By Jerry Briggs
You have to hand it to UTSA for throwing a party at nearly every opportunity, to celebrate the creation of its fledgling football program.
This is a team, after all, that hails its final practice session in April as an event called the Football Fiesta Spring Game.
It was no different on Sunday, on a rainy, winter’s day, as the Roadrunners received and accepted their first bid to a bowl game.
Players, coaches and administrators danced and shouted when it was announced that they were headed to the Gildan New Mexico Bowl.
“It was crazy,” UTSA senior Michael Egwuagu said. “Everybody was jumping up and down. Me and coach (Frank) Wilson almost fell down.”
The Roadrunners (6-6) will play the New Mexico Lobos (8-4) on Dec. 17 in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Eight days after the end of their sixth regular season, UTSA players, coaches and administrators gathered on campus at the Convocation Center.
UTSA athletic director Lynn Hickey got the call from bowl officials at 1:45 p.m.
Even though UTSA players were aware since the middle of last week where they would likely be playing, the opponent was still something of a mystery.
Apparently, it came down to either New Mexico or Air Force, both from the
Mountain West. The bowl picked the Lobos, who finished in a three-way tie for the title in the conference’s Mountain Division.
When details were relayed to the Roadrunners, bedlam ensued.
“It was a little crazy,” Hickey said. “There had been so much (information) out there already. I don’t think it was that big of a surprise on exactly where we were going to go. But once they announced, they had a video ready and the music ready, and there was a little bit of dancing going on.”
The game will be a match of two teams on a roll.
The Lobos have won six of their last seven. The Roadrunners, sitting at 1-3 at the end of September, won five of their last eight to reach the six-victory, bowl eligibility standard.
Wilson, UTSA’s dynamic first-year coach, said the bid represents only a beginning for the Conference USA program.
“It’s a start,” the coach said. “It’s not the defining moment, or the end. It’s the start of something very special. I shared with our team (that) we have a task to continue. And that task is to put ourselves in position to win this football game. It’s not good enough just to get there.”
After a week away from the practice field, UTSA players will get back to work on Monday morning.
They’ll try to take a businesslike approach to preparations.
But it’s evident that the buzz could be hard for them to ignore. For instance, the monument lights on campus were ablaze in blue and orange Sunday night to note the historic occasion.
During the coach’s radio show, San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor called to offer congratulations.
“We made history,” Hickey said. “(I‘m) proud of this team, that we’re bowl eligible and they did it in such a short (period of time). But just very proud of how hard they’ve played all year and how resilient they’ve stayed even when we hit some down times.
“They kept coming back and kept getting better. So, it’s a great day for UTSA. It’s a great day for San Antonio.”
With the invitation, UTSA tied South Alabama and Georgia State for the fastest rise from first game as a start-up program, to a bowl game – six seasons.
South Alabama made it in 2014 and Georgia State in 2015. UTSA, which played its first game in 2011, has added its name to the list.
“To take a step like this, it solidifies that you’re an FBS program,” Hickey said. “This is just the first of many. It opens up the door for us to continue to build the program and get the respect and the visibility that we want to have for these kids. So just a great accomplishment.
“(It’s) one of those marks that you want to have with your team every year. It’s kind of like in high school, you want to get to the state championship. We’ve kind of done that today. So, just very, very proud of them.”
Wilson said that getting the extra game translates to extra practice time for his young players, which is considered crucial for teams at UTSA’s level in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
He also said the game has paid dividends on the recruiting trail, calling it “phenomenal” as to how his staff is now being received in high schools.
“The coaches in the city of San Antonio and throughout the state of Texas have been nothing more than spectacular,” Wilson said. “They welcome us. They embrace us. They partake in the success we’re having.
“So, it’s good to know that you have a partnership with your local high schools, the feeder programs that hopefully we’re able to get some of the better players from, in the state of Texas. It’s been extremely well received.”
UTSA seniors are soaking up the feeling of fulfillment, that they played a significant role in the program’s first bowl season.
“Oh definitely,” running back Jarveon Williams said. “Coming into a program and not really having a lot of history and being a part of a group of guys that were able to establish that history, that step in history, is remarkable. Truly amazing.”
Coming off 4-8 and 3-9 seasons, not much was expected from UTSA.
Even the most ardent supporters of the program wondered at the outset whether Wilson and a new coaching staff had enough talent to make it.
Later, after the Roadrunners stumbled to a 1-3 start, a nagging feeling loomed that a third straight losing season was in the offing.
But after a week off, UTSA ripped off four victories in five games.
Included in the streak were victories over Southern Miss, North Texas and Middle Tennessee – all of them receiving bowl bids on Sunday – and the Roadrunners started to gain confidence.
Following road losses at Louisiana Tech and Texas A&M, UTSA returned home for the regular-season finale and clinched bowl eligibility with a 33-14 victory over Charlotte, setting off a wild celebration on the floor of the Alamodome.
Wilson wants his players to have fun with the moment, but he is also determined not to let the party spirit disrupt his team’s concentration. His message to the players?
“Finish,” the coach said. “Finish what we’ve started. We didn’t come this far to turn around.”