How a bunch of Oklahomans helped UTSA build a football program from scratch

Texas-San Antonio established a football program in 2009, started playing in 2011, was in Division I-A by 2012 and hosts OSU on Sept. 7.
by Berry Tramel Published: July 20, 2013
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photo - UTSA President Ricardo Romo (center) is joined by football head coach Larry Coker (left) and athletic director Lynn Hickey (right) for a portait on Media Day for the UTSA football program at the Alamodome on Friday, August 19, 2011. Kin Man Hui/kmhui@express-news.net
UTSA President Ricardo Romo (center) is joined by football head coach Larry Coker (left) and athletic director Lynn Hickey (right) for a portait on Media Day for the UTSA football program at the Alamodome on Friday, August 19, 2011. Kin Man Hui/kmhui@express-news.net

“What we got was Spike Dykes with a national championship ring,” Parrott said.

Hickey received hundreds of calls from coaches interested in the job. She glanced at one message and said, “You think this is the real Larry Coker?”

Hickey called Coker at his home in Miami. He was vacuuming the floor and stopped to chat.

“We just hit it off,” Hickey said.

Coker had been fired by Miami after the 2006 season and had spent the ensuing years working with ESPN.

Coker was ready to get his fire stoked again. He visited with Jim Leavitt, who had started the South Florida program from scratch, and Howard Schnellenberger, who had done the same at Florida Atlantic.

Schnellenberger told him, “Coach, it'll be the greatest thing you ever do.”

Coker was hired in 2009. At the time, UTSA owned one helmet and one football; both were used at the introductory news conference.

“I think we have some realistic goals,” Coker said. “I want to get facilities built for them, make sure we go to a bowl game. I want them to experience that.”

The Roadrunners' rise already has been meteoric. Before it ever played a game, UTSA received an invitation to the Western Athletic Conference, effective 2012. The changing conference landscapes made UTSA valuable, and a year later, as the WAC neared dissolution, the Roadrunners were courted by the Sun Belt, the Mountain West and Conference USA.

UTSA joined C-USA and this season will be in a division with the likes of Tulsa, North Texas, Rice and Texas-El Paso. The Roadrunners, who went 8-4 last season, were picked last in the seven-team CUSA West Division.

“It's been fun,” Parrott said. “Looking back, I can't believe we've come as far as we have.”

The Roadrunners have set up some interesting schedules. Between now and 2020, UTSA hosts not just OSU, but Houston, Arizona, Kansas State, Arizona State and Baylor.

“I don't want to go to the SEC yet,” Coker joked a few days ago. “We'll stay where we're at for awhile. But it's going to be a great program. Hopefully be a Boise State. We're the next great Texas university. I believe we can do it.”

The Alamodome gives UTSA a unique recruiting tool. It's not on campus, which is most schools' desire, but Parrott secured a 25-year lease with the iconic building. He points out that the only Texas football teams that play indoors are the Dallas Cowboys, Houston Texans and UTSA Roadrunners.

Committing to the 'Dome means UTSA will play with the comfort of 72-degree air conditioning and knowing fundraising can focus on non-stadium facilities.

The San Antonio high temperature was 106 the day of that inaugural game in 2011. A year before, a group of UTSA officials bused over to the University of Houston to shadow their counterparts on a UH game day. Everyone from high-ranking administrators to game operations staff.

It was 100 degrees and high humidity that day. Parrott got texts before kickoff, asking, “Can we go home? Thank God we're playing in the 'Dome.”

* * *

Hickey and Parrott came through their old state a few days ago, trying to drum up excitement among OSU fans to come to San Antonio.

UTSA wants to sell out the 65,000-seat Alamodome. The Roadrunners averaged 29,225 fans per game last season, with San Jose State and Utah State the marquee visitors.

But the next Alamodome visitor is the Big 12 favorite.

It's a remarkable success story. Since 2008, 56 schools have established college football. Only a few have taken the plunge into major-college status: North Carolina-Charlotte, which starts play this season and moves to I-A in 2015; South Alabama, which launched in 2010 and moves to I-A this season; and Old Dominion, which began in 2009 and moves into I-A in 2014.

But none have made the football impact of Texas-San Antonio nor used the sport to enhance the university the way it's happened in San Antonio.

Parrott said football provides affordable entertainment for students, builds pride in the university and builds equity in a UTSA degree.

“Through football exposure, people know what UTSA is,” Parrott said. The university has hosted multiple Final Fours in the Alamodome, but “not that many people knew what UTSA was. They thought it was an insurance company.”

Through the leadership of Romo, UTSA has more than doubled the square footage of its campus since 1999 and increased its doctoral programs from two to 24. Admission standards have risen three times in five years, and graduation rates have gone up. A $125 million capital campaign was completed two years early.

And football is more than just along for the ride. The Roadrunners aren't trying to be the next Texas or Texas A&M, but the Texas Tech of San Antonio? The Baylor of San Antonio? A school can dream.

This one, led by a batch of Oklahomans, already has.

Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at btramel@opubco.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.

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by Berry Tramel
Columnist
Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The...
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