When it was all said and done, UTSA head football coach Jeff Traylor had 488 congratulatory text messages. More than half of them, he guesses, were from Texas high-school football coaches. From his mentors and buddies. From his competitors, too.
“Look,” he said, “I’m a Texas high-school football coach with seven Texas high school assistants and a bunch of Texas high school players. For us to go into Big Ten territory and get that done . . .” His voice trailed off.
“These players, they believed in me from day one,” he said.
One victory can put an upstart program on the map, and UTSA got one of those last Saturday, when the Roadrunners played on the road and defeated Illinois 37–30 at the start of Traylor’s second season in San Antonio. (The coach led the Roadrunners to a 7–5 record last year, with Traylor’s first season ending in a bowl-game loss to Louisiana that Traylor couldn’t attend because he had COVID-19.)
Saturday’s win was no fluke. UTSA rolled up 497 yards of offense against Illinois, including 217 on the ground. If you’re going to win against the Big Ten, you might as well play like a Big Ten team.
Illinois may have been hoping for a breather, one week after the Illini opened their season with a win over Nebraska. Instead, UTSA came home with a school-record $1.1 million payout and confirmation that there’s enough high school talent in Texas to fuel several college football programs, including a relative newcomer like UTSA’s, which has only been around since 2011.
Against Illinois, the 53-year-old Traylor pulled off a feat only the best coaches can: he convinced his players that they were the better team, rather than their favored opponents, and that the Roadrunners’ win would not be an upset. In the days since, he has continued to talk that talk. “There are plenty of kids in Texas,” he said. “These high school coaches are the best in the country. We’ve just got to go find the players and develop them. Player development is just as important as player recruitment. I’ve seen players in the fifth grade you never thought were very good, and they end up being really good. As coaches, that’s our job.”
UTSA jumped out to an early 14–0 lead against Illinois and never trailed, as junior Zakhari Franklin (from Cedar Hill) caught ten passes for 155 yards, senior quarterback Frank Harris (from Schertz) threw for 280 yards, and junior running back Sincere McCormick (from Converse) gained 117 yards.
Here’s what makes Traylor unique. He spent 25 seasons in high school football, beginning with 10 seasons of assistant-coaching gigs in East Texas towns like Big Sandy and Jacksonville, followed by 15 seasons as the head coach in his hometown of Gilmer. He was good at it, too. Traylor’s teams won three state championships at Gilmer High and finished second two other times. Gilmer High now plays in Jeff Traylor Stadium.
Shortly after the 2014 season, at a point in his life when he would have been perfectly happy to spend the rest of his days at home, University of Texas coach Charlie Strong came calling.
Wait, what? Traylor had turned down, by his own estimation, “seven or eight” college jobs through the years. “But this was the University of Texas,” he said. “This was Charlie Strong, who is a really good man.” Over a whirlwind few days, Traylor flew to Austin, sat for about twelve hours of interviews, and took the job.
But the dream career move wasn’t that easy of a decision for a man who had his roots in Gilmer and who was proud of the life he had built. “It was very tough,” he said. “My son Jake was a senior. I really took pride in being a good dad and husband. I taught Sunday school. I coached Little League baseball. I took [my daughter] to dance; I took her to cheer. I was that dad. And I want to be that dad.”
But he was intrigued by what Strong offered. Traylor would be the Longhorns’ tight ends coach, but besides the x’s and o’s, his real mission would be to put UT back in the good graces of Texas high school coaches and to get recruiting back on track. Because he had deep relationships—and a good name—throughout the state’s high school football scene, and because he had friends and mentors scattered throughout the state, Traylor was able to deliver for the Longhorns.
“What [Strong] communicated to me was that he had alienated a lot of high school football coaches,” Traylor said. “He didn’t really understand the culture, and he wanted somebody to help him with that. My name kept coming up. He also wanted to do a better job recruiting East Texas. When Texas was really good, they had a lot of East Texas players. So I’m sure Earl Campbell [“the Tyler Rose“] helped me a little bit there.”
Thanks in large part to Traylor, Texas signed top-ten recruiting classes in 2015 and ’16, and he was named Big 12 Recruiter of the Year in 2016. But his efforts couldn’t save Strong, who was fired after a second straight 5–7 season that year. New Texas coach Tom Herman didn’t retain Traylor, who spent a season at SMU and two at Arkansas before getting the UTSA job.
Traylor had been eyeing the gig for a while, and he watched as the school—and its athletic aspirations—grew. He’d interviewed for the head coaching position in 2016, the year Frank Wilson was hired, and when the opportunity came back around in 2019, he got the gig. “I always thought this job could be something really special,” Traylor said. “It’s the seventh-largest city in the country. It’s a very multicultural city. The university is fantastic. We’ve got a great Alamodome to play in. We’re the greatest state in the country to play football in, and I know the coaches. I thought we could do really well here.”
He said the basics of coaching—teaching, organizing, communicating—are not much different at UTSA than they were at Gilmer. His core beliefs haven’t changed. “Just love God and love people,” he said. “Now, you’ve got to be a good coach. You’ve got to know x’s and o’s. There’s a lot of other stuff. But it starts with loving God and loving people.”
Traylor can tick off a list of coaching mentors who’ve shaped his thinking. He regularly took his high-school assistant coaches on weeklong visits to college programs, including Oklahoma under Bob Stoops and Texas under Mack Brown. He visited Katy High School to watch coach Gary Joseph, who has led the Tigers to five state championships over the past seventeen seasons, conduct spring practices.
“When you’ve got really good high school players, all those colleges let you come visit,” Traylor said. “So every spring, we went and stayed a week with some college, and every summer we did it again. They were always really good to me. I just wanted to see how they do things. I still hear from Mack.”
And at the core of everything UTSA does will be the hundreds of connections Traylor has in and around Texas high schools. He says coaches ought to be judged more by the impact they have on players than the number of games they win. And this summer in San Antonio, he got an indication of the impact he’s had at the Texas High School Coaches Association’s annual convention. Traylor was asked to speak five times during the three-day event, and he encountered an outpouring of respect as he made his way from one engagement to the next. At every turn, fellow coaches were offering congratulations.
“It was awesome to be around my buddies and see them,” he said. “We hosted a social at Pinkerton’s Barbecue and thought maybe a hundred [people] would show up. We served seven hundred eighty-eight coaches barbecue that night and talked ball from seven to eleven o’clock. Those relationships are special.”
This week, looking ahead to the rest of the Roadrunners’ season, Traylor has cautioned his players that last week’s triumph over Illinois still counts as just one win, even if it felt like more. UTSA plays Lamar at 5 p.m. Saturday in the Alamodome.
When I spoke with Traylor a few days ago, he wanted me to know how appreciative he was for the opportunity to coach at UTSA. He profusely thanked Lisa Campos, UTSA’s vice president for intercollegiate athletics and athletic director. He credited the donors who have helped pay for a $40 million facility that will be the heartbeat of sports on the San Antonio campus.
“I know they’re thrilled for the vision of UTSA,” he said, “and I’m thrilled to be part of it. This is a dream job for me, and I feel very, very blessed.”