28 12 LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE

SAN ANTONIO – Larry Coker leans against the padded chain-link fence that borders the University of Texas at San Antonio's new football practice field, a turf-laid, regulation-length parcel of land just steps from the university's on-campus football offices.

Arms crossed at times, loose against his side at others, Coker watches, eyeballs and follows the action during the Roadrunners' final practice of August, his only companion three sheets of notes; one, detailing special teams, is laminated in case rain does come to Houston on Friday night, as per the early weather forecast.

Here is the CEO at work: Coker steps back and observes, leaving the nuts-and-bolts minutiae to his crew of assistant coaches. They spend the warm Thursday morning – with blistering heat waves radiating off the field turf – taking the shorts-wearing travel squad that is roughly 70 players strong through the last stages of preparation.

It's a detail-oriented process.

Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Kevin Brown leads the offensive side through game-specific situations, on tendencies near the goal line, on taking the victory formation, on gadget plays. At the opposite end of the field, defensive coordinator Neal Neathery takes his charges through formations; with a smaller group at his disposal, Neathery replaces walk-ons with turned-over garbage bins.

Special teams coordinator Perry Eliano comes next, walking the Roadrunners' coverage teams through kickoff protocol – working on what the team might do if the Cougars kick it short, for instance.

Then the horn blows, signaling the end of practice and bringing the Roadrunners to the middle of the field, and Coker takes over. He's not one for speeches, as he'll readily admit, but duty calls.

He begins with a message. "This isn't our first rodeo," Coker says, and he's right, technically – UTSA has prepared for games before, 34 of them, just never with such expectations and never, as will be the case Friday, on national television.

He touches on Houston, the Roadrunners' first-weekend opponent. The Cougars may think "we're just the startup guys from San Antonio," Coker says, "who played a piss-ant schedule and did good."

They're right, technically: UTSA is a startup program, just now entering its fourth season of game-playing existence, and has met nearly as many lower-tier opponents, 15, as members of the Football Bowl Subdivision. Yet Coker reiterates: "This isn't our first rodeo."

He ends with a question, first posed rhetorically, then levied at equipment manager Mike Villa.

"We're bringing our big-boy pads, not our little-boy pads, right?" Coker asks. Then, to Villa: "You got our big-boy pads?"

Villa nods in approval. We've got our big-boy pads. Of this there is no debate.

Yet it wasn't long ago that any pads, big or small, would have stood as an improvement.

In the spring of 2009, when the program first opened its doors, UTSA had just one helmet and a makeshift jersey purchased by Coker himself at a local Walmart. Coker would bring both to community events and recruiting visits, presenting witnesses tangible evidence of the team's formation.

To help with the lack of practice gear, Villa reached out to the University of Texas-El Paso, his alma mater, which responded by sending 100 sets of pads to San Antonio. The University of Texas followed suit, sending the Roadrunners another 100 pieces of equipment and giving the program enough to outfit a roster of 25 scholarship recruits and 40-plus walk-ons.

Mismatched pads. Walk-ons. One signing class. One head coach. Two maps. Three assistant coaches. High school facilities. No games; just practice. Think Bad News Bears; think Necessary Roughness. This was the beginning of UTSA football.

Now, four years after first taking the field, and thanks to the harmonic convergence of circumstances – location, coaching, player evaluation, conference realignment, a plan, a dash of luck, even a hurricane – UTSA has grown faster than any program in the modern history of college football, bypassing the traditional adjustment period to stand as the startup gold standard.

"The kids here bought into the dream," Coker said. "That's kind of how it worked out. Totally a dream. That's what it was. I look back on it, for those kids to buy into that was unreal. And since then, this place has just exploded."

Offensive lineman Nate Leonard, one of the 18 fifth-year seniors who joined the program in 2010, back when UTSA had yet to hold its first practice – let alone play in its first game – has occupied a front-row seat for the program's explosive growth.

"It's more than sweet," Leonard said as he walked to the team bus after a season-opening 27-7 win at Houston. "It makes all the (expletive) worth it."

