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How Larry Coker Built UTSA Football into a Force Overnight

Primed for a run at the Conference USA championship after just four seasons of football, UTSA is growing faster than anyone could have ever imagined.

Larry Coker will lead an accomplished group of seniors into 2014 with a conference championship in sight.
Larry Coker will lead an accomplished group of seniors into 2014 with a conference championship in sight.
Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome, Underdogs. My name is Jared and I will be sharing with you in what should be a memorable and historic season for UTSA football. Since you're all beautiful, smart people, I assume you might already have some baseline knowledge of UTSA football.

Entering its fourth season of football and second in Conference USA, coached by national champion Larry Coker, plays its games in front of huge crowds in San Antonio's Alamodome. You may also know that UTSA came just a tiebreaker short of winning Conference USA's western division last season, despite the lack of a senior recruiting class.

If you're really savvy, you might know that UTSA returns more seniors (37) and starters (20) than any team in the nation. With so much talent returning from a surprisingly successful 2013 campaign, it's likely that UTSA will be the best bet to challenge Marshall as Conference USA champions in 2014, just three years after playing an inaugural schedule loaded with powerhouses such as Bacone College and Minot State. How in the world did Larry Coker manage such an incomprehensible rise to prominence?

Establishing early legitimacy

While San Antonio is a large market filled with sports fans, the city has repeatedly shown that they will not support sub-par products such as minor league baseball and arena football. Snatching up Larry Coker after he failed to win the Rice job against fellow finalist David Bailiff provided an immediate image of credibility that would be further bolstered by signing home-and-home scheduling agreements with P5 programs such as Oklahoma State and Baylor. Locals have shown up in droves to support the hometown team knowing that they will be competing against elite talent.

Shrewd leadership and city support

Obviously UTSA has been dealt a favorable hand to have such overwhelming success so quickly. While fans of rival programs may write off major boons such as earning conference invitations, landing talented transfers from power programs, and generating television exposure as mere luck, the truth is that UTSA has been able to realize off-field wins thanks to the program’s leadership wisely placing the program in the best possible position to succeed.

Athletic director Lynn Hickey and school president Ricardo Romo have done an incredible job of building football facilities from scratch, composing a great coaching staff on a pittance of a budget, and building connections with local businesses to assist in marketing and fundraising efforts. With such keen leadership and a large market to play in, the sky might be the ceiling for UTSA football.

Lack of competition

Before UTSA started its program the only Division I football program within 50 miles of the seventh largest city in the country was Texas State of the FCS ranks (now Sunbelt). Despite a large alumni base in the Alamo city, the Bobcats never made any type of marketing effort to gain fans in San Antonio. The city simply followed UT and Texas A&M from a distance while waiting for the Alamo Bowl to roll around each year. With no NFL football in town to compete with, it was easy for UTSA to convince locals to come downtown to the familiar Alamodome to watch live football and tailgate once the Roadrunners began to field a team.

Access to Texas high school football talent

Many start-up programs choose to fill their inaugural roster with as many JUCO signees and transfers as possible in an attempt to provide ample experience to the depth chart and to have some veteran leadership to lead impressionable young athletes.

While UTSA certainly took in its fair share of JUCO players, Coker chose to focus his recruiting efforts on Texan prep prospects, specifically in under recruited areas south of Austin and west of Houston. The program’s inaugural signing class contained just two players with college experience-- a transfer from Penn State and another from A&M Kingsville, neither of which made an impact on the field. UTSA’s first depth chart would feature an unheard of 31 freshmen on the two-deep, 13 of which were straight out of the high school ranks.

Coker knew he would be able to gather talent by recruiting Texas; the former Miami head coach decided to trust in his ability to develop athletes into quality college football players. This decision continues to pay off for the program to this day as the majority of UTSA’s 37 seniors are among the most coached student athletes in the country, with five years of coaching under their belt. Additionally, the coaching staff was able to get a jump start on creating strong recruiting ties with quality Texas high school programs such as John Tyler and Coppell.

In a perfect storm such as the one that UTSA has found itself in, there are many, many other factors to explain the program’s rapid success. I could sit here all day and preach to you about how fortunate UTSA was that Eric Soza chose to transfer from Texas State or that UTSA would start their program at the most volatile era of conference realignment since the demise of the Southwest Conference.

What’s most fun about following UTSA is that this story is still being written and a rise as fast as this one lends itself to reckless dreaming. The Roadrunners will open their season against Houston in the Cougar’s shiny new TDECU Stadium on August 29th. I invite you to catch the game on ESPNU and join me in watching a program build a name and a legacy for itself.