For a 65,000-seat stadium, the Alamodome is one hell of a basketball gym. The San Antonio Spurs won their first NBA championship there in 1999 before departing for the AT&T Center, and the NCAA men’s and women’s Final Four has taken place there five times combined. But football? San Antonio built its artificial turf of dreams in 1993, but football didn’t come. Sure, the Dallas Cowboys regularly hold training camps inside the climate-controlled dome, the New Orleans Saints played three games there after Hurricane Katrina, and Notre Dame and Army have each had a “home” game in the River City (though Army’s was against Texas A&M). But the only gridders to ever truly call the Alamodome home were the short-lived San Antonio Texans, who for one season in 1995 competed in the Canadian Football League, squaring off against foes like the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on a 110-yard field.
On September 3, that finally changes, as the University of Texas at San Antonio opens its first-ever football season against Northeastern (Oklahoma) State before what UTSA and city boosters hope will be a nearly sold-out crowd. “This is what we really built the dome for,” enthused former Spurs owner and UTSA donor Red McCombs before the considerably smaller crowd that came out for the Roadrunners’ spring “Football Fiesta” scrimmage in April. Well, not really. Until Red sold the Minnesota Vikings, in 2005, San Antonians thought they might still get an NFL team, not a mostly freshman college football squad, wearing the jersey of a school that didn’t even have athletics until 1981.
In the pantheon of Texas college sports, UTSA barely rates. During the first eighteen years of the program, the Roadrunners qualified for two men’s NCAA basketball tournaments, losing all games, and won small conference titles in tennis, cross-country, and track. Things have improved since Lynn Hickey became UTSA’s athletics director, in 1999. The softball, baseball, women’s golf, and men’s track-and-field teams, and others, have all won conference titles, while men’s basketball notched the school’s first-ever NCAA tournament victory in any sport last March, beating Alabama State in the expanded field of 68. These victories have come against the backdrop of a booming school and city. Chartered in 1969, the university has fewer than 90,000 alumni, but like San Antonio, it is growing fast. Enrollment is now over 30,000, with more and more full-time and residential students, a robust Greek system, and a mascot named Rowdy that you can friend on Facebook (education: “Studied Awesomeness at Texas San Antonio”).
Still, a university without a football team, especially in Texas, is like a song without a chorus. And so, after several years of run-up, UTSA will join Georgia State (Atlanta), Florida Atlantic (Boca Raton), and Florida International (Miami) as recent big-city colleges to launch a football team from scratch. It’s a lengthy process that brings into focus questions fans and school administrators all over the country are already asking, particularly in this big-money, hyper-commercialized sports age: What is college football’s cost? What’s its value? What’s its relationship to the university’s larger mission, both philosophically and in practice?
For UTSA, though, perhaps the most important question is, Can football tradition be created out of thin air? Those other recent start-ups have enjoyed a mostly good reception. America’s appetite for football, both pro and college, live or televised, seems to be basically unlimited. But the stakes are high. The budget for the Roadrunner football team eclipses by a mile any other team’s. Financing it required not only a $15 million fund-raising campaign but also a vote from the UTSA student body to double the athletics fee that’s added to tuition each semester (it passed overwhelmingly). Without a long history of fandom to fall back on, will a few losing seasons dampen their enthusiasm? It’s only partly true that every school wants to have a football team: Every school wants to have a football team that wins.
And here is where UTSA’s story gets even more intriguing. The Roadrunners take the field for the first time under the guidance of a head coach who has won at the highest levels. Larry Coker comes to San Antonio with something that even Mack Brown didn’t have when he was hired by the Longhorns (and something that Gary Patterson and TCU are moving to the Big East to have a better chance at getting): a BCS national championship, which Coker earned as the head coach of the 2001 Miami Hurricanes. Coker was also named National Coach of the Year in both that year and 2002. Hickey knew that her first football hire had to make a splash, “but in my wildest dreams, quite honestly, to get the caliber of a Larry Coker here?” she says. “I didn’t know if that was really possible.”
The enthusiasm for Coker and his team was clear on the Saturday of the team’s spring game, when six thousand people turned out for a vanilla football practice with no tackling of the quarterback or special teams. “I think it’s the greatest thing to ever hit San Antonio,” said Jeff Seaman, a 48-year-old salesman with no connection to the university. Elsewhere in the Alamodome stands, fans already accustomed to breaking out the blue and (not burnt) orange for basketball games flashed the thumb and little fingers to make the Roadrunner hand sign (“Get your birds up!”). Many wore T-shirts with the inaugural football schedule printed on the back or the slogan “ UTSA Football: Still Undefeated.” A great hook, but it wasn’t thought up by some marketer in anticipation of this season. Rather, it’s been the best-selling T-shirt at the UTSA campus bookstore for twelve years.
Roadrunner football has been in the making just about that long. When Hickey, then the senior associate athletics director at Texas A&M, interviewed for her job in 1999, UTSA president Ricardo Romo asked her flat out what she thought about the possibility of starting football.
“I said, ‘No, sir,’ ” she recalls. “ ‘It’s probably cost-prohibitive.’ ” She suggested that