***

Lynn Hickey was one of three finalists for the open UTSA athletics director position in 1999, when the most popular shirt at the university's bookstore played on the lack of a football program: "UTSA Football," it read, "Still Undefeated."

Each candidate for the position was asked the question: Do you think this university needs football?

One finalist, current North Texas athletics director Rick Villarreal, answered in the affirmative. Hickey, on the other hand, said no – and got the job.

She understood the landscape. At the time, UTSA's budget for football was $1.2 million – enough to field a lower-level program, perhaps, likely on the Division III, non-scholarship level, with the supremely tenuous promise of future growth. There was no infrastructure in place to handle the endeavor, both on campus and in the San Antonio community. The timing simply wasn't right, Hickey said.

Besides, developing a football program had been bandied about on campus for more than a decade. It also had been discussed by Hickey's predecessor, Bobby Thompson, who ran into similar speed bumps in the early 1990s – money, for one, but also the lack of an institutional foundation.

The dialogue began to shift in 2001. The campus, long composed primarily of commuter students, started to lean younger; these students "were crying for a sense of identity," Hickey said. Community leaders – particularly those in the business realm, who understood the potential dollars-and-cents impact of a football program – became more invested in the idea.

It all started with a foundation. UTSA knew Title IX regulations would demand matching women's sports to allow for the creation of a football program; Hickey spearheaded the creation of women's soccer and golf, sports offered in the Southland Conference, then the university's affiliation. So Hickey and other university leaders began to discuss the possibility, but in coded terms: Hickey and UTSA president Ricardo Romo would call football the "f-word," as if merely saying the sport aloud might cause the idea to slip away.

The athletic department didn't have its own student fee; UTSA passed a referendum to create a $20 fee.

"The potential was just unlimited," Hickey said. "When you looked at what was sitting there. If you had any vision at all it was a goldmine. Location, location, location. You're in a major city that did not have a large, four-year public institution."

Then came Hurricane Katrina.

The hurricane, which tore through the Southeast in 2005, forced the New Orleans Saints out of the storm-damaged Superdome. The Saints then came to San Antonio's Alamodome, thanks in part to owner Tom Benson ties to the city's business community, and played three home games at the arena during the 2005 season before returning to New Orleans in 2006.

The Saints' short stay whetted San Antonio's appetite for football. This was particularly true among members of the local chamber of commerce: Led by John Montford, then the organization's president, 100 business leaders wrote a paper saying San Antonio would work to have an NFL team – and/or a Football Bowl Subdivision program.

The plan for an NFL team fell apart, but the possibility for a major-level college program, already moved forward on UTSA's campus, was out in the open.

"It had been said aloud to business leaders: Division I football," Hickey said. "So it set the stage. They lost the big player. They had us. The dome needs a full-time tenant. I mean, just everything fell into place."

It was the program's first break – but not its last.

"I'll tell you what, I'm a good old Southern Baptist," Hickey said. "I went to Ouachita Baptist and everything. And I really believe there's a plan in our lives. This is a plan. How in the world? So we joke about, you know, one hurricane gave us football. And it drove in the other Miami Hurricane."

***

Coker spent six seasons as the offensive coordinator at Miami (Fla.) before being named Butch Davis' successor in 2001, in time to inherit one of the most talented rosters in college football history.

The 2001 team won the national championship, dismantling Nebraska to capture the title. In 2002 the Hurricanes won their first 12 games – giving Coker a then-record 24 wins in a row to start his career – before losing, dramatically and somewhat controversially, to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.

Then the program began to stumble: Miami went 11-2 in 2003, 9-3 in both 2004 and 2005, and 7-6 in 2006, leading to Coker's dismissal at the end of the regular season.

He spent all of 2007 and 2008 working for ESPN, contributing in-studio analysis on Saturdays and waiting for the call that never came – for the next job, seemingly a near-certainty for a coach with a résumé of national-title success.

"I thought about, well, this probably isn't going to happen," Coker said. "Was a little bit surprised by that, to be quite honest with you. I don't know what the negatives were. Again, things just kind of happened for the right reasons. And this was the right place to be."

It nearly didn't come about. When the university first advertised the position in 2008, Coker encouraged a friend, current Tulsa offensive line coach Denver Johnson, to inquire about the opening; Johnson looked, inquired and called Coker back, telling himto look into UTSA.

