By Jerry Briggs
Several ties exist, linking some of the most important figures in UTSA football to the more established program at Texas A&M.
UTSA athletic director Lynn Hickey once worked at A&M for 16 years. First-year head coach Frank Wilson toiled alongside A&M defensive coordinator John Chavis for five years on the same staff at LSU.
On top of that, two of UTSA’s best wide receivers – brothers Kerry Thomas, Jr., and Josh Stewart – once could step out of their home in College Station and hear the roar of the A&M crowd on game day.
Given all that, expect emotions to run extremely high when the Roadrunners tee it up at the home of the Aggies on Saturday morning.
Kickoff for the first meeting between UTSA and A&M is set for 11 a.m. at Kyle Field.
“It’ll be a lot of fun,” Wilson said.
Hickey coached the A&M women’s basketball team for 10 years and later served as a senior administrator in the athletic department, before moving to UTSA in 2000. By 2011, the Roadrunners fielded their first team in football.
She will arrive in College Station, where they have been playing the game since 1894, with her head held high.
“First of all (I’m) just very proud,” Hickey said. “Because, when I left there and came to UTSA, I don’t think (my former A&M colleagues) had any idea that we could develop something like this. So (I’m) very proud of our progress. I’m proud that we have moved the program to a point that we’re playing on a big stage.”
Pundits have installed slumping A&M (7-3) as 27-point favorites against UTSA (5-5).
“The intention for our team is to go in there and win a game,” Hickey told InsideRunnerSports.com. “So, we’re not going in there just to take a look around, like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is Disneyland.’ That’s not the purpose. The purpose is to go in and compete, and to play at the highest level that we can, and be the big upset game of week.”
Such an outcome would make UTSA bowl eligible for the first time, something that Thomas admitted he thinks about constantly.
“One of the steps to success is dreaming about what you’re going to do on game day,” said Thomas, the youngest of the brothers who attended A&M Consolidated High School in College Station. “I think we do that all the time.”
Recently, UTSA moved to within one victory of bowl eligibility by winning four out of five. The Roadrunners capped their best streak under Wilson with a 45-25 win at Middle Tennessee State two weeks ago.
The victory also put the Roadrunners on the cusp of a Conference USA West division championship.
Those dreams, ultimately, were dashed last weekend with a 63-35 loss at Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs clinched the C-West championship, and they left the Roadrunners needing to win on the road at A&M or at home on Nov. 26 against Charlotte to extend the season.
Interestingly enough, Wilson didn’t even want to talk about bowl possibilities this week.
The coach hinted that he thought his players might have dwelled on long-term goals too much last week, and as a result, didn’t play up to their capabilities.
Burned with the lopsided loss in Louisiana, Wilson emerged this week consumed with getting his players ready for the Aggies, who started the season 6-0. Two weeks ago, they were 7-1 and ranked fourth in the College Football Playoff standings.
Wilson said he thinks A&M will field “about 15” players who will one day play professional football.
Making things more interesting, UTSA’s coach will match wits with Chavis, an old friend. Both Wilson and Chavis served as assistants on a successful staff under Les Miles at LSU.
LSU, with Wilson and Chavis on board, forged a 3-0 record against A&M from 2012-14 as part of the Tigers’ current five-game winning streak against the Aggies.
“You know, I worked side-by-side with him,” Wilson said. “He’s an outstanding football coach, one of the best in the business from a defensive coordinator perspective. (Head coach) Kevin Sumlin will have his team prepared to play. I think we’ll get their very best.”
It will also be a special day for Stewart and Thomas, who grew up in Louisiana but moved to College Station in East Texas in 2008.
The family home was about a six-minute drive to Kyle Field. Sometimes, for the two boys, it felt closer than that.
“From my house, you can actually hear the games,” Thomas said. “Loud and clear.”
A&M has been making noise in football since its debut in 1894. Kyle Field has been standing since 1905, initially as two sets of bleachers that would hold 500 people.
Recently, the Aggies left the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference and upgraded Kyle, bringing seating capacity from 83,000 to more than 102,000, one of the largest in the nation.
Thomas said he attended A&M games as a youth several times with a friend whose father once coached the A&M defensive backs. Stewart and Thomas both played at Kyle Field for A&M Consolidated, battling against rival Bryan High School.
Stewart even worked odd jobs for the A&M facilities department a few years ago, setting up the stadium on game days for donors. Thomas said he will urge every one of his teammates to stay focused in spite of all the distractions.
“When you walk on the field, you enjoy the environment,” Thomas said. “Just enjoy everything that’s around. But we all know, when it’s game time, it’s game time. You have to eliminate the distractions. Focus on what we have to do to get a win.
“We talked about all that. We know what task is at hand.”
Since A&M reached No. 4 in the CFP standings, it has lost on consecutive weeks to Mississippi State and Ole Miss and has fallen to 25th. Only four teams make the playoffs for the national title.
Now, with backup quarterback Joe Hubenak starting in place of the injured Trevor Knight, the Aggies need to beat both UTSA and LSU in their final two regular-season games for a nine-win regular season and an upper-tier bowl invitation.
“Right now it’s about moving on and not even talking about what happened (against Ole Miss),” A&M receiver Christian Kirk said. “It’s keeping a positive outlook and just what we can still pay for and what we can accomplish with the rest of the season.”