Nine years ago, UTSA elected to add football to their repertoire of athletic programs.
This Saturday afternoon, the university will reach a milestone as the Roadrunners compete in their first-ever bowl game in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
The program has transformed the landscape of the school dramatically, from a small commuter institution that was hardly considered first-rate to the largest public college in the South Texas region. The school’s quick ascension, no doubt aided by the addition of a football program, has led to UTSA no longer being considered a stepping stone to the University of Texas in Austin but its own destination altogether.
UTSA went from an acronym that you had to explain to people to a recognized abbreviation that now generates a response along the lines of “oh, the Roadrunners.”
This didn’t happen easily. It took a lot of moving parts working together to create the special something that is UTSA Football - a program that’s been shattering records since it stepped on the gridiron for the first time in 2011. In the words of current head coach Frank Wilson, it took “all hands on deck.” Now, after nearly a decade of hard work, the program widely regarded as a ‘sleeping giant’ is beginning to awaken.
To commemorate the achievement, we took a look back at the moments that shaped the program’s trajectory by highlighting the five most significant days in the history of UTSA football.
September 11 & 12, 2007 - The Student Body Votes on Increased Athletic Funding
Murmurs had been traveling through campus for quite some time about the university adding football, but no one was sure about exactly how much merit the rumors had.
The first real legitimacy came in November of 2006, when university officials released a feasibility study from national consulting firm Carr Sports Associates, evaluating the addition of a Division I football program. The study addressed the components of cost and infrastructure associated with such a move, as well as the legislative components regarding Title IX.
In the following months, the university would work alongside city officials, community residents and the student body to further consider the addition of a football program.
The Student Government Association (SGA) would hold forums for open discussion through the spring and summer of 2007, weighing the pros and cons of the move from a student perspective. It was announced that the SGA would hold a student body vote to determine the approval rate of raising athletics fees in tuition to support funding.
The vote was to double the athletics fee from $120 per semester to $240 per semester over five years. Students enrolled for 12 hours of classes were paying $10 per credit hour, and an annual increase of $2 would double the fee to $20 per credit hour for the same course load.
4,602 students - roughly 16% of the student body - voted over a 48-hour span in a near 2-to-1 approval of the change. It was announced on September 13th that 65.9% of those that voted - 3,031 students - elected in favor of the fee increase against 1,571 in opposition.
Emilio Arriola, a freshman at UTSA when the vote took place, described the energy around the campus at the time:
“It was an exciting time. For a lot of us that voted, we knew that we would never benefit from it as students, but we saw it as a way of changing UTSA. At the time it was still a commuter school.
During the fall, when all of our friends were at football games, we were watching at home or begging our friends to get us an extra ticket. So when the rumblings started that football might happen, we were excited.
It was known that if it passed it wouldn’t happen until much later, a possible 2011-2012 kickoff, and a great majority of us would no longer be on campus for it.
I looked at my vote as something that would benefit future Roadrunners, give them something I never had. Change the culture of the school. I looked at it as a way to bring the community together.
We didn’t have something that brought us - alumni, students - and the community together. This was it.”
-Emilio Arriola, class of 2011
The vote set forth the UTSA Athletic Initiative Business Plan, a blueprint for UTSA to build an $84 million athletics complex, add a football program, and advance UTSA’s athletics department from Division I-AA to Division I-A. The comprehensive plan was published a year after the vote in September 2008 and outlined budget requirements like so:
On December 18th, 2008, the University of Texas System Board of Regents approved the business plan, setting forth the initiative in full motion as the approval was the final preliminary step.
Now, Athletic Director Lynn Hickey was tasked with her first ever football job and the most important football move that a start-up program has to make: finding a head coach.
March 6, 2009 - Larry Coker is Hired as Head Coach
The only word I can use to describe this is monumental. Hiring Larry Coker turned heads across the nation and set the tone for the program moving forward. A school that nobody outside of Central and South Texas had ever heard of landed a national champion. That’s monumental.
Coker was most known for leading the resurgence of the fabled Miami Hurricanes back to an unblemished national championship in 2001, his first year as head coach. In his first two seasons as the head coach of “The U”, Coker won his first 24 games. Following a terrible fall from grace that included the biggest football brawl of the century, a disgustingly crude rap song, a massive recruiting scandal and a 6-6 finish to the 2006 regular season, Coker was removed from the helm.
From the high peak of his rookie year to the rock bottom of his last season with Miami, one thing was certain: Larry Coker was a name that football fans were familiar with.
