Lucky Bounces: UTSA Football

By: Ari Temkin

In sports luck is a huge factor in success at its highest level. A lot of people don’t want to acknowledge that. But no team in any sport, at any level has ever won a championship without luck. The issue with that notion is the impression that luck somehow overshadows or diminishes hard work and skill.

In fact, all three factors work in concert.

Success can be achieved in sports – and in life – when experience meets opportunity, or when hard work meets luck. Or as Thomas Jefferson is said to have put it, “the harder I work, the luckier I get.”

The UTSA football program could say the same thing.

The UTSA football program has been enormously successful. Six years ago the Roadrunners football was nothing more than a helmet and a football. Today, the team is a member of Conference USA, led by a coach who won a national championship at Miami, and a catalyst for academic growth.

So where does luck come in? Believe it or not, UTSA’s early-season gauntlet of Arizona, Kansas State and Oklahoma State, is actually evidence of the university’s astonishing food fortune.

***

The country’s greatest start-up football program is the perfect concoction of hard work and luck coming together at exactly the right time. “The dominoes fell in place,” UTSA athletic director Lynn Hickey told San Antonio Scene. “There were too many things that happened that were not coincidence. The further we stepped into the program and kept moving forward, the more we knew we had made a solid decision based on a sound business plan.”

Before anything got off the ground, Lynn Hickey and the UTSA athletic department commissioned a feasibility study to ensure that Division 1 college football would make sense in San Antonio. “We spent a lot of time at South Florida. We observed, we looked at the facilities, we went to their games and we talked to the people that started the program and set our marks largely based on them. We visited Old Dominion, Georgia State, and Central Florida — so we did have some other programs to look at to develop our strategy.” In other words, the program’s success is not a coincidence. They put together and executed a plan, the same way any successful business would.

That’s the thing about luck: it doesn’t mean much if there is not a commitment to hard work. Without the feasibility study and a commitment to the plan and process, the break UTSA caught wouldn’t have panned out.

For years San Antonio has wanted NFL football. Ten years ago, due to bad luck for New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit, the Mission City had a temporary NFL team, the Saints.

“The Saints sold out every game,” said Hickey. “Even though the Saints didn’t work out long term in San Antonio, community leaders recognized that the NFL or Division 1 college football would work. And for the first time, Division 1 football became a major part of the discussion. The success of the Saints opened up those doors.”

If the Saints proved San Antonio would be a viable market for big time football, another major event proved to be the most fortuitous bounce for UTSA football: conference realignment. Initially, UTSA planned to play football as an independent team in the Football Bowl Subdivison (Division I), while keeping the other 16 interscholastic teams in the Southland Conference. That plan fell apart the first week of June in 2009. The Southland Conference met, and the last agenda item singled out UTSA. The Conference was instituting a rule that required members to play both football and basketball in the conference. Since UTSA was going FBS Independent in football, they would essentially be booted from the league.

“I knew right then and there that I was going to have to take a promise back that I had made to the first recruits of our football team and to Coach (Larry) Coker that we could go FBS Independent,” said Hickey. “There was no way that I could put our sixteen other teams out there in the world without a conference. I went out in the lobby to collect my thoughts and while sitting there my phone starts exploding.” At that exact moment, Missouri, Texas A&M, Nebraska and Colorado were reported to be bolting the Big 12. “This is the first of June and by the end of July we’re in the WAC, an FBS conference, without ever having played a down of football,” said Hickey.

Two years later, the WAC dissolved and Conference USA opened its doors to UTSA.

The turn of events that had to happen in order for UTSA to be where it is today is nothing short of amazing. It might be easy to overlook how impressive it is that a start-up program could find itself in Conference USA, but UTSA was very attractive for the conference. “We have a great campus, a great city, and a dome to play in,” says Hickey. “A two-year start-up program and we’re in Conference USA. There were too many things that went right that showed UTSA football was meant to be.”

San Antonio as a city might have been appealing to Conference USA, but money talks more loudly than anything in big time college football. College football games are scheduled years in advance. Since the Roadrunners initially went independent, they were forced to load their schedule with at least eight FBS opponents willing to play them. UTSA had to scramble.

“We had no cash to buy games, so we had to do a lot of ‘two-for-ones,’” said Hickey. They would play two road games at Arizona, Kansas State and Oklahoma State in order to secure one home game against those powerful programs. “Being in Conference USA was probably one of the largest drawing cards that we had,” said Hickey. “The schools in our conference need to have good home games that television will buy into and we’ve been able to bring that to the table.”

Being a member of Conference USA is not just beneficial to the football program though.

I’ve often felt as if big-time college athletics could not coexist with big time academia, that fielding a winning team in major college “revenue sports” undermines but the ethos of higher education. All too often, academic standards are sacrificed on the altar of athletics.

North Carolina is one of the country’s finest public institutions, academically speaking. There is also a great athletic — primarily basketball — tradition at UNC, but recently those two have been at odds. For North Carolina to recruit and maintain the eligibility of top athletes, some school officials ignored the university’s academic standards. The result was major academic fraud for decades at UNC, because athletics dictated academics.

The university fails in its fundamental mission once it concedes power to the athletic side. But maybe North Carolina is the exception and not the rule.

For UTSA, an institution that not too long ago was viewed strictly as a commuter school, sports has become the vehicle for major academic progress.

When current UTSA President Ricardo Romo took over in 1999 his goal was to turn a commuter school into a Tier One University. There are just three Tier One universities in Texas: Rice, A&M and UT. It’s a daunting task. But the premise is fairly simple — UTSA had the need for major growth in every facet.

Conference USA helps UTSA athletically, but it also plays a role in the academic side.

“The previous conference we were with was a great group of schools, but the aspirations of UTSA versus some of the other schools in the conference were just not the same . . . they couldn’t be,” said Hickey. “We’re in a major city. Dr. Romo wants to be Tier One Research, and some of the other schools didn’t even have large doctoral programs. Being in Conference USA gives us an opportunity to change our persona and allows for a new set of peers.”

UTSA’s success both athletically and academically is hard to gauge without understanding how far it has come. Six years ago UTSA’s biggest season ticket base was around 250 per year for men’s basketball. Currently they have around 12,000 season ticket holders for football. Six years ago UTSA had about $150,000 in corporate sponsorships. Now that number exceeds $2 million. “It’s been amazing how adding this one sport changed our peer affiliation and has added to the value of our institution.”

As amazing as this story seems, the end is still being written. “We’re 100 years behind other universities in the state of Texas,” said Hickey. As a member of Conference USA, the unive rsity receives a little less than $2 million annually from television rights, which seems like a lot. It’s pennies, however, when you compare it to the $35 million handed out to A&M in the SEC or the $25 million each school in the Big 12 receives. “The Big 5 (major college conferences) has a huge advantage, so we are really dependent on selling tickets, increasing our donor base, and having the business community in San Antonio contribute on the sponsorship side.”

The popularity of college football has opened doors for UTSA, and its status as an institution is undergoing an amazing transformation.

“Athletics, if done correctly, should be the front porch . . . the picture window for a hugely successful academic institution,” said Hickey. But the destination doesn’t mean much if you can’t appreciate the journey.

Who knows what the future of college football holds, especially for Lynn Hickey, Larry Coker and UTSA? Having enjoyed a taste of the NFL when the Saints were here, San Antonians are still clamoring for an NFL franchise. All the while, UTSA football has been growing much larger than expected right in their backyard.

UTSA’s story is inspiring. And perhaps more than anything it serves as a near perfect metaphor for San Antonio: quietly and persistently it grows and thrives, thanks to hard work, skill and some well-timed luck.