Kevin P. Eltife, chairman of the UT System Board of Regents, was on the wrong side of history with last week’s public rebuke of University of Texas at San Antonio President Taylor Eighmy and his decision to end the school’s use of the “Come and Take It” phrase and flag at football games.
Eltife, a Republican real estate developer, Gov. Greg Abbott appointee, and former state senator and Tyler mayor, should also realize he accomplished little good with his Wednesday statement, other than to undermine Eighmy’s authority while feeding the forces defending the exclusionary telling of Texas history.
I was one of countless Texans and UTSA alumni who loved the spirit of the “Come and Take It” tradition, but I’ve also learned a lot as the state, its history, and its myths continue to be subjected to long-overdue challenges. If at times the pendulum of equity seems to swing too far in a new direction, it’s only because it has swung in the wrong direction for so long.
San Antonio and the university community need to move beyond the controversy to maintain the remarkable momentum built under Eighmy, who celebrated four years in the job on Sept. 1. Building on the work of his predecessor, former President Ricardo Romo, Eighmy is leading a transformative expansion of the university’s Downtown Campus and pushing UTSA to new heights as a research university. His tenure has not been without bumps, but his vision has been widely embraced in a city where the four-year public university is only 52 years old, and its downtown presence has long lacked critical mass.
Plans to redevelop the Institute of Texan Cultures, construction of the $90 million School of Data Science and National Security Collaboration Center, and UTSA’s more recent agreement with the Southwest School of Art reflect the progress UTSA has developed since Eighmy’s hire.
His leadership team includes well-respected Athletic Director Lisa Campos, who oversaw the building and August opening of UTSA’s $40.4 million Roadrunner Athletics Center of Excellence, or RACE. Head Football Coach Jeff Traylor, a Texas high school football legend from Gilmer, has the team on a roll that included its second bowl appearance last season.
The Roadrunners continued their promising start to the new season with a lopsided 54-0 win over visiting Lamar University at the Alamodome on Saturday.
Eltife could put some points on the board for the UT System and for UTSA by finding time to attend the Roadrunners’ next home game as Eighmy’s guest. A public gesture of support would help soothe wounds on all sides. It put the focus at football games back on football.
Eltife is a powerful political player at the state level, with deep connections in the Texas Senate, where he served for 12 years, and with Abbott, as well as his authority as head of the Board of Regents. Hopefully, his fellow board member Rad Weaver, a San Antonio businessman and entrepreneur, will be moved to persuade Eltife that a public standoff with Eighmy serves no one’s interests.
Eighmy is left in an unenviable spot. A vigorous public defense of his decision would antagonize Eltife and other conservatives atop state government. His own anodyne public statement reflected that:
“We greatly appreciate the perspective of Chairman Eltife and value the positive working relationship that exists between UTSA and the UT System Board of Regents, the Chancellor, and System staff,” Eighmy said in the statement.
While the flag and historic events in the town of Gonzales it represents are important moments in Texas history, the state’s telling of that history has long marginalized and demonized Mexicans, and thus Texans of Mexican descent, and distorted their place in history. Such symbols, like Confederate statues, can perpetuate historic distortions.
There is plenty of room for nuanced debate around Texas history and its most potent symbols, but if the flag’s use at football games serves as an unwelcome reminder of that distorted history at a Hispanic-dominant university, then Eighmy was wise to remove it.
The word “tradition” is a bit overused here, given that the football program is only 10 years old and the use of the flag dates only to six years ago. Many sports teams with racist mascots resisted change for years and even decades, but once done, life goes on. Building a new tradition at UTSA would be the best path forward now, with all sides on the “Come and Take It” fight rallying around a shared belief in the university and its athletics program.
I was not an enthusiast of the football program when it was first proposed, but the school spirit the program has inspired and its value as a recruiting tool for all students is inarguable. UTSA football has been a game-changer.
Perhaps “Come and Take It” can become “Come and Catch Us” with an enormous Roadrunner flag unfurled as students race across the field level and rally fans. I am sure students, alumni, and others would contribute some creative alternatives if invited to do so.
Feel free to post your proposal in the comments section below.
This article has been updated to correct the number of bowl games the UTSA Roadrunners have played.