It was clear that Coker wanted to continue coaching. In January 2007 he interviewed for the head coaching position at Rice and was named one of the two finalists alongside current head coach David Bailiff. He then spent some time broadcasting for ESPNU before calling UTSA and submitting an application in February 2009.
Hickey was in shock after receiving the voicemail. She recalled the conversation she had with her secretary after listening to the voicemail for USA Today, “Do you think this is the Larry Coker? We never would've even called Coker."
He was named one of three finalists, along with Tulsa assistant Paul Randolph and Northwest Missouri State coach Mel Tjeerdsma. There was no question on who to hire; Coker was the man for the job. A brand name for a team with no brand. It was almost too perfect.
“I remember when Coker was hired. I was extremely excited. I remember watching the Miami team in 2001 and always hearing his name.
Coker being hired meant it was real, this was really happening. Then seeing him walk around campus with a helmet in his hand really brought it home.”
-Emilio Arriola, class of 2011
A school that most people had never heard of now had ties to a national championship. Coker hit the recruiting trails selling, literally, nothing but a dream. No facilities, no tradition, no field of their own. Just a fantasy.
The old legend goes like this: UTSA had one single helmet and one single football. Coker went to the Walmart off of UTSA Boulevard and purchased a single navy blue jersey, and using some homestyle arts and crafts, made it into a makeshift UTSA jersey. He took this helmet and jersey into living rooms across the country, selling recruits a fantasy that not even he was certain of. He had to convince kids to spend an entire season practicing every day without playing a single game. He had to convince kids that they would be a part of history.
And when he showed recruits the helmet and jersey, the right hand that he held them with sported a solid gold, diamond ring that read, “National Champions”. That’s how Coker sold the dream. That’s how he made a fantasy a reality.
Students tell stories of Coker walking around campus, holding that sole helmet, smiling and strolling along, saying hello to everybody he crossed and asking them if they were excited about the team. They all were.
The thing that made Coker so special was that he was never humbled by the transition. From a historically decorated program with national pedigree to a program that actually wasn’t a program at all, he was never humbled. He didn’t need to be; he knew exactly what he signed up for.
During that first year of practice, Coker specifically set the schedule to six days a week, with the only day off being Saturday, so players could sit in front of the TV and watch every other program in the country putting their practices to work. The fire raged inside the players. They practiced at the local Brandeis High School and held meetings in the locker room.
At the bottom of the bottom, a team with no competition besides themselves developed an enormous chip on their shoulders. And boy were they ready to give the world hell. The whole city was.
September 3, 2011 - The Inaugural Football Game
I graduated high school in 2011. I didn’t apply to many colleges, but of the few that I did apply for, UTSA was high on the list. I had some family in San Antonio, and three hours wasn’t too far of a drive back home to Houston.
I actually had never visited San Antonio before applying to UTSA. My first time in the city was for the campus visit for high school seniors, known as “Roadrunner Days”. I instantly fell in love with the place. It was so modern. A school that’s hardly forty years old has a lot of buildings that are practically brand new.
It had a vibrant feeling; there was this unexplainable mystique that was just exciting, that made me eager. Something about a young university that I could come up with made me want to be there.
I knew that UTSA was getting a football team. How I found out I can’t recall, it was just sort of common knowledge. A drumline kid for three years in high school, I knew I wanted to continue playing, so during that visit I sought out the Arts Building, where I met Ronald Ellis.
“E”, as he is commonly known as, was the head director of UTSA’s marching band, The Spirit of San Antonio (SOSA). A program that did not yet exist. I walked into his office inquiring about the drumline, and he asked me if I wanted to be a part of history. He sold me a dream, a fantasy, right there in his office, just as Coker did in so many living rooms.
He asked me how I would like playing halftime shows at the Alamodome, where the state championship of Texas high school marching band occurs every year. The four times I had been in the Alamodome prior were the most important performances of my life to date; it was a sacred place to me. It was the Colossus of football fields. Mecca.
I bought in.
And so I reported three weeks before the first day of classes for band camp, where I alongside 350 other wide-eyed individuals began working on something that didn’t yet exist. We slaved away for ten hours a day, and I can still recall E bellowing over the microphone, “We WILL be great. Even if the football team isn’t, we will be.” Oh but they were. We all were.
You see, this is what football did for UTSA. It didn’t just give us a team to root for on Saturdays. It gave hundreds of people something to call their own, the opportunity to create something from scratch. Cheerleaders, dancers, musicians, reporters, fans, all had something that they belonged to and were passionate for. That didn’t exist before football. Football brought all of that.
