fan support. “I feel like us getting more involved on campus, doing something ourselves will help.”
Adds Hickey, “Our goal is to have the same impact on this community that a TCU has in Fort Worth, or that a Baylor has in Waco. Look at what those programs have become. We want UTSA to be looked at in the same light. Through belief, family, and grit, I truly think we can accomplish that.”
Photos: Eric Gay/AP (fans, action), Brody Schmidt/AP (Coker)