University of Texas at San Antonio head football Coach Jeff Traylor is on a roll. So is the undefeated Roadrunner team he leads into Saturday’s game at the Alamodome against struggling Southern Mississippi.
It’s the Conference USA West’s first-place team hosting the division’s last-place team. With another win this week, Traylor and UTSA will be two more victories away from a 12-0 finish in only his second season as head coach. The Roadrunners, unranked in 10 previous seasons, now hold the No. 15 spot in the Associated Press Top 25 poll and the 16th spot in the USA TODAY coaches poll. As one of four remaining undefeated teams nationally, an even higher ranking seems attainable.
Traylor and his team have become more than a football story in San Antonio. The team’s rapid ascent has all the elements of a feel-good movie: Legendary small town Texas high school football coach who proved his mettle as an assistant coach at the University of Texas, Southern Methodist University, and the University of Arkansas comes to San Antonio and transforms a young, unremarkable program into one attracting national attention.
It’s a performance built on local recruiting, inspired coaching, and self-effacing leadership that has Roadrunner Nation giddy with joy. I’d say “disbelief,” but if there is one word I am hearing from alumni supporters and other fans at Alamodome tailgates, it is “Believe.”
Traylor’s decision to sign a long-term contract with UTSA that doused rumors of Texas Tech University and Texas Christian University looking at Traylor as a lead candidate to fill their respective head coaching vacancies only bolstered that fan base enthusiasm. You can add loyalty and destiny to the words people use to portray Traylor.
You don’t have to be a UTSA alum like me or even a college football fan to appreciate Traylor, a folksy and gregarious East Texan who exudes authenticity. I’m not the first one to compare Traylor to Ted Lasso, the lead character in the Apple TV+ series of the same name.
Lasso is an American football coach of modest accomplishment with the improbable opportunity to take on duties as the manager of a failing Premier League soccer team. He is an eternal optimist, always spouting aphorisms, someone who genuinely believes in his players. Lasso uses inspiration rather than negative reinforcement or a winning-is-everything mentality. He hangs up a poster with the word “Believe” in the doorway to his losing team’s locker room. Spoiler alert: Lasso elevates the squad into legitimate competitors.
“Man, I have to watch this Ted Lasso show because everywhere I go people are comparing me to him,” Traylor said in a wide-ranging interview Wednesday. While acknowledging his upbeat personality, the power of positive thinking, and his passion for “coaching the kids,” he said there is another side to his leadership style not visible on game day.
“I expect my players to show up on time, and to me, on time means early, all the time,” Traylor said. “I expect them to sit up in their chairs, put away their phones, take notes, and keep their eyes and ears on me when I’m talking to them. When they are practicing, they run off and on the field. No one walks off my field.”
Traylor’s operating philosophy — his so-called “culture pillars” — is imparted to players on five fingers: integrity, passion, mental and physical toughness, selfless, and perfect effort. In Traylor’s telling, the five fingers add up to a closed fist that hits hard and with unity on the field.
That’s not exactly Ted Lasso.
“People don’t believe me, but we never talk about winning, we never talk about a conference title, about rankings, or about bowl appearances — never,” Traylor said. “We talk about working hard, then going out and playing hard and having fun, with the players doing what they do best, and me worrying about the fourth quarter and strategy.”
Traylor and I spoke after he had spent a few hours handing out Tiff’s Treats to 500 students at Main Campus, urging them to come downtown to attend games with free bus service and free breakfast tacos as additional enticements. School spirit, he said, plays a big part in the team’s success.
I asked about his decision to sign the long-term contract and commit to UTSA and San Antonio.
“President [Taylor] Eighmy and [UTSA Athletic Director] Lisa Campos have done an incredible job here and they really worked hard on my behalf,” Traylor said. “At home, the vote to stay in San Antonio was unanimous, 1-0, with my wife of 30 years, Cari, casting the winning vote.”