I remember getting fitted for uniforms and seeing them for the first time: the orange tops with the golden Alamo silhouette over the torso and the star of Texas on the sleeves. I imagine that feeling was similar to what the players felt when they saw their jerseys for the first time.
And so there on Saturday, September 9th, 2011, we stood in tunnel of the Alamodome. During high school band contests the stadium is virtually empty, but peering out through the small opening at the end of the long tunnel and looking across the field, I saw a tiny section of the crowd, and every seat was filled.
The place was shaking it was so loud, and so much adrenaline was pumping through my veins I could hardly hold still. I began to chant a slow and low, “We Ready” and the rest of the band joined in alongside me. We were ready. Us and an NCAA-record setting 56,743 rowdy fans. We were all ready.
Not many people realize this, but SOSA was the first thing to come out of UTSA Football’s tunnels at the Alamodome. We were the first thing that fans saw, and the place erupted when they did. I remember every step down the tunnel being able to see more and more of the crowd. Packed. When I finally got to the front I looked up to the nosebleeds and there still wasn’t an empty seat in view.
Not one person was sitting down. It was so loud that I couldn’t even hear the drums that I was pounding on right in front of me. The place was absolutely ballistic.
Oh, and the football team was ready, too. When they stormed through the tunnel and those fireworks went off as they ran through the band, you could say the fireworks were just getting started.
Coach Coker’s alma mater, Northeastern State, had never seen a crowd of that caliber, and here you had 75 ball players that hadn’t hit someone in over a year and half.
There’s not much you can do to stop a locomotive; you either get out of the way or you get run over.
Eric Soza’s 14-yard keeper kicked off a 31-3 rout in which UTSA dominated every snap. Coker couldn’t believe the atmosphere, telling the media afterward "This is maybe the most awesome game I've ever been around. I'm being totally honest with you."
Four Septembers after the vote, UTSA Football was here.
January 15, 2016 - UTSA Names Frank Wilson New Head Coach
Coker’s regime hit its peak in the first game of the 2014 season against the Houston Cougars. UTSA pummeled Houston 27-7 in the grand opening of their new TDECU Stadium in the first game that UTSA Football was featured as the sole act on primetime on ESPN.
There’s something personal about UTSA playing Houston. The proximity, the large demographic of Houston-born students, the envy of wanting our program to reach their level and to avenge the whooping they put on UTSA in the Alamodome the year prior. It was a jubilant evening.
And though the Roadrunners looked poised to take the big stage, the program faced the worst possible downturn of events, winning just six of their next 23 games. Fans grew frustrated, attendance depleted and nothing seemed to go the right way. Injuries plagued the team, and even in games where they were competitive there was an inevitable feeling that they were going to blow it. And they did, every time.
I was covering the team for the student newspaper, The Paisano, during that 2015 season, when they reached a program-low 3-9. There was just no energy around the team whatsoever.
Change wasn’t just needed, it was necessary - if that makes any sense. Coker was absolutely brilliant in his structuring of the program, but he unfortunately wore out his welcome, and seemed to grow content with not pushing the program forward. He lacked the strong energy that the team desperately needed to be revitalized.
On January 5, 2016, Coker was relieved of his duty, a month after the season ended and just a few weeks shy of National Signing Day.
As poor as the timing seemed, UTSA had a few things working in their favor. Mainly the fact that one of the largest coaching conventions in the nation was occurring in downtown San Antonio when the position became vacant. The program knew how important it was to make the right choice; the margin for error was none. The wrong hire would propel UTSA into perpetual mediocrity and erase the goodwill the program had developed in the community. It was too vital of a time in the program’s history to mess this up.
UTSA hired a national search firm to make sure they got it right, and ten days later, on January 15, 2016, the university announced that LSU’s Frank Wilson would be taking over the program.
Wilson’s seasoned recruiting prowess widened eyes across the fanbase, but there was concern that Wilson’s lack of experience as a collegiate head coach could be a detrimental flaw to his success. A legitimate issue for fans to voice, but UTSA could not have gotten it more right.
Wilson seemed to fill all of the voids that UTSA was looking to fill. Though he had never coached in the state of Texas, he developed a strong clout in the deep south with stops in Mississippi and Louisiana that have opened new doors for UTSA’s recruiting base. He also knows how to raise money, big money at that. While serving as the athletic director of an underfunded inner-city school district in New Orleans, Wilson raised thousands of dollars from city grants and corporate pledges to fund athletic programs. As he put it, “not just car wash money.”
