SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Welcome to big-time college football, Texas-San Antonio Roadrunners.
"It’s kind of like going from a Cadillac to an economy car," said former Oklahoma State offensive lineman Patrick Hoog, who transferred to UTSA this fall. "But it’s still going to get me where I want to go."
The fifth new Division I team in the last three years, UTSA — a member of the Southland Conference, along with the University of Central Arkansas — will officially join the recent bonanza of college football startups when the Roadrunners play their first game Saturday. They stand alone as this season’s sole newcomer to the championship subdivision the highest level the NCAA allows for first-year programs.
But by next year, UTSA and coach Larry Coker will already begin the process of moving to the bowl teams — a transition that appears to be the fastest climb ever into college football’s top tier. The pace is so swift that the Roadrunners still won’t have their own football fields when they join the newly realigned WAC in 2012.
The timing of last summer’s WAC invite caught UTSA a little by surprise.
But far worse timing — and blindsiding UTSA even more — were allegations this month that some of Coker’s former players at Miami were treated to improper benefits by a Hurricanes booster who is now serving a 20-year prison sentence
Coker has denied any knowledge of the scandal that convicted Ponzi schemer Nevin Shapiro laid out to Yahoo! Sports. But the allegations again put UTSA in the uncomfortable position of again answering questions about Coker’s past, and this time on the eve of celebrating its historic opener.
"It’s really very hurtful. It really is. I’ll be quite honest about that," Coker said. "As I told our team, it can’t be a distraction. I’m here, it’s where I want to be."
Coker won the BCS championship at Miami in 2001, but he struggled to find another job after being fired in 2006 following a season marred by an infamous sideline-clearing brawl and off-the-field violence. UTSA athletic director Lynn Hickey said the school spent six months exhaustively vetting Coker before hiring him in 2009.
Hickey said her trust in Coker hasn’t wavered. The NCAA said it has been investigating Miami for five months, and Hickey said she’s reassured that never in time has Coker been contacted.
"I would surmise that (the NCAA) doesn’t see his time there as a major factor or his relationship with (Shapiro)," Hickey said. "Or through months of investigation, I would think there would have been a phone call to Larry Coker, and that hasn’t happened."
The NCAA has added 19 new football programs since 2009, and nearly as many more could launch by 2014. Many are small universities in college football’s lower tiers — such as NAIA or Division III — but UTSA had no interest in starting off slow. Future games with Oklahoma State and Arizona State have already been brokered.
Hickey defends UTSA’s plunge into football as sensible. Chief was vaulting the prestige of the 28,000-student campus, which for a decade has fought to shed the dismissive label of being a commuter school. Money, at least for now, isn’t a major motivator: Hickey said the program will break even, and expects the novelty of the first game to attract a crowd big enough to hit ticket revenue goals for the entire season.
Around 10,000 season tickets have been sold. For Saturday’s opener against Northeastern State, $6 tickets could be had through coupon discounter Living Social. UTSA believes a crowd of 50,000 is in reach, with attendance expected to fall around half that the remainder of the season.
Also opening the season Saturday are the Texas Longhorns — the football heavyweights with their own $300 million network are just an hour’s drive north in Austin with no shortage of San Antonio fans or alumni. It’s one of four times this season that UTSA and Texas play at home on the same weekend, and Hickey concedes the Roadrunners may adjust kickoffs to avoid conflicts.
Otherwise, Hickey said, UTSA can’t worry about being in the shadow of Texas, or slightly farther away, Texas A&M.
"(Texas) can seat maybe 100,000, and you got to be a pretty big donor to get any kind of good seat," Hickey said. "So we’re fine. My daughter grew up in Boerne, which is a middle class, upper-middle class area, and very few of those kids or families ever go to a game at Texas or A&M. We’re the answer to that. We’re the team for this community."
It’s also a team that, quite literally, plays throughout the community. The Alamodome is a 20-minute drive from the UTSA campus and practice is on a high school field. The Roadrunners hope to have their own practice field by spring 2013, but for now, track and soccer are ahead in line for new facilities.
At Oklahoma State, Hoog recalled the Cowboys’ plush, newly renovated locker room installed with at least six televisions. ("Actually, maybe seven?" he said.) But even after transferring to a situation where, in his words, the high school field’s locker room doubles as a player’s lounge, Hoog said it’s still college football.
"It’s different," Hoog said. "But it’s all the same, too.