SAN ANTONIO — As UTRGV students vote this week on a potentially history-making referendum that would bring Division I football to campus and to the Rio Grande Valley, one may not have to look far for a perfectly executed blueprint.
Granted, the University of Texas at San Antonio sits in the nation’s seventh largest city with nearly 1.6 million people. The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s two campuses are located in Hidalgo County, with a population of about 870,000 and Cameron County, with 425,000.
Those two counties give the region somewhat of a comparable number, even though population alone isn’t a guarantee for success. UTSA’s template, however, has been so impressive that it has vastly surpassed many of its goals in just a portion of the time it was expected to do so.
The most recent major goal checked off as “completed” was the opening of the $40.4 million Roadrunners Athletics Center for Excellence on Aug. 24. The building began as a vision to “create a central hub for UTSA Athletics and to further promote the academic success, health, wellness and performance of the university’s student-athletes,” according to a news release.
Many of their best practices can apply to all levels and sizes of schools looking to do something similar.
Still, many of the hurdles that UTSA, or even Kennesaw State in Georgia, which began NCAA Division I football in 2015 in the Football Championship Subdivision level, are comparable and the paths to the ultimate goal run close together.
It all begins, however, with a referendum that the UTRGV student body will vote on beginning Monday and ending Wednesday night. If passed, the referendum would increase the athletic fee for students by $11.25 per credit hour, up to 12 hours. It would also “allow for the expansion or addition of a spirit program on both campuses, a Division I women’s swimming and diving program and marching bands on both campuses.
The student fees would bring revenue to cover a large portion of the expenses. Things like ticket sales, merchandise and sponsorships and donors. UTSA students passed their referendum in September 2007 with 65.9% voting in favor.
“UTSA students have spoken, and this vote endorses their dream to take the athletics program at the University to the next level,” UTSA Vice President for Student Affairs Gage Paine said in a news release from the university after the results were announced.
Football at UTRGV would begin in the fall of 2025.
Last month, The Monitor visited with UTSA officials in San Antonio to gauge the arduous task of meeting such great expectations, and what UTRGV can expect in its efforts to do the same.
“I think one of the most important things from a football standpoint was understanding that we had to be more important than any high school game no matter what it means to the high school teams,” said Andy Everett, who has been the radio voice of UTSA football since its inception. “If UTSA is playing team XYZ, it has to matter more so more people go to it. Fortunately, for the most part, that has happened.”
It also helps that most high school football games are played on Thursday or Friday and UTSA plays Saturday afternoons or evenings. Hiring Larry Coker as their first head football coach almost guaranteed that importance and gave the program instant credibility that it would not have had otherwise.
“When Lynn Hickey (athletic director at the time) and I talked about a prototype coach, we used names like Spike Dykes,” said Brad Parrott, who was the senior associate athletic director for external affairs from 2001 to 2017. “He had the name and had the cache to walk into any CEO’s office and convince them we were going to be a big-time football program.”
Dykes took over the Texas Tech program in 1986 and coached the team until his retirement in 1999. He took the Red Raiders to seven bowl games and became the first Texas Tech coach to beat the University of Texas in six different seasons. He was named the Southwest Conference Coach of the Year three times and Big 12 Conference Coach of the Year one time.
“What we got though was Spike Dykes with a national championship,” Parrott said, referring to Coker, who led the University of Miami to the 2001 national title.
“A lot depends on who you hire as a coach, it’s how you create buzz and excitement,” Everett said. “You can hire someone who could be a great coach and one day coaching in the Super Bowl, but when he’s 27 years old nobody knows who he is.
“Find someone who is 60 years old, wants another shot at it and has a pedigree. All of a sudden he can walk into any business and they know who he is.”
While a coaching decision is bigger than just the Xs and Os on the field and contributed greatly to UTSA’s meteoric rise, area support from businesses, coaches and residents-turned–fans is crucial.
Ticket sales are the second largest revenue maker to support the program, and merchandise sales both directly and indirectly increase revenue and value, when everyone is wearing their school gear and not some other school’s.
“The No. 1 selling T-shirts back in 2001 said ‘UTSA Football… Still Undefeated,’” Everett said.
The school was established in 1969 and 32 years later we didn’t have football. Those shirts have come back now. People want them because we are 8-0.
“You would see a lot of Texas and Texas A&M shirts on students walking across campus. You don’t see that now,” Parrott said. “Merchandise sales revenues have skyrocketed. And that’s a great indicator of community support and student support.”
The increased sales revenue ran parallel to a program that had a jaw-dropping inaugural game and a meteoric rise ever since. UTSA began its inaugural season on Sept. 3, 2011 against Northwestern State in the Alamodome in front of 56,743 fans. It was a record for the highest-attended game for an FBS startup program.
“There weren’t a lot of dry eyes in the dome when the marching band came out on the field,” Everett said. “Right then, it became a reality. It was happening.”
UTRGV has packaged the referendum and all that comes with it as “enhancing the complete student experience.” UTSA had a similar message during their successful bid, promising students three things with the passage.
“We promised them fun, affordable entertainment, pride and tradition and, most importantly, equity in your degree,” Everett said. “If you walk into an office in Seattle and they see you have a cyber security degree from UTSA, they know UTSA but not because of cyber security but because they just saw us play Memphis on ESPN, or we just played a bowl game or because Larry Coker is our coach.
“They know UTSA athletics because we are the billboard for the university.”
View the full photo gallery here: