When Lynn Hickey interviewed for the Texas-San Antonio athletic director job in 1999, UTSA President Ricardo Romo asked her if the school should consider adding football.
Hickey told him no.
“It was cost prohibitive,” Hickey said. She told Romo, “Be good at what you've got.”
Hickey got the job. And a year later realized she had said the wrong thing.
The top-selling T-shirt in the university bookstore proclaimed “UTSA football still undefeated.” The largely commuter school of 16,000-17,000 students had no identity and little campus life.
On Sept. 7, Texas-San Antonio, in its third season of football and its second of Division I-A, hosts Oklahoma State in the Alamodome.
Football is part of a Roadrunner success story. The Texas Legislature has declared UTSA an emerging Tier I university. Enrollment is up to 31,000, with many of those students now living on campus. The school has almost as many students from Harris County (Houston) as Bexar County (San Antonio). And UTSA football, while nowhere near undefeated, has drawn as many as 57,000 fans to the Alamodome for a game.
“We didn't have any identity,” Hickey said. “Football has helped us change our persona. In Texas, kids grow up with football.”
Hickey said UTSA once was a “but” school. As in, I go to UTSA, “but” I'm saving up to go somewhere else.
And it was a bunch of Oklahomans who made the buts disappear.
* * *
When UTSA played its first game ever, Sept. 3, 2011, the city of San Antonio got quite emotional.
Sports radio callers were moved to tears as they discussed the launch of the program. As Hickey walked through the pregame tailgating, she got marriage proposals.
When UTSA's spanking-new marching band, 250 musicians strong, took the field, “people were blown away,” Hickey said. “It's been fun. It's a dream thing. How many people get a chance to build this? We've established a game experience for these students.”
The Roadrunners won that inaugural game 31-3 over Tahlequah's Northeastern State, their coach's alma mater. Such symmetry seemed fitting.
Hickey, 62, grew up in the Green Country town of Welch, where she was Lynn Sooter and scored 2,654 points in high school basketball. All four of her siblings were collegiate athletes, including brother Mark, who played basketball at OU.
Hickey went to Ouachita Baptist, then got into coaching. She was on the OU women's staff in 1977-79, then Hickey became head coach at Kansas State (hired by DeLoss Dodds) and eventually Texas A&M (hired by John David Crow). Hickey became an associate athletic director at A&M.
Hickey's Oklahoma ties are deep. When Hickey's mother was 19, she was a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse in Hitchita, halfway between Henryetta and Checotah in eastern Oklahoma. Among her students were Bill Self Sr., who became a longtime executive director of the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association and father of the Kansas basketball coach.
Bill Sr.'s brother, Jeff, rented a pasture outside Hitchita from the family of Brad Parrott.
Parrott grew up in Midwest City, went to then-Central State University and became a sports writer for the Oklahoma City Times. Parrott entered the corporate world, eventually made vice president at Southwestern Bell and retired from what is now AT&T, joining Hickey's staff as an associate athletic director for external affairs. Parrott spearheaded the fundraising and corporate/civic partnerships that made football possible at UTSA.
When Parrott was with the Times, he once covered a Luther-Fairfax playoff game. Fairfax that night was coached by Larry Coker, who had grown up in Okemah, just down the road from Hitchita.
Today, Coker is head coach at UTSA. His career has included stops as offensive coordinator at Tulsa U., OSU and OU, and six years as head coach at Miami, where his Hurricanes were 60-15 overall and 2001 national champions.
Coker's defensive coordinator is Neal Neathery, who grew up in Stillwater and whose father was an OSU professor and Coker's Sunday school teacher during his Cowboy days.
More OSU ties for UTSA: both Roadrunner basketball coaches are OSU graduates. Rae Rippetoe Blair was a Cowgirl player and assistant coach. Brooks Thompson was a star under Eddie Sutton.
And Coker's defensive line coach, Eric Roark, played at OSU from 1979-82 for Jimmy Johnson.
* * *
When Hickey got serious about adding football, she went to see San Antonio business leader Red McCombs, who once owned the Minnesota Vikings.
Hickey asked McCombs if she should raise a certain dollar amount before compiling a staff. “He said, ‘You need to hire a coach.'”
Hickey and Parrott bantered about candidates. They thought Spike Dykes, who had coached Texas Tech from 1987-99, would be the perfect candidate. Great guy. Personable. Excellent resume'. Unassuming enough to work in a trailer for a few years, before the facilities would appear.
“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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.