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UTSA builds program, new fan base

HOUSTON -- As a record home crowd flowed out of Houston's TDECU Stadium, the two visitor sections filled with blue and orange grew louder.

The group of University of Texas-San Antonio fans were enthusiastic and vocal throughout the night, a potentially program-changing 27-7 upset win over Houston on Aug. 29, and as the stadium emptied, just about the only voices that could be heard were those of the Roadrunners fans.

"U-T!" they chanted, "S-A!"

It was a moment of pride for the Roadrunners, who have been building their program from the ground up since 2010, with arguably the biggest win in program history.

"I think it is," coach Larry Coker would tell reporters afterward. "I don't know one that's bigger."

The next week, the Roadrunners returned to their home, the Alamodome, and went toe-to-toe with an Arizona team that is now 5-1 and ranked 16th in the country, losing 26-23 in front of a healthy crowd of 33,472. Building takes time (the Roadrunners are now 2-4), but it's clear on-field progress is being made with this still-young football program.

The same can be said off the field as the Roadrunners continue their journey to becoming San Antonio's team.

Like most cities in Texas, San Antonio loves its football. There is quality high school football and plenty of NFL fans. The Dallas Cowboys have a strong presence from their off-and-on years using the Alamodome as a training camp site until 2011. The New Orleans Saints played three games in the Alamodome in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina. But FBS football did not exist.

From the time athletic director Lynn Hickey stepped on campus in 2000, she could tell there was an appetite for football.

"The best-selling T-shirt in the student center was 'UTSA football is still undefeated,'" Hickey recalls. "That was a cry all those years ago for an identity, a piece of campus life just like everybody had at Texas, Texas Tech, Baylor, A&M."

UTSA president Ricardo Romo, who arrived the same year, began building the school up academically. As the academic profile of the school continued to rise, raising the athletic profile became part of the mission, too. In Texas, one of the most impactful ways to do it is on the gridiron.

Hickey knew the school would need the support of city leaders to show there would be support for football.

"I did not realize the need there was in the city to have FBS football," Hickey said. "Because we have really been embraced not just by our alumni, who were very, very excited, but by people in San Antonio who love football and have kind of adopted this as their team even if they've graduated from Texas or A&M or Texas Tech. We've had a lot of people step up for us."

Romo, a San Antonio native who was an athlete himself (he was the first Texan to run a sub-four minute mile), was keenly aware of what football would mean to the area.

One of the biggest steps was landing a recognizable name as its first head coach. Coker's name still resonates because of his accomplishments at Miami, where he led the Hurricanes to a 2001 national championship.

As Coker began putting the football program together, off-the-field tasks included finding an identity and generating support. That meant becoming part of the fabric of San Antonio, a city whose demographics are unique to most college football towns: 63.2 percent of the population is of Hispanic or Latino origin, according to 2010 census data.

Embracing the Hispanic culture was a no-brainer for the Roadrunners.

"That's who we are, and it's something that we're very, very proud of," Hickey said. "We're a minority-majority campus. We're very much that way as a city, so we're proud of that."

From a marketing standpoint, it has become the Roadrunners' goal not only to become San Antonio's team, but to become the team for South Texas. UTSA is the FBS school furthest south in Texas, so to the Roadrunners, it only makes sense to expand their marketing efforts to that region.

The program started barnstorming around the state for "Roadrunner Road Trips" and, in addition to traditional staples such as Houston and Dallas, have made sure to make stops in South Texas cities such as Corpus Christi and Laredo. Associate athletic director for marketing Jim Goodman said many alumni events are held in the South Texas region, which he said should be "Roadrunner territory."

"When I first started going places wearing a UTSA shirt in Corpus or Laredo or somewhere in South Texas, nobody would say anything to me," Goodman said. "When the football program started, I was wearing a UTSA shirt, I had people stop me on the street. 'Hey, I'm interested in what's going on,' or, 'I went up to a game.' We have season-ticket holders that live in Laredo and various parts of South Texas, and they come up for the day."

Having on-field success helps. Goodman joked that an old boss of his once said, "The best promotion is a three-game winning streak."

Some measures are more visible. In 2012, the program had its first "Hispanic Heritage Day" game during Hispanic Heritage Month, and it continues to do so each season. The team donned jerseys that had "Los Roadrunners" on the back, to positive responses. It has even had a mariachi band perform alongside the UTSA marching band for a 2012 halftime performance. Goodman said they've had agreements to have games broadcast on Spanish-speaking radio stations in the past, and though they didn't reach an agreement this year, they plan to return next year.

The program has also paid homage to some of the history of the region. Years ago, Goodman had an idea to take the "Come and Take It" flag, a reference to the Battle of Gonzales, the first battle of the Texas Revolution, and modify it to give it a UTSA flavor, replacing the cannon with a football and the star with the school's Roadrunner logo. He had the mascot run onto the field with it, and people began to notice.

Goodman even made a trip to Gonzales, which is roughly 75 miles east of San Antonio, to get the blessing of the mayor and city manager.

"It's kind of become a little bit of a rallying cry from an attitude standpoint," Goodman said. "At the start of the fourth quarter, we put 'Come and Take It' up on our ribbon boards and video wall, and at some point that'll morph into something more. That's an identity thing, an attitude thing, that just kind of grew out of something that's kind of germane to our area. That whole part of Texas history, a bunch of it happened in this part of South Texas."

The players have even worn gloves with "Come and Take It" on them.

Fans in and around San Antonio responded with support for the program. The Roadrunners inaugural game drew 56,743 in 2011, an NCAA record for such a game. UTSA saw its season-ticket holder base go from 11,639 in 2011 to nearly 15,000 last season. This season, it's at just below 14,000, but its average attendance remains solid (31,094 in 21 home games all-time).

Coker has also made a commitment to recruit locally in San Antonio and regionally, as well. The roster has more than 40 players from San Antonio and the surrounding area or the region south of the city.

"Coach Coker has done a real good job of recruiting from San Antonio, concentrating on the city of San Antonio, because we have so many kids play right there, then moving out from there," Hickey said. "Of course, we go to Houston and Dallas, but we also go into South Texas. Not a lot of recruiters are going to go into South Texas because of the demographics, and the schools are so spread out. ... So we want to really be a stronghold for a really good place for those kids that are FBS-quality to come in and play."

Membership in FBS conferences became game-changers. After one season as an FCS independent, UTSA entered the Western Athletic Conference, where it spent the 2012 season. In 2013 it joined Conference USA, which has had immense impact.

"It was huge," Hickey said. "Huge. We had hoped that this would happen but we never dreamed that in our third year of football, we'd be in Conference USA."

As for the current on-field results, the Roadrunners hit a bit of a skid after their opening win, losing three in a row, but the Roadrunners pulled out a 16-13 win over Florida International on Saturday.

The on-field progress will continue. For now, Coker's words after the season-opening win still apply.

"It's amazing where we are," he said that day. "Three years ago we barely had a team, and we started out with three coaches. Now we're in our fourth season playing in Division I football against a team like Houston at home and winning.

"There's more big [wins] to come, hopefully."