Nation-high 37 seniors, Coker lead UTSA into 4th season in program history

first_img Facebook Twitter Google+ It was referred to as the F-word. A joke all along, but some around the athletic offices of the University of Texas at San Antonio couldn’t muster the courage to utter the word that had been a dream in the works for nine years: “Football.”In a movement spearheaded by UTSA athletic director Lynn Hickey and president Ricardo Romo, the football program that was nothing more than a concept five years ago is now rising to national prominence. “They were committed to creating the program here and starting football right,” head coach Larry Coker said, “and I thought it had a chance. “There’s no guarantees, but I thought it had a chance.”Coker, a former national champion head coach at Miami, is at the helm of the team with 37 seniors, the most in the country. AdvertisementThis is placeholder textMany of them bought into a dream pitched to them five years ago when there wasn’t a football field to play on. They played well enough to advance the program into Conference USA and turn a projected last-place finish in 2013 into a 6-2 second-place one.That was just the opening act for the seniors’ grand finale. Coker and his veteran team are about to complete a four-year odyssey that started with a single football helmet and, they hope, concludes with more than 80 of them raised in the air celebrating a conference championship.Before Hickey was hired in 2000, she was asked in her interview with Romo if UTSA should have a football team. She rejected the idea. At that time the athletics program had 14 teams and a budget of only $1.2 million. She said adding a football program to that equation would have been outlandish. Not to mention the political, fiscal and social hurdles that would have to be cleared in order for the idea to gain any traction. So she waited.It was only a year later she said that the university experienced an explosion of growth with Romo announcing that UTSA was going to become a tier-one research institution to help fuel an enrollment growth from 16,000 to 32,000.“It became very obvious that (UTSA) had an identity problem,” Hickey said. “The kids wanted campus life.”The best selling T-shirt in the student center was one that read: “UTSA Football, Still Undefeated.” Of course, there was no football team at the time, but the cries for change were becoming louder. It was quite literally a culture shock for the kids who were raised on “Friday Night Lights,” only to come to a school in the heart of Texas and the seventh-largest city in the country and not see a football team.Hickey knew at the very least, Title IX regulations would have to be met before anything. She helped in the formation of the women’s golf and soccer teams, and the athletic department implemented a $20 student fee.Then Hurricane Katrina not only put the city of New Orleans out of commission, but it left an NFL team without a home.The Alamodome was built in 1993 with the intention of luring an NFL team to San Antonio. It was vacant when the storm struck in 2005, so the New Orleans Saints played there in San Antonio.The Saints’ short stay prompted significant business people in the area to rally around the idea of bringing a professional or college football team to San Antonio, Hickey said. The Alamodome being without a permanent resident, things started become all too apparent to Hickey and the UTSA staff, she said.“We always joked,” Hickey said, “that one hurricane blew in the Miami Hurricane, Larry Coker.”In 2006 Coker was ousted at Miami and took an analyst job at ESPN. He heard about the position at UTSA as the school began to publicize the job opening in 2008. He immediately acted upon his first instinct – dialing up good friend and Tulsa offensive line coach Denver Johnson to suggest he apply for the job.Johnson inquired about the position, and returned a phone call. That call went to Coker, and Johnson told his friend that in fact he was the one who should be applying.“I believe all of this was meant to happen,” Hickey said. ‘There’s been too many things that happened when they happened, and it wasn’t a coincidence.“What are the chances of a Larry Coker calling and telling us he was interested in the job?”Coker went through a series of interviews and ended up part of a narrowed-down field of three candidates. There was Northwest Missouri State coach Mel Tjeerdsma, Tulsa defensive coordinator Paul Randolph and Coker.“There was a chance everything could have fallen through,” Coker said, “but the chances of success were greater than the chance of failure.”Coker’s hiring was made official on March 6, 2009, and he’s been in go-mode since day one.Coker and his three newly hired assistant coaches immediately hit the recruiting trail. They sought out to recruit the best athletes regardless of what positions they played.“We realized we weren’t going to put Texas out of business with recruiting and competing against all those other schools,” Coker said. “But we said, ‘Hey, let’s just sell what we have, sell our dream, and if kids buy in then hey, we’ve got a chance.’”Nate Leonard was just a junior in high school when Coker dropped by one of his spring football practices. At the time Leonard was a fringe-Division I prospect, unsure if he could get an offer.When he heard about Coker and UTSA, it wasn’t something he was about to let pass up. He was left with an invitation to UTSA’s first-ever senior tryout camp in the Alamodome.“After I met and talked to Coach Coker for the first time at the camp,” Leonard said, “I knew he wanted to get to know more than just me. He wanted to know the people around me.“I knew if he cared that much about my family before he really knew me, how much would he care when he actually knows me and we are family?”Leonard turned his invitation to a 400-person high school senior tryout camp into the only scholarship offer he would receive — much like almost every other player who was recruited in the inaugural class of 18.The team practiced at a San Antonio Northside Independent School District field for a year. There were no facilities at UTSA.Leonard described the period of just practices for a season and holding those on a high school field as playing on “borrowed land.”The jerseys and equipment were also borrowed. The University of Texas and University of Texas-El Paso combined to send over 200 pieces of equipment for the Roadrunners to use.“We were just a rag-tag group of guys,” Leonard said. “What I love to tell people is that we were a group of guys who nobody wanted.“No one.”The players were expected to keep up with the fast pace of information being thrown at them by the coaching staff. Leonard said they were treated like salty veterans and thrown into the furnace. The canvas was blank. There was nothing to build off for Coker and Leonard — only room to create.And for a group of athletes who were playing for the football team that was likely their only shot at Division I football, they created an opportunity.“They told us that us original 18 were forged by fire,” Leonard said. “We were thrown right into the fire and forged.“We prove that every Saturday when we play.”Coker gave Leonard a recruiting pitch built on hopes and dreams, and bedazzled by the national championship ring on his finger.Now, that pitch is reinforced with top-notch facilities and a respectable conference to play in. The national championship ring still makes an occasional appearance, too.“I think he wears it around once in a while to give us an awakening and inspire us a little bit,” senior quarterback Tucker Carter said. “Plus it’s hard to miss that thing when he’s walking around.”The “rag-tag” group of seniors has plenty of reasons to play inspired. In what will be their final hurrah, this is the most complete team UTSA has fielded with five recruiting classes worth of talent. A diehard fan base that set an NCAA record for the largest single-season attendance for a start-up program — 56,743 — backs these players as much as the coaches that recruited them. The Roadrunners are ranked the 51st-best football program out of 128 Football Bowl Subdivision schools on Football Outsider’s F/+ rankings. They’re outperforming storied programs like West Virginia and California, both of which have been around much longer than four years.The motto this year is straight to the point, and might be considered a stretch for a program of any age: rings or bust.“Our dream from the beginning of when we got here was to win,” Leonard said. “That hasn’t changed and will not change. What it means to us this year is to win the conference and a bowl game.” Comments Published on September 11, 2014 at 12:08 am Contact Connor: [email protected] | @connorgrossmanlast_img

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