Since he started writing for TEXAS MONTHLY in 1997, Jason Cohen has covered a Texas-size range of musicians, actors, writers, athletes, impresarios, and fly-by-night celebrities, and even written a plaintive letter to Jennifer Love Hewitt, complete with career advice. This month, Cohen charts the birth of UTSA’s football program and contemplates the role of the sport on a growing campus, in a growing city, and in the ever-expanding mythos of the state of Texas.
What’s it like interviewing people about something that doesn’t yet exist?
Well, like the T-shirt says: “UTSA Football: Still Undefeated.” But really, it just goes to show how small a part the actual games are in the bigger picture of a college football program. They’ve been recruiting, scheduling, practicing, attending classes, marketing, and selling tickets for a year-plus, so it didn’t feel like there wasn’t anything to cover.
What challenges did you find in catching an institution like UTSA in transition? How do you get across its underperformance in an area like sports without making it seem like you’re putting the college down?
I would say it’s less underperformance than irrelevance—which probably doesn’t sound any nicer, but it’s just the reality of being such a young and small-sport school in a state where the measuring stick is UT and A&M (even TCU is hot stuff now). I’ve followed or covered schools like Portland State, Montana, Gonzaga, and Xavier, so I see UTSA in that same “mid-major” light. The basketball team will probably never reach the heights Gonzaga and Xavier have, but the university has still been a March Madness player, since they’ve hosted Final Fours and A.D. Lynn Hickey is on the men’s selection committee. It’s possible the basketball team will benefit more from being in the WAC than football will—or at least, it will seem more impressive if they win a couple of tournament games than it will for football to win a Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
Other than wins, what are the factors that help create a football tradition, in your opinion?
It’s probably all wins, isn’t it? I mean, even the teams that now seem sad-sack, when they originally established the traditions that they cling to now, it was accompanied by winning. UTSA only started sports in 1981, and they have their own hand sign (as, it seems, does every Texas school) but it’s kind of like a little indie rock band, it’s a secret. And then the basketball team makes it to March Madness a few times, and the whisper gets a little louder. And now with football, everyone in the second biggest city in the state will come to learn it—if it’s winning football.
Given the attention on profitability in higher ed, if college football doesn’t turn a profit, how does it justify itself?
Are either of them really supposed to be profitable? Are collegiate newspapers or theater productions supposed to be profitable? My understanding is most college football programs aren’t, and even many of the ones that supposedly subsidize all the other sports don’t do that as well as its adherents might claim, because they are still subsidized by student fees (as UTSA’s football team is with a fee increase the student body voted for). But I’m not convinced that means the money they get (and revenue they generate, even if it doesn’t hit the black) would otherwise go to other aspects of a university. Or that sports isn’t an equally legitimate part of what a state university should be.
“There was just a crying need for this campus to have an identity,” UTSA’s athletic director says in your piece. What is it about college football in Texas that makes it such a cohering force on a college campus?
The same thing that makes Texas proud of being Texas, really. It’s tribal. It’s patriotic. You root for the Dallas Cowboys because you grew up with the Dallas Cowboys. You root for UT because you went to UT (and so did your parents, maybe). In that sense, calling football a religion (or at least cultural identity) isn’t an exaggeration. It’s just a highly visible symbol of your background and affiliation. College graduates in Texas are more likely to say, “I’m a Longhorn” or “I’m an Aggie” than, “I went to the University of Texas,” and that comes from football, not sociology or volleyball. It’s different in the pros, especially in the satellite/Internet age. You can be a Red Sox fan without having any ties to Boston.
You wrote, “America’s appetite for football, both pro and college, live or televised, seems to be basically unlimited.” When do we have too much college football for college football’s own good?
Well, the anti-playoff people would say that’s what they are trying to prevent. Except that last year, Oregon’s semester started well before the championship game. But as long as people want to watch the minor bowl games, or two teams that are destined to go 6–5 play on a Tuesday night, it’s gonna happen, and it doesn’t really bother me more than the basketball tournament, which has got to be an academic burden too. But I’d like to go back to the time when New Year’s Day was this sacred holiday, with all the games at once, and just one extra after that.
Fix the BCS system in three sentences.
I don’t really care if there’s a playoff or if a third team or a fifth team or a ninth team gets screwed out of the chance to play for a title. Controversy has always been a part of college football, and really, the teams who got screwed in the non-BCS system (like SMU in 1982 or Penn State in 1994) probably loom larger than the teams who have since then. It was also more fun for fans when your team had a chance to go to lots of different bowls each year (and could also get their invites earlier, for easier travel planning).
What’s the greatest moment of college football you’ve ever witnessed?
In person, probably UT in Pasadena. No, not the national championship game, which I only saw on TV. The Michigan game the year before, which was also a thrill-a-minute on both sides.
What’s the most ridiculous moment of college football you’ve ever witnessed?
I guess UT’s infamous 66–13 loss to UCLA. Midway through that game, I think people started actively rooting against their own team just to leave no doubt that John Mackovic would get fired. That should never happen, but they weren’t wrong either.
Do you have tickets to UTSA’s first game?
I don’t have a ticket but I have a hotel reservation for Friday night, and I will probably choose to be in the stands rather than the press box. I imagine UTSA’s best memories on the field are still another season or two away, when they have a better team and better competition. But for a pure college football game day experience, the first-ever game ought to match the atmosphere of a bowl or big-time rivalry game. And if the game itself gets boring, there will still be time to get in the car and make the Texas–Rice kickoff.