A University of Texas at San Antonio championship team depleted by the intentional absence of marquee players for the university’s third postseason bowl appearance left some fans leaving Toyota Stadium in Frisco Tuesday night wishing athletic scholarships prohibited players from opting out of the year’s biggest game.

The outgunned Roadrunners suffered a 38-24 defeat at the hands of the San Diego State University Aztecs.

The what-if pain shared by the team and fans will fade soon enough, as the university community takes stock at year end and realizes 2021 has proven to be the most memorable year in UTSA’s 52-year history. A 12-1 regular season and conference championship are a big part of that historic year, but only part.

The bigger story is one of San Antonio’s first four-year public university coming into its own, realizing unprecedented growth in research grants, talent acquisition, philanthropic gifts, and finally, recognition as a top-tier research university. A winning football team headed for a more competitive conference led by an inspiring and charismatic former Texas high school football coach named Jeff Traylor added magic to the moment.

The seeds for 2022 were actually sown in 2018 with a $15 million gift from entrepreneur and real estate developer Graham Weston, the largest cash gift in UTSA history, one that led to the under-construction downtown School of Data Science. No other San Antonio philanthropist, including several who had given that generously to institutions outside San Antonio, had ever embraced UTSA in such an unequivocal way.

Others have since followed Weston.

Beer magnate Carlos Alvarez, chairman of Gambrinus, and his wife Malú donated $20 million to UTSA in March, and in a first, the university renamed its College of Business after Alvarez, who also serves as chair of the university’s Campaign Leadership Council. The council is a group of community leaders that is heading the largest fundraising campaign in UTSA’s history, “Be Bold — A Campaign for Our Future.” Introduced in 2017, the 10-year campaign aims to raise $500 million to support UTSA’s 10-year strategic vision.

Then, in a windfall no one could have predicted, billionaire philanthropist and author MacKenzie Scott, the former wife and professional ally of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, donated a record $40 million to UTSA in June, part of her larger $2.7 billion payout to 286 organizations nationwide.

Later that summer, UTSA and the Southwest School of Art announced an unprecedented agreement that set in motion a plan for the independent downtown arts college to become part of a new school within UTSA’s College of Liberal and Fine Arts. The deal was finalized months later and will go into effect next year.

In early December, former Valero CEO Bill Klesse and his wife Margie donated $20 million to UTSA and will see their name become part of the College of Engineering and Integrated Design.

The succession of big gifts leaves supporters wondering: Who’s got next?

“These are glory days, they don’t come around often,” said Roadrunner Foundation Chairman Clay Killinger as he awaited Tuesday’s opening kickoff. The retired CST Brands and Valero senior executive graduated from UTSA in 1983 and is one of the leading local business leaders who has devoted years to the university’s growth and development of its athletic programs.

“It’s the culmination of two decades of hard work, plus never losing faith in what the university could become,” he added.

With the leadership team behind President Taylor Eighmy basking in the glow of a record year of philanthropy, and the Roadrunners racking up victories at the Alamodome and on the road, UTSA’s upward trajectory accelerated faster than anyone predicted this year.

Then came the news last week that UTSA had received designation as a top-tier research institution, joining 10 other Texas universities that have achieved the prestigious classification. UTSA announced last Thursday it had earned the distinction of becoming a Research 1, or R1, university, the highest ranking bestowed by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions. It is the first university in San Antonio to reach this milestone.

The success of the university becomes a citywide success. UTSA is now positioned to lead the city’s smart job growth and put San Antonio on a more competitive footing with other Texas cities.

David Spencer, president and CEO of Prytime Medical Devices, sings UTSA’s alma mater during a tailgating party before the Frisco Bowl NCAA college football game between UTSA and San Diego State on Tuesday.
David Spencer, president and CEO of Prytime Medical Devices, sings UTSA’s alma mater during a tailgating party before the Frisco Bowl game between the Roadrunners and San Diego State on Tuesday. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

Prytime Medical Devices President and CEO David Spencer, the Roadrunners’ most visible and colorful booster, has long served on the UTSA Development Board and advocated for investment in the football program to build school spirit and the student experience, and to promote awareness of the university’s beyond San Antonio.

He was surrounded by allies at Tuesday’s pregame tailgate party hosted by the UTSA Alumni Association. Many who attended, he noted, like him were not alumni.

“What’s good for UTSA now is good for San Antonio,” Spencer said. “Look around, and suddenly you see a lot of people supporting the university and the team who had no previous connection. San Antonio is finally embracing UTSA.”

The football players themselves certainly know it, even after a loss.

“It’ll forever be a part of history. For us to be able to accomplish what we have [in the program’s short history] , it’s a great thing,” said senior linebacker Charles Wiley. I’ll be able to look back and know I was a part of something special. … We didn’t get it [the win], but the guys under me will have something to fight for in this offseason and going into next season.”

Is there any doubt now that San Antonio has a four-year public university worth fighting for?

Robert Rivard

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