So Coker called the athletics department, leaving a message with Hickey's secretary. Among a stack of inquiries – UTSA had opted not to hire an outside firm, instead handling its own coaching search – Hickey noticed Coker's name.

She asked her secretary: Do you think this is the Larry Coker? "We never would've even called Coker," she said.

Hickey and Coker quickly found a common bond. Both were from Oklahoma and knew the same people, had the same connections. Hickey's father was a longtime high school coach in Welch, Okla., which had one player come out of its eight-man football program and land at a major-college program – Oklahoma State, where Coker was an assistant coach.

He was quickly put on UTSA's shortlist of six candidates for the position. All six were brought into Dallas to meet with school officials before the list was trimmed to three: Coker, Tulsa defensive coordinator Paul Randolph and Northwest Missouri State coach Mel Tjeerdsma.

Each finalist met with local businessman Red McCombs, a major UTSA donor and former owner of the San Antonio Spurs – not to mention a power-player in Texas athletics. Hickey could tell Coker was his pick by McCombs' body language: Coker was the only one of the three finalists McCombs met at the door of his office and then walked out of the building.

Coker, in turn, was sold on the promise of the future.

"I didn't want to do it long term," Coker said of television. "It was fun. Had a chance to go around to different venues, see how different people did things. But I had enough. I wanted to get back into coaching. I couldn't pass it up.

Coker talked to Bill Curry, Howard Schnellenberger and Jim Leavitt, three coaches who had taken on the project of a startup program. "They all said, you know what, this is one of the greatest things you're ever going to do. You put your own stamp on it."

Coker's hiring was made official on March 9, 2009. He was given three assistant coaches and a charge: Build a program from the bottom up.

***

It began with a group of four: Coker, defensive line coach Eric Roark, safeties coach Mike Menefee and cornerbacks coach David Ross.

There were no football offices; the four coaches would meet in a trailer packed with cubicles, going over ideology, creating policies, procedures, systems.

"It wasn't, 'This is what we're going to do,' " Roark said. "It was, 'What are going to do?' Here were the ideas, and here's what we're going to do."

They bought two maps, one of San Antonio, one of the entire state, and went to work recruiting, creating relationships with area coaches and compiling the first signing class in program history. The staff decided to follow TCU's recruiting model, which valued projection and development over here-and-now talent evaluation.

An initial thought was to sign at least one player at each position to simply set a baseline of contributors on both sides of the ball. That was tossed aside in favor of a simpler approach: UTSA would find the best players regardless of position – or try, at least.

"We decided to get the players," Roark said. "Next thing was, where are the players, who are the players? If there was a guy who was a really good player, we weren't going to get him. Let's start with San Antonio and then branch out to Texas. We had to decide what kind of football player we want to have."

Said Coker: "You sell a dream."

The pitch – selling the future at a program without an inch of past – worked on senior defensive tackle Ferrington Macon.

"Coker and my recruiting coach basically painted a picture," Macon said. "That was just pretty crazy. All we went on was our hopes and our dreams, and look where we are now."

UTSA signed 25 players in the winter of 2010, creating a foundation, but needed to fill out the remainder of its roster with walk-ons – leading to open tryouts, which drew a varied cast of would-be contributors.

"I had one guy who looked like he was older than Methuselah," Roark said. "He said, 'Y'all starting a program?' I said, yes, we are. He goes, 'I'm interesting in coming out.' I said, what do you do? He said, 'Well, I'm driving a truck. I'm leaving for Odessa. I'm dropping a load off in Pearsall.'

"People were coming off the streets just thinking they were going to come in and tryout. We had characters who thought we were coming into some semipro deal."

UTSA spent the fall of 2010 only practicing, not playing in games, repeating the sport's drudgery – practice, lather, rinse, repeat – without the Saturday payoff. The Roadrunners practiced everyday but Saturday, which was a double-edged sword: Players had the day off, but passed the time watching other programs – primarily within the state – play on television.

