You don’t have to be a graduate of UTSA, or even a big college football fan, to dive into the city’s newest downtown fiesta: UTSA Roadrunner football. I attended my first home game (yes, I’m embarrassed it took so long to show some game day support for my alma mater) on Oct. 27 versus Utah State and was simply unprepared for the great experience.

I tracked UTSA Roadrunner Fans #1 & 2, President Ricardo Romo and Dr. Harriett Romo, as they and their retinue dove into Game Day party mode. I knew I was witnessing something different when a band member handed her cymbals to Dr. Romo without hesitation or surprise.

This is only the second season for UTSA football, and by all rights, the school should be suffering through one poorly attended slaughter after another while the program develops. That is not at all what is happening. Just the opposite. The Roadrunners opened the year with five straight wins, and then after stumbling through four consecutive losses, regained their stride to win their last two games. That makes Thanksgiving Week game a very big deal.

President Ricardo Romo stands in as a cymbalist with UTSA's Spirit of San Antonio Marching Band. Photo by Robert Rivard.
President Ricardo Romo stands in as a cymbalist with UTSA’s Spirit of San Antonio Marching Band. Photo by Robert Rivard.

If you haven’t attended a game yet, go Saturday. It’s your last chance this season to attend a home game. This weekend offers a first-ever regional showdown between UTSA and Texas State University from San Marcos, and existing schedules mean the rivalry won’t be renewed for at least a few seasons. The Roadrunners have a better record in the Western Athletic Conference this year, but the Bobcats play a tougher schedule and have a more mature program. That should make it a real contest, and one reason why both sides expect tens of thousands of supporters to fill the Alamodome on this Thanksgiving Week showdown.

UPDATE: Final Score from Nov. 24 game:

UTSA: 38 (W)

Texas State: 31 (L)

In fact, one of the most remarkable aspects of the fledgling UTSA program, now in its second season, in the record-breaking attendance the team has attracted. You know something special is happening when the attendance at the home game versus Utah State  on Oct. 27 was “only” 23,519, disappointing school officials and leading to an article in the Express-News questioning fan loyalty after a four-game losing streak. Opposing teams with well-established programs, meanwhile, seem to be averaging far fewer fans at their home games. Officials hope to attract 40,000 this Saturday, an impressive number, yet still well short of the NCAA all-time record for a new program’s first game which UTSA set last year with more than 56,000 in the Alamodome.

“The outpouring of support for Roadrunners football is amazing,” President Romo told me. “Our fans set an NCAA record for attendance at the inaugural game; football has brought a new energy to downtown and the Alamodome; our campus is thriving like never before; and our team is wrapping up its second season with a winning record, surprising even the experts. We are giving our community another reason to be proud of San Antonio, and our community is responding by making the UTSA Roadrunners San Antonio’s football team.”

How it happened is a story told in “Birth of a Program,” a UTSA video that also could be titled Romo + Hickey + Coker.

Recruiting Larry Coker as the head football coach four years ago set the tone for establishing a surprisingly ambitious program that quickly quieted doubters at the University and in the community. Coker seemed everywhere from the day he arrived. His congenial personality and blue-chip coaching resume won him instant support. Coker led the University of Miami Hurricanes to a national title in 2001, his first year as head coach there, and a 6o-15 record over six seasons. His resume also includes assistant coaching stints at Oklahoma and Ohio State, two other perennial Top 10 powerhouses. And suddenly he was the coach of the UTSA Roadrunners. People at the school and the community were giddy.

“Starting the football program has been the greatest team effort I have ever been a part of,” said Lynn Hickey, UTSA’s Athletic Director. “The collaboration that has occurred on our campus and with the city has been a wonderful experience.  It has truly taken a team to build a team.  Through starting football we have enhanced the visibility of the University, not only within our own city, but also regionally and nationally.  Stories have been written about the initial success of UTSA football from New York City to San Francisco.  We have been amazed about the way the community has embraced us and how we have been able to fulfill our slogan, ‘your town, your team.’ ”

Hickey told me that UTSA officials had realized San Antonio was one of the few major U.S. cities without an NCAA Division One football team to root for, and that by bringing a team to the school, there was a good chance the whole city would come to claim it.