And, perhaps most importantly, he’s brought with him a youthful energy that paired an up-and-coming coach with an up-and-coming program. The two shared similar expectations.
Almost immediately, UTSA began taking its new form. Wilson said and did all of the right things, from keeping the current roster assembled and recruiting in living rooms the day after he was hired to initiating new trends and hashtags across UTSA’s social media channels. He also put players in a football classroom in the offseason, putting the game under a microscope to teach football with heightened attention to detail.
Fans were ecstatic, and a team that finished 3-9 suddenly had expectations as high as the Alamodome’s ceiling.
With accolades including 2011 Rivals National Recruiter of the Year, 2014 NFL.com Top Recruiter in College Football and 2015 Scout.com SEC Recruiter of the Year, the expectations were warranted. Wilson proved his awards were no fluke as he crushed the recruiting game in just a few short weeks leading up to National Signing Day, earning the commitments of several JUCO and graduate transfers along with multiple Texas high school talents as well.
Not only that, but Wilson put together an all-star staff to join him on the sidelines, pairing seasoned veterans like Frank Scelfo, Jason Rollins and Everette Sands with up-and-comers such as Patrick Toney, Eric Henderson, Pete Golding and Ricky Brumfield.
Many fans thought it was inconceivable for Wilson to turn the program around in just one year, but were ready to embrace the rebuild nevertheless. In that same breath, however, many other fans were talking about a bowl birth in his first year. Wilson opted on the latter.
November 26, 2016 - UTSA Gets Its Sixth Win to Earn Bowl Eligibility
Wilson’s opening season was electric. After getting all of the woes of a rebuild out of the way through the first four games, UTSA routed the western division favorite Southern Mississippi to start the month of October.
Each ensuing win seemed to be more impressive than the one before it. They went on the road to Houston and pulled out a crapshoot against Rice, they dominated North Texas at home, and then hit the road against Middle Tennessee and crushed one of the top teams in the east in their best away game of the year.
Heading into the season finale, the Roadrunners sat one game away from bowl eligibility. Long story short, there was nothing that was going to keep UTSA from clinching a 13th game in front of their home crowd.
In what was one of the best defensive performances in UTSA history, the Roadrunners knocked off Charlotte 33-14 and held the number one rushing attack in C-USA to just eight total yards on the ground.
It was all too good to be true, and when the clock struck zero the festivities began. Fans took to the field to embrace their team and rejoice the realization of a dream that started with a makeshift jersey from Walmart.
As the fans reveled with players, coaches, and cheerleaders, confetti suddenly came snowing down onto the field in a beautiful moment. Fans described the scene on the field like so:
“It was surreal. No one was heading toward the exist, everyone was going to the field. People were celebrating with the players, SOSA was singing, kids were running around and doing snow angels in the confetti, just a very cool scene. The field was packed with people.”
- Dustin Kuhn, class of 2006
“It felt like we finally said hello to the rest of college football. Like we have arrived. Becoming bowl eligible for the first time ever is like nothing else we have felt before. Also, having a first year head coach taking us to this level is only the beginning.
The confetti was a very nice surprise. I don’t know who planned that, but it felt awesome.”
Nestor Esquivel, class of 2005
Surreal. And only the beginning is right, as a team filled with underclassmen and the best recruiting class in conference, UTSA is poised to take the reigns of C-USA sooner rather than later.
I could sit here and try to type it all out for you, but it would do no justice to the elation felt on the field in that moment. It’d be better to just watch it for yourself and feel the emotion that flooded throughout the stadium.
Fans weren’t the only one partaking in the celebration. University officials - most notably the president of the university - joined in on the action as well.
And as the celebration went into the wee hours of the night, fans wished it would never end.
If you would have told anyone back in 2006 that UTSA was going to a bowl game in 10 years, you would have needed to get your health checked. Now it’s a reality.
A week later UTSA was invited to the Gildan New Mexico Bowl to face the New Mexico Lobos on their home turf in University Stadium. The Roadrunners look to put their first trophy in the case Saturday, December 17th, and add another date to the timeline.
What football has done for UTSA as an institution and for San Antonio as a city is unmatched. The program propelled a small safety school into a destination university and a place that felt brimmed with limitless potential. It gave a football-deprived city a team to call their own. It gave thousands of students and thousands more in the future something to be a part of.
Long may the Roadrunners reign.
**Special thanks to everyone who helped contribute to this piece: Emilio Arriola, Dustin Kuhn, Nestor Esquival, Garrett Duke, Ron Ellis and UTSA SOSA.