"It sucked," Nate Leonard said. "It was horrible. Really, that first year was the only year that I was like, what am I doing? I was away from home, that was tough enough. We literally practiced six days a week and our off day was Saturday, when we got to watch everybody else play."

Said Macon, "That's why I kind of laugh at the guys now. I'm like, man, y'all will never understand that first year, us just killing each other."

The Roadrunners practiced at a high school field located roughly three miles away from campus and held meetings in the school's locker room. They were at the whim of the schedule; practice would have to be shifted if the school held a jamboree, for example. The players would drive themselves to the field and return in time for classes, only to find no available parking spots on campus.

"Football's not really all that much fun," Coker said. "To practice and not play a game … they went through a whole year of practice to not play a game. It got a little chippy."

From such rocky, small-scale roots a fast-rising program was born. UTSA played its first game on Sept. 3, 2011, defeating Northeastern State in front of 56,743 fans at the Alamodome, an NCAA record for a team playing its inaugural game.

"I got more marriage proposals at the first game than I've ever had," Hickey said. "People weren't just cheering and doing the 'U-T-S-A' chant, they were crying.

"What everyone forgot was, this is more than just football. This is campus life. This is new opportunities across the board for thousands of kids for the coming years. It was the most unbelievable experience I've ever been through."

***

Even before its first game, UTSA had already earned an invitation to the Western Athletic Conference, which was searching for new members after losing several programs to the Mountain West Conference – a trickle-down impact from the explosion of conference expansion, which had sent former Mountain West members Utah and TCU to the Pac-12 and Big 12, respectively.

The WAC's invite marked another case of circumstances playing in UTSA's favor.

Just months before, Hickey had informed the Southland Conference of the school's plan to begin as a Football Championship Subdivision independent rather than join the Southland's eight-team lineup. The school was going to stay in Southland in all other sports, but at a league meeting attended by all of its members, the conference issued an ultimatum: All or nothing, and you have one year to make a decision.

"I thought, I've totally messed up," Hickey said. But while sitting in a hallway outside the meeting with Romo and a local reporter, explaining the situation, her phone began to buzz: The Big 12 had imploded. Cue realignment, and UTSA's road had been paved.

After spending the 2011 as an independent, UTSA played in the WAC in 2012 and moved to Conference USA last fall, bringing the school to its dream location: Seven years earlier, a feasibility study commissioned by the university had identified Conference USA as the best fit for its all-sports future.

"Good thing about that is we're in Conference USA," Hickey said. "The bad thing is we're in Conference USA much faster than we ever dreamed."

The Roadrunners went 4-6 in 2011, suffering the same up-and-down trials and tribulations felt at other NCAA startups. Yet the 2012 team, playing a full WAC slate and just four non-FBS opponents, went 8-4, winning five games in a row to start the season. Last year's squad, picked to finish last in Conference USA's West Division, finished 7-5, second in the division. The Roadrunners beat two eventual bowl teams, Tulane and North Texas, during a 14-day span in November.

"It was meant to happen," Hickey said. "Yeah, is it luck, is it God's plan … It was having a really good business plan and having laid a foundation step by step. It was at the rest place at the right time.

"The great thing about America, and the great thing about the experience we've been through, is there is an opportunity to go up, to move forward."

It's not just success; it's success beyond expectations, it's success well ahead of the curve, it's success at an unprecedented speed – and it's taken even those inside the building by surprise.

"Shocked, really, to be honest with you, that it's happened this fast," Coker said.

Said Roark: "Very surprised. I just don't believe it. I feel like I'm living in a pipe dream. And that's probably what's made this thing so unique. Because the first time we were meeting in that office, we didn't have a direction. We didn't have a compass."

***

UTSA spends Thursday night preparing for Houston in unique fashion. Both sides of the ball sit in separate meeting rooms, each unit led by its position coach, while the coordinators roll through formations and plays – Kevin Brown and the offense looking at Houston's defense, Neal Neathery and the defense looking at the Cougars' offense.

Brown calls a play – Rhino P Tex 400 Smash, for example. Offensive line coach Jim Marshall has each of his five starters detail their assignments; wide receivers coach Marquis Mosely does the same, as do running backs coach Polo Gutierrez and tight ends coach Charlie Reeve.

