Witnessing The Emergence of UTSA as San Antonio’s Team

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Author: Edward Benningfield – @eddieb1256 

The saying goes winning cures everything.  In San Antonio, this holds true.  For the duration of UTSA’s foray into Division 1 Football, the single greatest hope of the Roadrunner faithful is the program to secure buy-in from the San Antonio community at large.  After going 11-0 so far this year and securing Coach Jeff Traylor to a $28 million, 10 year contract it appears that dream is finally becoming reality.  However, it’s been a journey to get here, and there’s still a ways to go.

San Antonio, the seventh largest city in the U.S., is the largest without an NFL team, and in a football-crazed state like Texas, that fact has played to its detriment.  Growing up in San Antonio, it’s common to hear quips about San Antonio not being a “real city” due to not having a pro team like Dallas or Houston.  In fact, observers over the years have questioned the city’s ability to support either a NFL or FBS Football team due to the strangle-hold the Dallas Cowboys have on the city, and historically the massive fanbases and alumni-bases for both the Texas-Austin Longhorns, and the Texas A&M Aggies who call the Alamo City home.

The narrative changed in 2011 with UTSA’s inaugural season, where the football-starved city came out in force to help the Roadrunners set attendance records for an inaugural game and a first season for a Division 1 Team (56,743 and 35,521, respectively).  The first few years under Larry Coker and the young Roadrunners served as a quasi-Honeymoon and view into what could be, with highlights of attendance and success seen in an 8-4 record in 2012, including a win over Texas State in the programs’ first-ever meeting in front of a crowd of 39, 032. The momentum continued in 2013 with a 7-5 record, finishing tied for second  in C-USA’s Western Division and averaging 29,214 a game in the Dome (highest attendance that season saw 40,977 come see the Roadrunners play the #13 Oklahoma State Cowboys).

2014 started by surpassing expectations with a win at Houston during the Cougar’s first game played in TDECU Stadium, followed by a close-fought loss against Arizona at home in the Dome in front of 33,472 fans.  In fact, with a roster that included the most seniors in the FBS, analysts took note of that game as a testament to how far UTSA had come in so little time, with some going as far as speculating the Roadrunners’ chance on winning Conference USA in its fourth year of existence.

However, UTSA went 4-8 in 2014, and outside of a bowl berth in 2016 under Frank Wilson, spent most of its time from this loss until the hiring of Jeff Traylor in a state of irrelevance. San Antonio loves a winner, and average attendance dwindled from 29,214 in 2013 to 19,901 in 2019, with the last two games of the season struggling to get even 14,000 into the Dome.  The city frankly gave up on the vision of what the Roadrunners could be.

Today, the program seems so far away from those dark times.  Despite Covid-19, 2020 saw the Roadrunners led by Jeff Traylor achieve their fourth winning season and first winning season since 2017, going 7-5 and earning a trip to the First Responder Bowl vs #16 UL-Lafayette.

The present-day Runners are 11-0, something not even the most die-hard Roadrunner fan would have dreamed of the evening of in the hours prior to kickoff in Champagne, Illinois to start the season.  It’s been a wild ride…a 21 point comeback win at Memphis, an announced move to the American Athletic Conference, a mid-season off-field victory over a desperate Texas Tech attempting to poach the magic of Jeff Traylor, and finally, clinching in spectacular fashion, a  C-USA West Division Championship via a 34-31, last second win over UAB in front of 35,167 rabid, literal Dome-shaking fans, and a berth to host the C-USA championship on Friday 3 December…

Here’s an observation:  the crowd was the fifth-largest crowd for a UTSA game, and the largest for a Conference USA opponent, but this is the first time UTSA has won a big game in front of its home audience. Now the team has won in front of large Alamodome crowds, especially in 2011 and 2012 when the team was new and the initial excitement in the city was still present, but in a “biggest game ever” type scenario, be it vs a P-5 team, an undefeated team, a ranked team, or with post-season implications (bowl/conference championship), those wins usually occurred during away games. The team, before last Saturday, had yet to produce that signature win at home, with the closest a game has come to igniting this city in 2014 against Arizona…and now it’s finally happened; something tangible has been provided to the 2-1-0.

So here we are, in the euphoria of the spell cast by Frank Harris and Oscar Cardenas in the Dome’s Southern endzone last Saturday, and now, something unexpected, but hoped for is beginning to happen…San Antonio is coming out and stepping up for this team.

Led by April Ancira (dubbed La Madrina by certain circles of UTSA fans) a grassroots movement has begun in earnest in the San Antonio business community to put capital behind the team’s efforts in the post season.  At the time of this piece being written, close to $100,000 has been raised in under five days for UTSA students to attend the Championship game free of charge, as well as potentially attending UTSA’s bowl game as well. Most of this funding has come from the likes of H-E-B and Taco Cabana, as well as other small businesses and alumni throughout the community.

The local news media is giving the team the Spurs treatment, with the San Antonio Express News giving the Roadrunners a full cover spread in its sports section after the UAB game, a treatment usually reserved for Longhorns and Aggie coverage on Sundays during the fall.  Moreover, organizations and businesses in San Antonio are looking to light their buildings orange in the days prior to the C-USA championship game.  It’s reverberating beyond just San Antonio, with sightings of “Birds Up” shirts in communities along the Rio Grande where Dallas Cowboys jerseys and town high school regalia reign king. The excitement is palpable.  In fact, in barely over 25 hours, the Alamodome sold out its offered allotment of 100-level seats, and rumor, straight from La Madrina herself through her connections with the ticket office, that the tickets sales have already exceeded the 35,105 who witnessed the win against UAB.

Simon Sinek, in his book and presentation “Start With Why” talks about movements, and how innovators and early adopters, with the right conditions and when people begin to buy into the “why” of the movement, see an exponential increase in buy-in by communities at large. It is safe to say that at this moment in time, UTSA is reaching that tipping point for its hometown.  Pending the results against rival UNT this weekend, this city is ready to set records, pack the Dome, and finally embrace UTSA as its home team. 2021 for the Roadrunners could be like 1999 for the Spurs.  If the magic continues, if the Runners can pull a win against the team in Denton and follow it up with the title “Conference USA Champion”, this will be the season San Antonio turns back in its collective memory and says “I was there, and THIS is my team”.

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