“We have a lot of steps to continue to take in building the program, but it has been fun and rewarding to watch the way our current students and alumni have created new traditions and have a newfound pride in the ‘orange and blue’, ” Hickey said. “Besides the financial and recruiting enhancements that football has given our other 16 sports, it has also given us the opportunity to establish a new set of academic and athletic peers with our WAC and C-USA affiliations.  Starting this new program has helped us change the campus life experience – we are becoming a University of first choice – we can be Tier I.”

School spirit outside the Alamodome.
School spirit outside the Alamodome. Photo courtesy of UTSA.

Tier One is, ultimately, what it’s all about for President Romo, now in his 13th year as UTSA president. Football in this instance is more than a new sport. It also happens to be one of the key mechanisms for building a complete University, not so different in terms of investment and return on that investment than, say, the College of Engineering.

Hickey has built a remarkable record in her own right at UTSA. She also brought women’s golf and soccer to the school, and next year all 17 sports programs move into Conference USA.

Then there is President Romo.

“This has been a remarkable year at UTSA,” Romo wrote in a Thanksgiving Week message the UTSA Community. “From students to faculty, researchers to athletes, our university is being recognized by our peers for educational excellence. Our faculty members increasingly receive recognition for their teaching and research, which was key to UTSA’s ranking among the top 400 universities in the world. Most recently, UTSA was ranked in the top 2 percent of U.S. universities with an “A” rating for core curriculum.

“In our march to Tier One status as a premier research institution, we will end 2012 having reached 92 percent of our capital campaign goal of $120 million—a notable achievement considering “We Are UTSA—A Top-Tier Campaign” was publicly launched just last April. This is a powerful testament to San Antonio’s commitment to UTSA.”

For most of us who attended UTSA sometime between its founding in 1969 and, say, its first 30 years, UTSA in the Romo era has become a completely different university: far larger in terms of student body, campus buildings and a degree programs; more ambitious and more resources; way better campus morale and school spirit, and a growing sense that it can be as good as any other major public university if it stays the course. Major gifts have increased, too, as more and more people with the ability to make a difference realize a first-class public university is a fundamental building block in building a great city.

But then there is the party. Tailgating and other pregame festivities transform the parking lots on Hoefgen Avenue across from Sunset Station into one big orange and blue block party. People who never imagined Division One NCAA football would come to San Antonio now are converging on home game Saturdays to get rowdy. And hang with Rowdy, the school mascot, and enjoy the music and street gymnastics of the Spirit of San Antonio Marching Band (SOSA) and Cheer Squad.

Rowdy and friends warm up the pregame party.
Tailgate time: Rowdy and friends warm up the pregame party. Photo by Robert Rivard

The party starts at 10 a.m., and definitely qualifies as something new and cool to do on a Saturday morning downtown. UTSA Alumni Association members get in free, as do children under 12. Everyone else pays $10 for an outdoor party that includes beer and barbecue. Around 11 a.m. everyone pours into the street and is led by the SOSA and the Cheer Squad south to the Alamodome.

David Spencer.

And then there is the Brute Squad, which brings an unusual mix of school spirit and hard-core, hi-tech support of UTSA’s School of Engineering to the scene. Ground Zero is a converted school bus owned  by successful tech entrepreneur and UTSA booster David Spencer. He’s the tall, bald guy in the goofy Rowdy headgear, usually surrounded by a small mob of other techies who also love football. The Madison High School ‘MadSci’ team that built the solar-powered vehicle was there the week I participated, sponsored by UTSA’s Texas Sustainable Energy Research Institute. Dr. Mauli Agrawal, the Dean of the College of Engineering, was casually hanging out with students, all wearing the same UTSA engineering t-shirts.  I recognized a half-dozen members of Geekdom there, too. This is not what I expected to find at a football game, but UTSA has found a way to mesh sports and higher learning into one cool proposition. That broadens the audience.

“San Antonio’s SA2020 vision is that downtown is the heart of the city and everyone’s neighborhood,” said Darryl Byrd, SA2020’s CEO. “UTSA continues to deliver big for her city in this regard.  Each day, 6,000 promising young and “young at heart” students, shuffle and pedal from class to class across UTSA’s downtown campus. UTSA doubles down during college football season by injecting tens of thousands of electrified Alamo City heartbeats into our downtown. Roadrunner football downtown makes a real difference.”

Looking for tickets to the game? Click here.

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.