"We ain't been able to cut our guys one day at practice," Brown says. "Saw 'em down."

Another play pops up. "They soften up in here," Brown says, pointing at the middle of Houston's defense, "we're going to hit 'em in the teeth."

Inside UTSA's offensive meeting room, a whiteboard lists the team's seven steps for success: be physical, start fast, play hard, finish, be unpredictable, play with a chip on your shoulder, play as a team, play with enthusiasm. Above the list, in capital letters:Develop Our Identity.

One night later, as the Roadrunners prepare for Houston, the message has been whittled down.

In the middle of the visitor's locker room at Houston's TDECU Stadium stands a single placard: Take That Ball, it reads. The Roadrunners clearly remember last year's meeting.

UTSA had played Houston tight, drawing within a field goal of the Cougars late in the third quarter, before crumbling amid sloppiness, missteps and, most of all, an inexplicable run of turnovers – five in all, each more painful than the last.

The game had shifted on a single series – perhaps on a single play. After a reverse-throwback pass designed to find then-quarterback Eric Soza fell incomplete, costing the Roadrunners an easy touchdown, UTSA lined up for a potential game-tying field goal. The 29-yard attempt was blocked and returned 78 yards for a Houston touchdown; UTSA wouldn't recover, turning a 24-21 third-quarter score into a 59-28 final.

"They're going to come out fast, they're going to come out fast, they're going to try and intimidate you and take you out of the game early," Coker tells his team before Friday night's kickoff. "But we're here for four quarters, right? We're here for four quarters and overtime if we need it. We're here for four quarters. Let's have fun, guys, let's have fun."

New year, new result. The UTSA defense doesn't allow a first down on Houston's first three possessions, rattling the Cougars' offensive momentum. Roark's three-man defensive front – each will be in an NFL camp next summer, he says afterward – mauls Houston's offensive line, harassing sophomore quarterback John O'Korn.

The defense forces six turnovers – four interceptions, two fumbles. The offense dominates the clock, chewing up yardage with its commitment to the running game. Houston, which hadn't been held scoreless since Nov. 15, 1997, doesn't notch a point for nearly 59 minutes; the Cougars' lone score, utterly meaningless, comes with 64 seconds left in the fourth quarter.

After the Roadrunners regain possession with less than a minute left, UTSA assistants begin to stream down from their visiting-coach booths near the press box, hugging players, high-fiving, jubilant, ecstatic. The final: UTSA 27, Houston 7.

Hickey, on the sideline, points toward UTSA's traveling fan base, ensconced in the stadium's northwest corner, and flashes the school's hand signal – hand forward, pinky and thumb in the air, a makeshift roadrunner. Fans shoot it back.

To chants of "U-T-S-A," Roark picks up his feet, stomps them down, hand to his ear, a WWE ham, egging on the already vocal orange-and-blue contingent.

The Roadrunners head to midfield, shaking hands with Houston players, and then stream back into the locker room, the walkway lined with members of the school's cheer squad.

Back in the locker room, one player yells, "Seal the deal, seal the deal!"

Another, walking through to his cubby, seems surprised: "That was way too easy!"

Music plays. Members of the support staff leap into each other's arms, slap backs; players scream, yell, tease, laugh.

Coker's not one for speeches, as noted, but the moment deserves a few words.

He begins with the Lord's Prayer: The entire team kneels, holds hands and recites the prayer. Coker follows with a barrage of questions.

"How about that defense?"

Cheers.

"How about forcing six turnovers, men?"

Louder cheers.

"How about an offense which controlled the ball for 37 minutes?"

Louder still.

"Guys, we've got three games in 16 days," Coker says. "It's a short turnaround. Win or lose, let's put it behind us. Twenty-four hours – you don't get 12 hours this time. You got that?"

Yes, sir, the team replies in unison.

UTSA will take the added time. What's an extra 12 hours when you're already so ahead of the curve?

28 12 LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE
Read or Share this story: http://www.kens5.com/story/sports/ncaa/san-antonio/2014/08/31/how-utsa-became-college-footballs-best-startup/14905183/